Archive | July, 2015

Professor Kenneth Silver’s Hans Hoffman Exhibition Reviewed in the NY Times

31 Jul

Hans Hofmann’s Murals Add a Blast of Color to a Muted Legacy


A replica of the elevator bank at 711 Third Avenue where Hans Hofmann created a mural.

JULY 30, 2015
GREENWICH, Conn. — You have to love Hans Hofmann for his exuberant late-blooming paintings, and for his eponymous art school, which formed one of the foundations of Abstract Expressionism. His paintings are, fittingly, usually seen as part of that heroic art movement, even though they replace its existential undercurrents with a stylistic capriciousness that sifts through European modernism with abandon.

Reflecting his energetic, optimistic personality, Hofmann’s paintings have an easy openness with which they reveal and revel in the formal mechanics of modern picture making. The obvious butting of opposites — especially flat geometric planes of brilliant from-the-tube color and flourishes of automatist brushwork — might almost be termed Abstraction for Dummies, were it not so visibly intelligent. Still, Hofmann, who was born in Germany in 1880 and died in New York in 1966, left a complex, slippery achievement often overshadowed by his stature as a teacher, and these days his name rarely figures in the first rank of Abstract Expressionism.

“Walls of Color: The Murals of Hans Hofmann,” a small but substantial exhibition at the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science here, gives us a new handle on Hofmann. Examining his little-known forays into mosaic in the 1950s, it is like a spotlight that illuminates all around it, specifically his last decade, when he wrestled his opposing stylistic elements into their finest expression.


A mural fragment from 1950.

Hofmann came by his broad modernist reach through firsthand experience. By 1904, he was in Paris, where he got to know Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Robert Delaunay — all roughly his age — before they were struck by fame. Fauvism was just heating up, Cubism was close behind, and these movements’ innovations, one based on uninhibited color, the other on exposed infrastructure, became the basis of Hofmann’s teaching and his art.

He first came to the United States in 1930 to teach at Berkeley, riding on the reputation of the art school he had established in Munich in 1915. With German politics darkening, he stopped in New York in 1932 and stayed, opening his school the next year.
Hofmann’s teaching distracted him from serious art-making for nearly two decades, especially since his New York school had a Provincetown, Mass., branch that occupied his summers. He would close his school in 1958 to concentrate on art. But by the mid-1930s, he had taken up drawing and painting again, making marvelous freehand sketches of the towns and dunes of Cape Cod that rallied reality toward automatist abstraction. His paintings combined outlines of terrain and architecture scribbled on smeary backgrounds, mixing the lightness and speed of Raoul Dufy with something more aggressive: Action Painting before the term was coined.

Hans Hofmann’s “Studio in Blue, No. II” (1954), left, and “Opulence” (also 1954), right.

The Bruce show focuses on four commissions for mosaics that Hofmann received or considered in the 1950s. Only two were finally executed and are luckily still intact in Manhattan. One is public and at the moment not well maintained: the ground level exterior wall of the New York School of Printing (now the High School of Graphic Communications Arts) at 439 West 49th Street. The other covers the four sides of an elevator bank in the lobby of 711 Third Avenue, between 44th and 45th Streets, a building designed by the Swiss-born New York architect William Lescaze in 1954. It is in impeccable condition, but since Sept. 11, it has been most visible to people who work in the building.

“Walls of Color” has been organized by Kenneth E. Silver, a professor of modern art at New York University and an adjunct curator at the Bruce, which is a short train ride from Manhattan and a very brief stroll from the town’s Metro-North station. The show has limited space, but Mr. Silver has counterintuitively placed in its midst a roughly half-scale re-creation of the 711 elevator bank, papered with a full-color digital image of the mosaic. It almost literally jostles visitors. But that doesn’t stop the work from detonating in mind and eye. Mr. Silver has assembled about 30 studies on paper and canvas, along with architectural plans and photographs, and a handful of late paintings.

As you move from one collision of modernist styles to another, it makes sense that the painter-sculptor Frank Stella has called Hofmann “the artist of the century,” who “produced more successful color explosions than any other artist.”

A detail from “Studio in Blue, No. II.”

From the show’s first three paintings, Hofmann is all over the place, but with the constant of blasting red, yellow, blue and green vigorously applied with brush, palette knife or squeezed point tube and a distinct bravura. The subjects oscillate among popified Constructivist abstraction (“Awakening,” 1947), jumbled interior (“Studio in Blue, No. II,” 1954) and Cubist still life (“Opulence,” also 1954).

Inside the elevator bank model, a short video of Hofmann at work is worth watching. On audio, Mr. Silver presents his thinking on the mosaics. First, His studies for the mosaics led him away from easel painting and spurred larger, more ambitious works. This is visible in nine paintings (oil on paper on board) executed in preparation for a 50-foot-tall mural for a campanile in Chimbote, a port city in Peru, as part of a renewal project by the architect Josep Lluís Sert and the urban planner Paul Lester Wiener. Measuring as much as 8 by 4 feet, the studies depict tilting, implicitly Constructivist crosses in red, yellow and blue, so cheerful they seem almost blasphemous, and more open figurative-like improvisations that bring to mind David Smith’s welded sculptures.

A maquette for Hofmann’s mural at the New York School of Printing (now the High School of Graphic Communications Arts).

Second, moving around big pieces of painted paper for the mock-up of the elevator bank mosaic led Hofmann to the signature motif of his late work: little floating planes of color, squares and rectangles of pure color locked together across the surface or isolated on fields of murkier colors. These elements, which exemplify his theory of spatial “push-pull,” are seen here in two charming all-red paintings (Mr. Silver rightly connects them to Matisse’s “Red Studio,” painted in 1911). The video shows Hofmann arranging the paper with assistants, bringing to mind images of Matisse working on his late cutouts at the same time.

The planes of color mutate into collage in studies for unrealized mosaics for an apartment building and in those for the School of Printing mosaic. In two of these, Hofmann adorns narrow horizontal boards with additional pieces of board, some monochromatic, some stained with flurries of watery brush strokes similar in style to that of Helen Frankenthaler, a former student, as if to indicate that we’ll never know what he might do next. The persistent objection to Hofmann was that his stylistic inconsistency implied a lack of core, which in a sense is true. His work is not deep or soulful, but completely unclouded. He loved and excelled at making paintings that actively and aggressively worked, by whatever stylistic means. In addition, it is to his advantage that now, thanks to polymorphous artists like Sigmar Polke and Albert Oehlen, consistency is no longer what it used to be.

“Walls of Color: The Murals of Hans Hofmann” is on view through Sept. 6 at the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science, Greenwich, Conn; 203-869-0376,


Ink and Image 7 has been published!

29 Jul


Ink and Image, New York University’s journal of undergraduate research in the history of art, architecture, and urban design, published its seventh issue last month.

The articles published in each issue of Ink and Image develop out of term papers and other research conducted by students in advanced Art History and Urban Design courses, independent studies, and senior honors theses.

The journal’s Senior Editor for the 2014-15 academic year was Zachary Fine (Gallatin ’15); the Associate Editor was Jesslyn Guntur (Urban Design & Architecture Studies ’15). Zachary, who concentrated in art history and philosophy, served as a co-editor of the journal’s sixth issue and was a contributor to Ink and Image 5. Once again, Professor Carol Krinsky provided invaluable guidance and assistance as the journal’s faculty advisor and editor.

Four articles, all by current NYU undergraduates or departmental alumni, appear in the seventh issue. The authors and their essays are as follows:

Caroline O. Fowler (Art History ’05; Ph.D. Art & Archaeology, Princeton University ’13), “The City of God as Source for the Mosaic Program at Monreale;”

Nora Gorman (Art History; History minor ’15), “Manuscript Collecting as Statecraft in the Courts of King Charles V of France and Jean, Duke of Berry, 1364-1416;”

Alex Greenberger (Art History ’15), “The Spiritual Unity of Bill Viola’s Going for by Day;”

Elizabeth Meshel (Urban Design & Architecture Studies; Art History minor ’15), “Reevaluating Romanization: The Arches of Septimius Severus.”

Ink and Image was founded in 2008-09 by department alumni Malcolm St. Clair (Urban Design and Architecture Studies ’09) and Alexis Wang (Art History ’09) with the goal of expanding the community of scholars at NYU by publishing original undergraduate research in the history and theory of art and architecture. Former College of Arts & Science Dean Matthew Santirocco and Dean Sally Sanderlin provided crucial support toward the launch of Ink and Image, which continues to benefit from the support of the current CAS Dean, Gabrielle Starr, the CAS administration, and the CAS Student Council. Read about previous issues of the journal, including the roster of past authors and editors here and here.

Ink and Image is distributed to the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Getty Research Institute, as well as Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and Technical University in Dresden, Germany.

Hearty congratulations to the authors and editors on their splendid achievements. Please stop by the Department of Art History and pick up a copy of Ink and Image 7.

Kathryn A. Smith

Piero Exhibition, Co-Curated by Dennis Geronimus, Featured in the International New York Times!

28 Jul

‘‘The Building of a Palace,’’ one of Piero’s visions of the flowering of civilization, is part of the Uffizi show.CreditThe Ringling Museum, Sarasota, Florida

A principal reason for this has been the failure, until recently, to establish a generally agreed corpus of autograph works, not an easy matter given his chameleon-like changes of focus and style. No less a contributing factor was the treatment he received in the 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari’s encyclopedic “Lives of the Artists.” Vasari’s account of him became much more positive between the first edition of 1550 and the second in 1568 — during which time the author had added Piero’s “Mars and Venus,” now in Berlin, to his own collection.

Nonetheless, Vasari still devoted a disproportionate space to the artist’s alleged oddities and phobias. These included his misanthropy; an exclusive diet of hard-boiled eggs; his hatred of flies, the crying of children, coughing, the sound of bells and the singing of friars; his fear of thunderstorms and his scorn for doctors.

‘‘A Satyr Mourning Over a Nymph,’’ by Piero. CreditNational Gallery, London

Piero’s evidently cordial relations with fellow artists and students run counter to the accusation of misanthropy, and other pathological obsessions that Vasari listed have now been shown almost certainly to date from a period of illness late in life, or to have been clichéd descriptions of eccentricity lifted from classical literature. But the art historian’s lopsided account for centuries directed attention toward Piero’s supposed character defects at the expense of his work.

Thus the current exhibition, the first joint project between the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Uffizi, is long overdue. The first version of the show, curated by Gretchen Hirschauer and Dennis Geronimus, was staged this year in Washington and contained 44 autograph works. The Uffizi’s, curated by Antonio Natali, Serena Padovani, Anna Forlani Tempesti and Elena Capretti, is much larger: It comprises around 90 works by Piero himself (including drawings, which were not included in Washington) and a further 30 pieces by relevant contemporaries, including Filippino Lippi, Fra Bartolomeo and Lorenzo di Credi.

Piero was apprenticed to the studio of Cosimo Rosselli, whose name he adopted. When Rosselli was called to Rome in 1481-2 to contribute to the decoration of the Sistine Chapel, he took his pupil with him, believing, as Vasari recorded, “that Piero had a finer style and better judgement than he himself.”

The first rooms of the show, which runs to Sept. 27, contain an altarpiece by Rosselli and early works by Piero and his fellow younger artists Filippino Lippi and Lorenzo di Credi — all manifesting the influence of Leonardo da Vinci and of Netherlandish paintings, which were arriving in Florence in large numbers at this time. Thanks to his precocious talents Piero had established himself as an independent artist by the age of 18, and was winning important commissions from adventurous aristocratic patrons, such as the Del Pugliese family.

The two Met and the Sarasota panels are on loan here. The Uffizi curators argue that all five of these panels were originally executed for Francesco Del Pugliese in the 1480s as a single narrative sequence, an opinion shared to varying degrees by their colleagues in the United States. They also convincingly propose that Michelangelo’s unfinished “Battle of the Centaurs” frieze was based on Piero’s “Centaurs and the Lapiti” and not vice versa, as has been the conventional view.

The following sections bring together, from collections around the world, an impressive array of Piero’s religious tondos, altarpieces and smaller devotional pictures, revealing the inventiveness and imagination he brought to those subjects. They culminate with the dazzling, light-infused “Incarnation of Jesus” from the Uffizi.

Piero’s affinity with Netherlandish art was sometimes uncanny, demonstrated by a double portrait from about 1495 of his friend the architect Giuliano da Sangallo and his father (from Amsterdam), executed in the Flemish style and shown here with Memling’s “Portrait of a Man” from the Uffizi.

The ease with which Piero could flip between genres, styles and moods is highlighted in a neighboring room by another work from around the same period, “A Satyr Mourning Over a Nymph,” exceptionally loaned by the National Gallery in London. This enigmatic and poignant image of a grieving satyr — “half human, half bestial and yet wholly real,” in the words of the Victorian critic John Addington Symonds — accompanied by a faithful, downcast dog, bears witness to Piero’s empathetic depiction of living beings, even imaginary ones, and his sensitivity to the natural world and the animal kingdom.

The artist was particularly celebrated in his later years for his design and direction of spectacular public processions. His exuberantly theatrical, gruesomely humorous, “Triumph of Death” of 1512, described enthusiastically by Vasari, was talked about for decades afterward.

Four years before his death — he was killed by the plague in 1522 — the artist was afflicted with what appears to have been Parkinson’s disease. He was no longer able to paint and it is probable his anger and frustration during this period gave rise to some of the later stories of his bizarre behavior and unsociability.

But by then Piero had been responsible both for nurturing a generation of future artists — including Fra’ Bartomoleo, Ridolfo di Ghirlandaio, Andrea di Cosimo Feltrini, Andrea del Sarto and Pontormo (the last three of whom assisted him with the famous “Triumph of Death” pageant) — and for creating some of the most original of Renaissance images.

Piero di Cosimo. 1462-1522. Uffizi, Florence. Through Sept. 27.


Team Piero, at the Florence opening




Catch the show on artist Daniel Barroca curated by Tatiana Mouarbes, Art History ’13

24 Jul


Wall Street Journal Review of Edward Sullivan’s Co-Curated Show!

8 Jul

‘Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World’ Review

Francisco Oller put a French movement at the service of island patriotism.

‘Still Life With Coconuts’ (c. 1893), by Francisco Oller.ENLARGE
‘Still Life With Coconuts’ (c. 1893), by Francisco Oller. PHOTO: PRIVATE COLLECTION, NEW JERSEY

Austin, Texas

If you don’t know the Puerto Rican painter Francisco Oller (1833-1917), get ready to meet a man whose work bridges two centuries, several artistic styles (Realism, Naturalism, Impressionism), genres (still life, portraiture, landscape, history) and, most stunningly, the Atlantic Ocean.

Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World

Blanton Museum of Art

Through Sept. 6

“Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World” (at the University of Texas’ Blanton Museum of Art through Sept. 6) is curated by Richard Aste of the Brooklyn Museum (where it will appear from Oct. 2 to Jan. 3, 2016) and Edward Sullivan of New York University. It intersperses 40 of Oller’s pictures with an equal number of works by other painters, including Americans like Winslow Homer and Frederic Edwin Church (who made Jamaica look like a golden Hudson River Valley landscape but with palm trees) and, more prominently, the French masters whom Oller knew or learned from (Corot, Courbet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Monet, Caillebotte and Sisley).

The exhibit has three intersecting parts. First, it is a miniretrospective of Oller himself. Second, it puts him in the context of European painting, which he studied during four visits (amounting to 20 years in a long life) to France and Spain. This is what the title refers to. Oller absorbed Courbet’s realism; he adapted Corot’s gentle haze; most of all, he gravitated to the techniques of his Impressionist colleagues. Third, more tangentially, the exhibit shows how earlier artists saw Caribbean culture, people and landscapes.

The didactic contextualizing implicitly asks viewers to perform a series of “compare and contrast” exercises. This doesn’t always work to Oller’s advantage. Sometimes he is Pissarro’s equal, sometimes not. He painted Cézanne at work “en plein air.” That charming small portrait hangs beside Cézanne’s 1885-86 “The Village of Gardanne” whose new geometry and spatial arrangements point to where post-Impressionist painting was heading, but without Oller. So do the instantly recognizable palette and technique of Monet’s “Vernon in the Sun” (1894).

Oller’s achievement lay not so much in radical style as in how he put technique at the service of an innate patriotism. He created art at once international and indigenously Puerto Rican. He painted the Caribbean, not the Mediterranean; not delicate European deciduous trees (except in his French landscapes) but palms; not apples, but guavas and coconuts; not bathers, but plantation workers. Even his earliest picture here, “Woman Bullfighter on a Horse” (c. 1851-52), a tiny oil that suggests the apprentice artist may have seen Goya’s “corrida” paintings at the Prado, has a Caribbean, not an Iberian setting. Puerto Rico never left Oller’s imagination, even when he was away from home.

In a self-portrait from 1889-92, Oller has a lean, handsome face, a hawklike nose, closely cropped hair, a full, graying beard. Most of all, he has a calm, vigilant demeanor. Where his landscapes often have an Impressionist imprecision, his portraits, of which the exhibit has several excellent examples, are academic in the best sense. His sitters—soldier, teacher, novelist, even American President William McKinley, holding a map of his country’s newest territory after we “liberated” it from Spain—share their painter’s warm attentiveness.

Oller’s 1893 masterpiece, “The Wake” (“El Velorio,” 8 by 13.5 feet), did not travel from Puerto Rico for the exhibition. An Oller show without the painting—a teeming, raucous, realistic depiction of a baby’s home funeral—is like a Velásquez blockbuster without “Las Meninas,” or a staging of “Hamlet” with the Prince of Denmark left out. A full-scale reproduction occupies one wall. We can see his genius even in it. Oller arranges a large number of people in a confined space, and comments on issues of race and class, of life and death. To one side here, two small preliminary studies indicate how he turned what might have been a modest genre picture into something heroic.

Other paintings also show how Oller could balance individuals with, or within, groups. “The Battle of Treviño” (1879), about an episode in Spain’s Carlist wars of the mid-19th century, captures in an Impressionist blur the mysterious confusion of war. Only a few small faces are distinct. The smoke of gunfire matches gray clouds on the upper right. Daubs of white in the soldiers’ sabers, guns and uniforms echo the white clouds on the upper left. Haziness competes with precise points of jeweled color. Looked at quickly, the picture might bring to mind Jackson Pollock and action painting.

Oller spent his last 33 years (aside from a seven-month French visit in 1895-96) back home. His diametrical opposite was Pissarro, whom he knew in France, a St. Thomas native who moved to Paris in 1855 and never returned to the Caribbean. In Puerto Rico Oller opened a School of Arts and Crafts, and a School of Drawing and Painting for women. He painted local subjects. Two marvelous pictures—part of a projected, unfinished series of five—of sugar plantations movingly attest to his elegiac temperament. “Hacienda La Fortuna” and “Hacienda La Serrano” (both 1885) depict the sorry state of the island’s sugar industry, in decline partly as a result of the abolition of slavery in 1873. The second, with a darker palette and fewer people than the former, presents a sad, post-harvest illustration of failure and emptiness. These are georgic pictures—related to work—rather than pastoral landscapes.

Even Oller’s still lifes often have a melancholy that Cezanne’s vibrantly luminous apples lack. By definition, still life (“dead nature”) commemorates what vanishes. All flesh, all fruit is as grass. But many 17th-century Dutch still lifes, and those of Luis Melendez, the great 18th-century Spanish painter, also suggest epicurean accumulation, wealth and lavish self-advertising. By contrast, Oller’s fruits are coarser, less delicate. In the circa 1893 “Still Life With Coconuts,” the fruit fills virtually an entire claustrophobic canvas, and spidery, broken branches lend a note of creepy, sinister menace. The 1901-03 “Mameys” (oil on wood panel) uses a deep orange and brown palette for the fruit, set on a white tablecloth and a brown table. This picture is rich and sad at the same time.

In 1872 the Spanish King Amadeo I named Oller his official court painter. Decades later he hoped for a similar commission from President McKinley, which never materialized. It is no wonder that this artist should project mixed emotions in his work as Puerto Rico passed from the control of one country to that of another.

—Mr. Spiegelman writes about the arts for the Journal.