Hans Hofmann: Catalogue Raisonne of Paintings - A Review

The very first thing I did when I dragged the 20+ pound box inside and opened it up was to look for the three Hans Hoffmann paintings I had recently appraised for various clients.  I am always curious if there is new information on an item I have appraised and just wanted to make sure these three pieces had been included in this brand new catalogue raisonné.  I knew the dates of each and the catalogue raisonné is listed chronologically.  So I thought that would be the quickest approach.  Whoops!  Violated my own first rule of referencing a catalogue raisonné-always check the “How to Use This Book” section.  After several minutes of confusion and only finding one of the three in the CR, I turned to Volume I (of III) and began at the beginning.  This is where I found that the two items not listed in the catalogue raisonné were not there because they did not meet the authors’ definition of “painting.”   Hofmann was very prolific during his career.  The CR editors determined that in order to deal with an manageable number, they would define the term “painting” for the purposes of this catalogue as: “oil or casein, possibly with additional elements of gouache or ink applied to a support of canvas, wooden panel or board.”  This left a group of just over 1,700 items and excluded the 3,500 known works on paper.   Since two of my group of three items were watercolor on paper, they had not been included.   Oh well, lesson learned.   The fact that two of my items were not included was not because they had been in private hands and were unaware of the compilation of a CR.  They were not excluded because the authors thought them inauthentic.  They were just considered works on paper and as such were in a category left for the next ambitious project.   Lesson # 1 Review: Check the “How to Use this Book” section and understand what items are covered. 

I have written often of catalogues raisonné.   As an appraiser, I have collected and used CRs for many different artists, and, since CRs generally cover only one medium, I own several different ones for many individual artists.  For those who have not run into this term, a catalogue raisonné is an attempt at an encyclopedic reference source on everything produced by a given artist in a given medium.  A CR attempts to gather and document every single authentic item produced by the named artist in the named medium.  Good catalogues raisonné also try to provide good provenance (ownership history), exhibition history and bibliographic references.  Access to the right catalogue raisonné is an incredible aid to an appraiser.  But, no one has a library big enough for all the necessary ones.  Thank heavens for good local art libraries where many can be found.   I now buy only the ones that I will reference regularly.  My copy of this CR is to be gifted to the lucky client who owns the Hofmann painting included in the catalogue.  I think that family will enjoy having it.  I am holding onto it only long enough to familiarize myself with the contents and write this review.  When I next need to reference it, I hope one of the local libraries has it in their collection.  I will have to wait for a DVD or downloadable version to collect for myself.  My shelves are brimming.  

Preview of a page from the CR - Click to enlarge and see the organization and layout

Not all CRs are created equal.  Depending on the date of production, overall scholarship and budget for the project, the quality varies widely.   Older CRs sometimes do not even have an image of the items, just a verbal description.  If you ever questioned the old cliché about a picture being worth 1,000 words, these frustrating tomes are the proof.  Others have scant information or are organized poorly.  I can report happily that the Hans Hofmann catalogue hits all the right notes.  The three-volume set has good color images of each item that was available to be photographed.  There are some blanks where the current whereabouts of items are unknown and a few black and white images where those were the only available images.  But, generally each item is shown in color.  It has great exhibition history and provenance material.  As mentioned above, it is arranged chronologically. 

Additionally, there is an alphabetic index of titles.  The initial research for this project got underway in 1997 and was not complete until the volume went to print late last year, 2014.  A catalogue raisonné is a major undertaking.   The long years of research involved is quite expensive.  In this case, Hofmann’s second widow set up a trust in her will to cover much of the cost.  The hope for those champions of Hofmann is that this catalogue will cause a reassessment of Hofmann’ career and will re-emphasize his greatness as a working artist, not an art teacher.  For much of his career, Hofmann was considered to be a much better art educator than a working artist.  Hofmann had run a private art school in his native Germany until 1930.  In 1930, he came by invitation of a former student to the University of Berkeley to teach for one semester.  His wife, Miz, convinced him that because of the political and economic upheaval in Europe at the time, he ought to stay in America and make a go of it.   In 1934, he settled in New York City and opened an art school.  He brought with him recent exposure to all of the latest European art movements and an art teaching style that challenged his students to develop their own path and their own styles.  Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Red Grooms, Wolf Kahn and dozens of other artists studied with him in New York and took his summer programs in Provincetown, MA.  He was so well-known as a teacher that it overshadowed his reputation as an artist.

The great thing about such a catalogue is that it gives an opportunity to study how an artist’s imagery developed over the years.  Of course, one gets no sense of scale or surface quality for the paintings and both were important to Hoffman.  Nothing replaces experiencing the art in person.  But, one can appreciate the overall directions and patterns through an artist’s career.  One of the things that struck me about Hofmann’s work is how similar his palette stayed throughout.  From the early fauvist-inspired landscapes, still lifes and other imagery-filled paintings on through the abstract expressionist paintings of the 40-50’s, Hofmann favored a palette of intense primary and secondary colors…red, yellow, blue, green, orange, white and black.  He would sometimes limit the selection to just a few of these colors and sometimes include them all, juxtaposed to create his push-pull theory of space.  But he rarely painted in grayed or soft hues.  He loved intense color and thick impasto. 

 Partial view of "Simplex Munditis" by Hans Hofmann, 1962. Cover image for volume III of the CR

Partial view of "Simplex Munditis" by Hans Hofmann, 1962. Cover image for volume III of the CR

The other thing I noticed in perusing the catalogue is that there are only a scant eight pieces included prior to 1934 and these are of a very personal nature, portraits of his wife and self portraits executed in post-impressionist styles.  Apparently, Hofmann either lost or destroyed all but this slim group of work when he came to America.  Hofmann was born in 1880 and of the 1,700 paintings included in the catalogue, all except the first eight were produced from 1934-1965, from age 54 to 85.    

An interesting choice for inclusion in the catalogue is a group of eighty-nine palettes.  This is a collection of small boards of various dimensions that the artist used for mixing his paints.  Hofmann believed in the “happy-accident” in painting and he believed that sometimes the best paintings occurred when the artist was able to get out of the way of his own conscious thought processes.  He was known to have commented to some of his students that what they had on their palette was better than what was captured on the canvas.  Unlike the rest of his oeuvre, these painted palettes were most often unsigned and undated.  However, Hoffmann did collect them and keep them.  His thoughts on these pieces are not well-known.  The editors of the catalogue have included them in a separate section, behind all the other paintings.  I am sure someday an art historian will have a field day with these.  I am not sure how I feel about their inclusion in the catalogue raisonné of paintings.  Are the haphazard encrustations of paint on a palette reflective of the work of the artist in any thoughtful way?  Hmm…

I must say that from the first moment I pulled this catalogue from the packing box I had a very mixed reaction.  It is lush.  The three volumes are contained in their own decorative shelving box.  It is big.  That allows for each painting to be given a large image and for uncrowded presentation of the information.  The art directors of this catalogue obviously put much thought into the design of the book.  The marine blue canvas binding is the perfect foil for the large images of paintings on each cover.  But…did I mention that it is large?  The boxed set is just under 20 lbs. and measures 13 x 10 ¼ x 5”  and, as far as I know, there is no digital version.   I found myself appreciating the physical qualities of the book and yet longing for the convenience of a digital version.  

-Brenda Simonson-Mohle