Hans Hofmann Address

Hans Hofmann delivered this address February 16, 1941, at a symposium on abstract art held during the American Abstract Artists Fifth Annual Exhibition at the Riverside Museum, New York City.Hans Hofmann was an artist and teacher who played a crucial role in the development of American painting. Although he never was a member of American Abstract Artists, many early AAA members were his students.

Hans Hofmann’s Address at the Riverside Museum

Reproduced with permission of the Renate, Hans and Maria Hofmann Trust.

Address, 1941

In every great epoch in painting there is always an indivisible relation between color and form. This correlation between color and form is the plastic basis of painting. Never was an epoch great through the presentation of a particular subject but rather in this: how such a subject matter was aesthetically presented.

The mutual dependency of form and color has a Life of its own—it is pictorial Life. A painting that does not fulfill this aesthetic necessity is rather everything else but painting. Modern art differs from the art of the past in its conception as well as in its means of execution. The artist of the past copied physical Life and used arms and legs and heads as means to give his work the appearance of Life. The modern artist uses the elements of construction to create pictorial reality: he creates pictorial Life.

Abstract art is, in my opinion, the return to a professional consciousness—a consciousness which controls the emotional accumulations in the process of creation. Such a control is only possible within the limitation of the medium of expression. I think there cannot be doubt that every artist attempts to say what he has to say, and will say it within the limitation of his personality. Every art expression is rooted fundamentally in the personality and in the temperament of the artist.

It is in conformity with this temperament and in conformity with the accumulation of experience which he has gained through his work, that he uses his means of expression—when he is of a more lyrical nature his work will have a more lyrical and poetical quality; when he is of a more violent nature his work will express this in a more dramatic sense.

Think of Renoir or of Seurat or Klee—they are lyrical; whereas Picasso or Greco or Rembrandt are dramatic. No artist can go away from his nature.

Every work of art is aesthetically a failure when it is not executed on a plastic basis. But besides the plastic qualities there exists another quality of equal importance—it forms finally the psychological content of the work. In the world of forms and shapes as well as in the world of colors, and in the correlation of these elements exists the faculty of attraction and repulsion—of sympathy and antipathy. It is a psychological effect which we cannot resist. And the artist’s sensibility uses this effect on us to give his work a supernatural Life that surpasses the limit of construction and calculation. A work of art stays high over every construction and calculation. I consider, for this very reason, every theory in art not of much value.

There are many possibilities in every medium of expression as there are creative artists. Abstract art does not however exclude representation—as long as the representation is the result of the functions and activities of the means of expression. We witness this and we admire this in the old masters.

A plastic work has always, however, a decorative quality, but not every decorative work has a plastic quality. There are therefore two kinds of decorative qualities. The one, which I call negative, is without pictorial substance. The other which I call positive, is pictorial substance. The one —which is negative—furnishes only a flat pattern in design as well as in color.

The other—which is positive—is not only the effect of the resulting tension in the correlation between form and color but the result of the relationship under the created tensions. It provides the work with the technical quality of volume and translucence and furthermore with the technical quality of expansion and contraction.

This is a painting in the highest sense of the word and only a few artists have ever reached this high. Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse, Miró—the late Picasso a.s.o. I call this kind of thing symphonic painting. In it the plastic quality is finally absorbed in the psychological effect of the work. The final psychological effect maybe: voluptuousness (Renoir), sensuality (Miró), transfiguration (Picasso’s la Guernica). A decorative painting—and I mean this in the positive sense—has always the technical effect of flatness with a final psychological effect of restfulness and majesty. This does not mean that such paintings do not have pictorial life—but rather the opposite—it is the type of painting that belongs on the walls of our buildings. I consider Léger and Mondrian the greatest mural painters of our time.

May I resume my statement in this:
Every creative artist works continually to penetrate the mysteries of creation.
There are not established standards or rules which could help him.
He must avoid borrowing from other artists.
He must always further develop his sensibilities.
He must doubt his best results that he may not be handicapped from such results or from outside admiration.
He must always work—on himself and on his craft—that he may develop to the point where he can what he has to say, and that he says this in his own language.
This language is of course not always at once understood. It makes people furious when you speak your own language.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you.