A Life, so far, in Painting

George Hofmann 


I didn’t say much about my studio practice:

For a very long time, I worked “despite” in the studio. I mean that I felt hemmed in by the constraints imposed (or self-imposed) on me by the discipline, as I saw it, of the field. I took this very, very personally and it was a long, long struggle.

It had its moments: I realized, early on, that the painters I admired – Olitski, Noland, Louis and others – had opened the Field – that was what Color Field meant to me – and that it was opened for me. I wasn’t conceited about this, it simply felt very real, and a good thing. And I related this openness to the great works of the past which I had seen in Europe when I was a student. My father was born in Wurzburg, Germany, and when I was there, where my relatives still lived, I saw, and loved the Tiepolo frescos in the Treppenhaus in the palace there. That space deeply stayed with me, and I thought, every time I saw Olitski’s early Color Field paintings that this field that had been opened for me related directly to that extreme of pictorial space in Tiepolo.

But I took the self-criticizing that was built in to the rigor of professionalism to a point where, finally, my partner, Patty Kerr Ross, a woman with a great eye and great judgment told me that I had to get Clement Greenberg out of my studio.

This is where what I had learned in therapy began to help me in my work. Later, when I was whining to Paul Corio (who had been my student at Hunter) about the fact that you could not avoid the pictorial space in painting, even with all the rigor in the world, he famously said to me “why not embrace it?” The teacher learns from the student.

In a way, opening, and admitting, the pictorial space in my painting, and facing what happened in that space became One.

It also caused me to look more deeply at artists I hadn’t really “seen” before – Degas, for instance, and certainly Hans Hofmann. Indeed, I became more open to lots of painters I hadn’t admitted into my private pantheon – seeing many traits that were estimable in many artists I had only given short shrift to; my critical intelligence expanded, and while this often involved hard work and dilemmas, the realizations were great as well.

I also learned to look more closely, and more generously, at what was happening around me: much of what has happened in painting in the last few decades has been, in various ways, involved in the fracture of pictorial space, and although this is not the subject matter of most painting, fractured space has been a hallmark, one probably connected to digitalization, of art for a while now. I think, from a close study of this phenomenon, that what will emerge will be a new conceptualization – a new pictorial space; as in any organic process, old forms die, and new forms emerge from the fallen.

For myself, I’ve gone through many difficult and trying periods in the studio: one day, as I was standing with a power saw in front of a new “painting” I realized that the pictorial space that interested me wasn’t physical, and that meant that the space I was after had to really be pictorial, period; as I couldn’t be in another century, or in any place other than where I was, that I had to find a solution, my own solution, to this. I did it by leaning on the masters I knew, Tiepolo, Degas, maybe Hofmann, even Bonnard, and, of course, the greatest of the greats, Velasquez.

The stripped-downness of the painters of the early Renaissance is now very compelling to me – the Duccio Madonna in the Met is perhaps the most compelling picture I’ve seen in a long, long time, and has become a model for me.

At the same time, allowing myself not to be perfect in painting has become something difficult to really accept, and, as in a conundrum, ultimately the most rewarding of efforts. Learning from therapy, I’ve seen that you can’t change the past, but you can work with what you’ve got – change has become a deep part of the process to me; a friend, Richard Garrison (a conceptual artist) said the work is now more like “a recorded mess”. I like this, as that’s what life is, I think.