Hans Hofmann - 20th c. and Contemporary Art Day Sale - Morning Session New York Tuesday, December 8, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Painted in the 1960’s, Hans Hofmann’s Untitled is a vivid late work that represents the artist’s relentless formal innovation. Exemplary of Hofmann’s distinctive approach to abstraction, it is a testament to the artist’s ever-intensifying painterly vigor even into his twilight years before he would pass away in 1966. Incorporating many of Hofmann’s career-long concerns while simultaneously investigating new and challenging possibilities of abstraction, Untitled is evidence of Hofmann's inexorable advancement of his artform. Hofmann’s fascination with creating oppositions in order to evoke space – the famed “push/pull” tenet of his abstraction – declares itself in the bold contrasts of the primary tones of Untitled, as well as in the work’s variegated applications of paint, from delicate sweeps to sharp planes and whiplash brushwork. Executed on the artist’s preferred medium of board, this work exemplifies Hofmann’s unyielding exploration of the extremities of the painterly avant-garde.


    Making Modernism


    Few figures have had such an impact on the advancement of an artform as Hans Hofmann. A towering figure in both the American and European avant-gardes, Hofmann founded what is often regarded as the first school for modern art anywhere in the world, the Hans Hofmann Schule für Bildende Kunst in Munich, which he established in 1915. Hofmann advocated for a style of painting that relied heavily on pictorial structure, formal unity, and the development of spatial illusion through the powerful use of color. Hofmann’s approach, which he later brought to his eponymous school in New York, was revolutionary and highly influential; not only was Hofmann one of the first leading figures of the New York School, he also mentored many of the stars of the following generations, including Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Lee Krasner. Untitled encapsulates many of the tenets of Hofmann’s approach that created such a novel and seminal artform.


    Untitled is marked by an exhilarating and almost unsettling sense of space and movement, a distillation of the changing richness of the natural world.  Through his prestissimo application of paint on the canvas, Hofmann tested binaries of complexity and simplicity, of density and transparency. Although rendered with great agility, each passage of vibrant color is carefully considered and advances, or recedes, deliberately into the picture plane – causing an effect that typifies Hofmann’s famed “push/pull” theorem. Each shade of color radiates with differing intensities of light, imbuing the work with a distinct weightlessness and measured degrees of density.


    Rendered on board rather than more typical canvas or paper, Untitled is also emblematic of Hofmann’s highly physical mode of painting. Hofmann, famous for painting with force and bravado, favored the resistance board offered; the more rigid surface allowed the artist to unload pigment of various densities onto the surface of the work, which, able to withstand his painterly might, resulted in a work that reflects the drama and energy of its creation. The paper faced surface also allowed the paint to soak and stain the pictorial ground with a rich, distinct effect.


    Unrelenting Advancement


    Perhaps because of his fervent instinct for innovation, rather than in spite of it, Hofmann never settled on a single style of painting. Rather, he explored its broadest implications in each of his works, forging an oeuvre that defies stylistic classification but is united in its formal philosophy.  These restless changes, argued Hofmann’s ardent admirer Clement Greenberg, came about because the painter, “a virtuoso of invention,” had “so much to say". i Another of the day’s leading critics, Harold Rosenberg, praised that “no other American artist could mount a show of greater coherent variety” than the show Hofmann put on at the Whitney Museum of American Art shortly before completing Untitled. ii


    The disparate energetic cohesion of Hofmann’s late paintings was recognized at the time of their completion: during the artist’s final decade, Greenberg organized a Hofmann retrospective at Bennington College and later published a monograph on his work. These developments were followed by the Whitney retrospective, which traveled to seven cities across the United States. Shortly thereafter, Hofmann was included in Documenta 2 in 1959, in Kassel, Germany, and the following year – when he completed the present work – he was selected, along with Philip Guston, Franz Kline, and Theodore Roszak, to represent the United States at the 30th Venice Biennale. Untitled is a characteristic example of this acclaimed final period of Hofmann’s life, showcasing the vivid strength and laborious painterly philosophy forged and reworked over the decades of his long and celebrated career.


    i Clement Greenberg, “Hans Hofmann: Grand Old Rebel,” ArtNews, January 1959, in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 4, Modernism with A Vengeance, 1957-1959, Chicago, 1986, p. 68
    ii Harold Rosenberg, quoted in "Biological Chronology", Hans Hofmann, online

    • Provenance

      The Estate of the Artist (acquired by descent in 1966)
      The Renate, Hans and Maria Hofmann Trust (acquired from the above in 1996)
      Miles McEnery Gallery, New York
      Private Collection, Kansas City (acquired from the above)

    • Exhibited

      Toronto, Gallery One, Hans Hofmann: Paintings on Paper, September 23 - November 1, 2000
      New York, Miles McEnery Gallery, Hans Hofmann, January 3 - February 2, 2019, p. 66 (illustrated, p. 67)

    • Literature

      Suzi Villager, ed., Hans Hofmann: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Volume III, Surrey, 2014, no. PW64, p. 520 (illustrated)



stamped by The Estate of Hans Hofmann and inscribed "HH-011782" on the stretcher
oil on board laid on canvas
32 x 24 in. (81.3 x 61 cm)
Painted circa 1960-1965.

Full Cataloguing

$150,000 - 200,000 

Contact Specialist

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

[email protected]

20th c. and Contemporary Art Day Sale - Morning Session

New York 8 December 2020