An interview with Wolf Khan about Hans Hoffman and abstract space.

This is a transcript of an interview with Wolf Kahn broadcast on PBS in the year 2000.

Question:
How did you happen to start studying with Hans Hofmann?

Wolf Kahn:
It was the only place to be at the time when I wanted to go to art school. All the advanced spirits among the young went to Hofmann.

Question:
When was this?

WK:
This was in 1946. My brother, who’s also a painter, he preceded me. I was still studying with Stuart Davis, who was a terrible teacher- wonderful painter, terrible teacher- when I heard about the Hofmann School from the other young artists who were around. I was on the GI Bill. I could choose wherever I wanted to go.

Question:
Had you ever seen a Hofmann painting before you went to his school?

WK:
I don’t remember exactly, but I tell you one thing, all of the students felt that Hofmann was a much better teacher than he was a painter. That was the general consensus at the time. And it took us, in most instances, decades to find out that he was also a good painter.

Tom Hess was the art editor of the New York Times. And when Hofmann died, he called me for some anecdotes, which I dutifully gave, because I knew Hofmann very well. Then he said to me: Of course, we’re going to bury the idea that Hofmann wasn’t very much of a painter. That he was a great teacher, but he wasn’t very much of a painter. Well, fast-forward 20 years later at the Yale Galleries. I ran into Tom Hess, and I said to him, “Remember how, at the obituary we agreed that Hofmann wasn’t much of a painter? Look at these paintings now. Don’t they look good? He said, “Remember you said Hofmann wasn’t a great painter?” I never said that!

Question:
Except that a lot of people said it at the time.

WK:
A lot of people said it, yes.

Question:
When did you first see Hofmann’s paintings? Do you remember?

WK:
I think when I went to school. I was in and out of his house, and there were a lot of his paintings. Then I became a studio assistant. I’d certainly see a lot of paintings there. But it took me a long time to become enthusiastic about the work. Then, later on, seeing them in museums and in galleries, they started looking better and better with time.

Question:
As a monitor or a studio assistant, you said that one of your jobs was to put up paintings for critiques.

WK:
Yes, I was sort of the Cerberus at the gate for quality. Hofmann told me at the critiques, “Always show the most interesting work first to me before I get tired.” And so this was my choice. I was a 19-year old kid, remember, at the time. And there were 30 or 40 egos involved, most of them older than me. So people used to come to me and offer me bribes to show their work first. I got to be a power in the school.

Question:
I’m not going to ask you if you took the bribes.

WK:
I can’t remember. Quite conveniently. I don’t think I did.

Question:
You’ve said that Hans Hofmann was a master at inspiring-

WK:
Anxiety.

Question:
Anxiety and enthusiasm.

WK:
Well, I never said he was a master at inspiring enthusiasm. I think we were just so hungry to express our enthusiasm. And Hofmann never really did anything to squash it. He was definitely at work at inspiring anxiety among the students, by telling us such as, “Oh, you should all go see the Clyfford Still show, but of course you won’t understand what it’s about. It’ll take you years to understand what it’s about.”

Then he’d say things about the Old Masters, like, “The most beautiful thing about a Rembrandt are the empty spaces.” We’d look at a Rembrandt, and we’d look at the empty spaces, and we didn’t understand what he said, because we were beginners, you know?

He was never afraid to tell you things ahead of time, to teach above your head, which created an immense amount of anxiety. Because he also carried with him a lot of credibility. You believed what the man said.

Question:
You also said that he made you, after two years of study, want to give up painting.

WK:
Overload of anxiety. Yes. And I think Hofmann, if asked about this tendency in people to give up painting after they study with him, would have taken that as a compliment. He didn’t have much room for amateurs, and he didn’t have much room for frail spirits.

He said, “You have to be immensely psychically very healthy to be an artist.” Although, of course, a lot of his students were neurotic as all get-out.

Question:
You said that he had great presence of self, even though the art world, by and large, ignored him.

WK:
Well, ignoring him, that’s an overstatement. By the time I was with him, he was definitely a force in New York. But the official art world, the museum directors, the critics, they didn’t get it. It took them longer.

They saw the- the sort of overbearing quality of Hofmann’s work, and the lack of elegance of it. And to translate that into strength takes time in the public awareness.

Question:
Did Hofmann pose the models himself?

WK:
Oh, yes. Well, he had certain ideas about what the models should represent in their presence oppositions. He had the Baroque idea of “contrapasto.” Hofmann had a lot of Baroque ideas like that. I suppose, being a Bavarian, it was normal. And it made it easier for students to see oppositions. He used to often quote what Mondrian said about composition, that to compose plastically is to create unequal but equivalent oppositions. He would try to pose the model in those terms. Then, in addition to that, he said something else which made the students crazy. He said, You not only have to paint the model, but you have to paint the space on each side of the model, and the space behind the model. In addition to which, you have to paint the space that the model occupies.

Alright. Now, of course, what he means is that you have to always be aware that there is a continuum. That nothing stops. That because the model has an outline, and after that there’s nothing. In a painting, that doesn’t make any sense, that you have to build structures which include the space around objects, either as color as planes or something.

And that’s one way I learned to understand Cubism, for example. Most of the students were working in Cubist modes, because there, the continuum between the model, which was broken up into planes, and the space around her, which was also broken up into planes, was annihilated through the play of those planes.

You began to understand that there is a continuum between space that’s taken up by an actual, positive form, and then the space called negative space, which doesn’t have any positive form in it, but nevertheless is part of the picture, part of the structure of the picture. You can’t all of a sudden stop and have nothing there.

Question:
Was his English an obstacle to understanding his theories?

WK:
Yeah, and a lot of time I translated for him. Hofmann, for example, would go up to someone and he’d say about their color, “Your color, this is too bunt.” People would look at each other in total incomprehension. What does he mean by that?

Then I’d come in and I’d say, “Well, it’s a German word, bunt, which means disorganized color. Color that doesn’t make any sense, like circus color or color that’s just put together for noise. That’s the word bunt. They have Jozef mit der Buntenjacke. Joseph with the Coat of Many Colors. In other words, those colors have any necessary relation to each other- they’re just a bunch of colors.

Then he made up other words. “Monotonosity” and “luminatoriness.” Things like that. He just built up words out of nowhere that nobody could understand.

I think that in general the students, certainly the more hip among us, began to realize that Hofmann was like the Bible. If you take the Bible literally, it’s full of contradictions. Hofmann would say one day that Expressionism was bad. Then the next day, Expressionism was used in laudatory terms. So if you took him literally, you sent slowly crazy.

But, like the Bible, if you allow the general sense to emerge, you know it’s going in a certain direction. Jesus, finally, was trying to make better human beings, let’s say, out of recalcitrant material. Hofmann was trying to make better painters out of recalcitrant material. And to be very literal about it wasn’t his way. He wasn’t a straight-line thinker at all. But he was a very profound thinker just the same.

Hofmann used to come around and say surprising things which threw students off. He’d say, “Your palette’s more beautiful than your painting.” And the students would look at the palette, and, sure enough, the palette had clean colors, and the painting was all messed up with dirty color, and so forth. It’s because the things that happened accidentally, without one’s intentions, without the interruption of the conscious mind on the natural flow of things, are usually more beautiful than one’s intentions. He had a good way of making us aware of that, as his students. So on the one had, we were always behind our intentions, and on the other hand, we were always being forced to be way ahead of them.

Question:
You have said that Hofmann was a free spirit. He was not rigid in his thinking, and his taste was way in advance of his time.

WK:
Yes, he was not bound to his generation at all. Although, I think by the time Pop Art came along, that went a little further than he was prepared to go. He used to say to his students that the problem with modern art was that it didn’t have any human content. It was too involved with formal content. By the time Pop artists came along and put in, quote, “human content,” I think Hofmann would have been upset to have seen that the human content was in the form of Mickey Mouse. He always thought that art was a very serious and very profound enterprise, and he believed that it had very little to do with popular culture.

Question:
You mean he was an elitist?

WK:
Oh, yes. Through and through. Taught us all to be elitist. Although, in spite of that, let’s say somebody like Larry Rivers, who was a fellow student at the time when I was there, ended up being a precursor to Pop Art, by painting a Dutch Masters cigar box, and things like that.

Question:
There are a whole series of students who in no way seem to be Hofmann students.

WK:
Yes, well, I think that’s because of this fear that Hofmann had of creating clones. He was always contradicting himself in order to keep us from formulating his ideas too clearly for ourselves. That’s probably one of the reasons he was so contradictory, because he was really not interested in creating followers.

Question:
And yet, you say that today you feel like you’re following a lot of Hofmann’s theory in your own paintings.

WK:
Yes, because I’m a mainstream painter. I feel that the ideas in my painting go back to the Renaissance. Even maybe all the way back to Cimabue in the 13th Century. Hofmann talked about the mainstream a lot, by which he meant people who were interested in creating formal structures in their paintings.

Hofmann had a very distinct idea about what art should do; that is, that it should make intelligible statements. Not just feeling statements. There were two schools of modern art that he didn’t like.

He didn’t like the Surrealists. And he didn’t like the Expressionists. Because he felt that, in the Expressionists’ case, feelings were too important. They were more important than the construction and the formalist approach of making things become coherent as color and form.

Whereas, in the case of the Surrealists, he felt that they were too descriptive. They thought that just by painting their dreams and painting their sexual fantasies, and making juxtapositions that didn’t belong together and so forth, they also were ignoring the mainstream idea of art, which is to create harmony and structure and a parallel to life in which there is order and harmony, rather than disorder and chaos, as we all live in. He felt that art should do something to correct the chaos of the world.

Question:
He also didn’t like regionalism, American regionalism.

WK:
No, because he thought it was descriptive and it was involved in local issues. He always felt that the great art is involved in overriding issues. Like I say: harmony and order, but harmony and order in human terms. Meaning, if there’s a drip of paint somewhere, that’s not a terrible thing. After all, we’re all sloppy, dirty human beings.

Not everybody had to be Mondrian, although Hofmann loved Mondrian. That was one of his great loves, because he was so totally concerned with creating an ordered universe.

Question:
You saw him painting. He painted practically nude, Hofmann.

WK:
In the summertime, yes. He had a studio in the lumberyard. It was a row of studios, and it was very hot there. Very hot. There was no shade, and they had skylights, and underneath the skylights it gets very hot when the sun shines on the skylights.

So Hofmann would just go down to his underpants. He used color in a very generous way, let’s say, and also a bit sloppy. For example, what he’d do with a tube, I’ve never seen anybody else do that. Instead of unscrewing the cap and squeezing the pigment out that way, he’d take a pair of scissors, cut the bottom off, and then squeeze all the paint out of the tube from the bottom in a fat, thick stream.

Well, then at the end of the day, he’d have pthalo green all over his belly, and all the little white hairs on his belly were all turning green. I don’t know how he ever got rid of that, but he’d come home looking awful. Like a palette himself, on his belly.

Question:
How many years were you with him?

WK:
I was there a total of two years. And then I still worked for him for a little while, without being in the school. I was thoroughly depressed. And I said to Hofmann: I think I’m going to have to quit the school.

And Hofmann raised his finger and he said: “That is a good idea, because you are suffering from mental indigestion.”

He was right. It’s taken me the whole rest of my life to digest it all.

 

 


(Original at http://www.pbs.org/hanshofmann/wolf_kahn_interview_001.html)

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