Hans Hofmann - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Thursday, June 24, 2021 | Phillips

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  • Painted in 1960, Hans Hofmann’s Snow White is a masterful example of the artist’s late work. Snow White presents the viewer with a composition that seems to emerge from a halo of white, hovering above the taupe backdrop of the unprimed canvas. Swirling layers of oil paint electrify the composition, puckering up from the canvas as Hofmann molds paint almost sculpturally, defying the picture’s flatness. Illustrative of Hofmann’s color and spatial theories of “push and pull,” this work beautifully exemplifies how Hofmann continued to push his abstract painterly practice—so seminal to the development of Abstract Expressionism—to new limits in his twilight years.


    Hans Hofmann in Context



    Hofmann was of the most important characters of post-war American art, not just for his own renowned career but importantly also as an influential teacher to such artists as Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Louise Nevelson, and Frank Stella. Born in Germany in 1880, Hofmann first studied math and science before becoming active in avant-garde circles, where he found contemporaries in artists including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque. While working in Paris, Hofmann was highly influenced by the forms of the Cubists and Paul Cézanne and the color of Wassily Kandinsky and Vinvent van Gogh, as he synthesized elements of Symbolism, Neo-Impressionism, Cubism, and Fauvism. After immigrating to the U.S. in 1932, Hofmann put his artistic theories into practice. The 1940s saw a turn to near total abstraction as Hofmann experimented with methods of drip painting and gestural spontaneity, pushing the limits of his canvas.


    Hofmann’s oeuvre from then on was defined by the overarching question of how to render an image through color, and how to realize depth on a flat surface. In Snow White, roughly painted patches of color predominate, each serving to elaborate the boundaries of Hofmann’s composition. Comprised of two fields of azure and red placed opposite one another and bisected by a triangular wedge of crimson, the painting does not immediately resolve into a systematic abstraction. Surrounding the color fields are slashing drips of white paint, which infringe on the background as well as the composition’s dominant blue and red forms, ultimately blending with the primary colors. All these elements are perhaps, formally, at odds with each other, but one of Hofmann’s prevailing artistic techniques is the idea of achieving coherence within chaos.


    “Push and Pull”: Towards A New Mode of Painting


    As early as 1948, he indeed put forward in the text Search for the Real in the Visual Arts: “Just as counterpoint and harmony follow their own laws, and differ in rhythm and movement, both formal tensions and color tensions have a development of their own in accordance with the inherent laws from which they are separately derived. Both, however, aim toward the realization of the same image. And both deal with the depth problem.”i



    Hofmann’s “push and pull” theory excavates the creative potential of this tension; it is through color and shape, rather than representational forms, that an illusion of space, depth and even movement is achieved. “Depth, in a pictorial, plastic sense, is not created by the arrangement of objects one after another toward a vanishing point, in the sense of the Renaissance perspective, but on the contrary (and in absolute denial of this doctrine) by the creation of forces in the sense of push and pull,” he explained. “Nor is depth created by tonal gradation (another doctrine of the academician which, at its culmination, degraded the use of color to a mere function of expressing dark and light).”ii

    "'Depth’ is not created on a flat surface as an illusion, but as a plastic reality. The nature of the picture plane makes it possible to achieve depth without destroying the two-dimensional essence of the picture plane."
    —Hans Hofmann
    Bringing this push and pull theory of construction to bear on Snow White—predicated upon a “balanced state of expansion and contraction…a positive produces a negative-a high, a low, a right, a left – a push a pull and vice versa”iii—Hofmann’s arrangement is guided by an understanding of the interplay between the tonal and spatial elements of a work and the animating qualities of this exchange.


    And so each of Hofmann’s individual brushstrokes carries time and action with it—the memory of the moment of contact between the paint-laden brush and the blank canvas. The painting is a distinctly material construction, a manipulation of the physical properties of color and space, distilled into pigment and surface. The process of making reveals itself through the painting’s very substance.


    i, ii Hans Hofmann, Search for the Real in the Visual Arts, Search for the Real: And Other Essays, Andover, 1948, pp. 44–45.
    iii Peter Morrin, “The Education of Hans Hofmann,” Hans Hofmann: Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Farnham, 2014, p. 33.

    • Provenance

      Mr. and Mrs. Fred H. Olsen, Guilford
      Estate of the Artist
      Renate, Hans and Maria Hofmann Trust (acquired from the above in 1996)
      Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe, New York (2009)
      Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, Los Angeles (2009)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2009

    • Exhibited

      New York, Kootz Gallery, Hans Hofmann, March 7–25, 1961, n.p. (illustrated)
      Nuremberg, Fränkische Galerie am Marientor; Cologne, Kölnischer Kunstverein; Berlin, Kongreßhalle; Munich, Städtische Galerie München Lenbachpalais, Hans Hofmann, April 8, 1962–January 13, 1963, no. 78, p. 26 (illustrated; titled Schneewittchen)
      Garden City, Long Island Arts Center, American Art Today, June 16–July 16, 1964, p. 10
      Syracuse, Everson Museum of Art, Hans Hofmann, February 20–April 7, 1969
      New York, Miles McEnery Gallery, Hans Hofmann, January 3–February 2, 2019, p. 50 (illustrated, p. 51)

    • Literature

      Robert M. Coates, "The Art Galleries: The Splendid Century," The New Yorker, vol. 37, no. 6, March 25, 1961, p. 128
      Irving H. Sander, "Reviews and Previews," ARTnews, vol. 60, no. 2, April 1961, p. 10
      Sam Hunter, Hans Hofmann, New York, 1963, pl. 138, n.p. (illustrated)
      Suzi Villager, ed., Hans Hofmann: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Volume III, Surrey, 2014, no. P1259, p. 263 (illustrated)
      Donald Kuspit, "Hans Hofmann," Artforum, April 2019, p. 196


Snow White

signed and dated "60 hofmann" lower right; signed, titled and numbered "Cat# 1013 snow white 1960 hans hofmann" on the reverse
oil on canvas
84 x 52 1/4 in. (213.4 x 132.7 cm)
Painted in 1960.

Full Cataloguing

$400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for $516,600

Contact Specialist

John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
New York
+1 212 940 1261


20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 24 June 2021