When Hans Hofmann accepted a commission for a large-scale mosaic mural project in the Peruvian city of Chimbote in 1950, he was already seventy years old. An influential Abstract Expressionist painter and theorist, he had helped raise a generation of artists, teaching painters such as Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, Helen Frankenthaler, and Lee Krasner in the Art Students League of New York and elswhere.
Though the mural project was never realized, a series of seven-foot-tall oil studies from it show a master's thematic iterations and offer a look under the hood of abstraction itself. Nine of the studies are the highlights of the new Ackland show Walls of Color: The Murals of Hans Hofmann, which also includes work from a number of his other mural projects.
Part of a comprehensive redesign of the city, the Chimbote commission was supposed to be a collaboration with architect Josep Lluís Sert, known for designing the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 Paris World's Fair, for which Picasso painted his masterpiece mural, "Guernica." Hofmann was to design a mosaic for a freestanding, fifty-foot-tall bell tower next to a church in a central plaza.
Walls of Color includes sketches that give an incomplete sense of what Hofmann had in mind for the tower's wall. In one, several of the seven-by-three-foot studies are identifiable, placed on the wall as if they were mosaic tiles themselves. Hofmann's measurement notations give a sense of grand scale. It's almost heartbreaking that the bright colors and tangled compositions of the studies were never built.
But the studies themselves will heal your heart. On a first pass, they seem like nine distinct images rendered in a variety of ways. Several of them are flat, with clean geometric shapes of unmodulated color, some of which have outlines and interior marks that recall those of a draftsman. Others are wild abstractions with caked-on paint—swirled, blended, and scarred. Where one is meticulously rendered, another looks as if Hofmann made it with his bare hands in a five-minute frenzy.
It's easy to admire them as unrelated improvisations and move on, but that's a mistake. Compare the first two, which depict a cross. In the first, a stout red cross steps forward from a yellow landscape, conveying an almost human agency. In the second, a thin blue cross serves to separate the painting into a quartered map, like a landscape seen from the perspective of a deity.
The last two studies in the sequence offer a more startling comparison. The eighth is dominated by olive-green lineation, rendered with a fast, messy energy. The lines form a figure standing before a thickly swirled field of color. A single eye is painted atop the figure in childlike brushstrokes.
The ninth painting couldn't be more different in terms of texture—a bright green quadrilateral shape is met by a pair of black-and-yellow triangles that form an opposite quadrilateral. Drawn lines go in and out of red and blue circles as if it were a mechanical drawing.
Hans Hofmann: "Mosaic for Apartment House Sketch No. 14" (detail) photo courtesy of the Renate, Hans, and Maria Hofmann Trust
But these last two paintings are actually the same composition—the same figure with the same winking head, surrounded by the same luminous circles. If you go back down the wall, you'll see this figure reappear in most of the studies, with a head or eye on top. Once you arrive back at the start, you can see that the recurring figure is built off the cross, abstracted in a variety of ways through the entire series.
Such comparative viewing gives insight into Hofmann's process of abstraction—known as his "push/pull theory"—by which adjacent colors and forms create synthetic depth and implied movement.
Abstraction is sometimes dismissed as an academic departure from reality, leaving the people and objects of the world behind to revel in purely intellectual forms. But in the Chimbote mural series, Hofmann's abstract vision is clearly populist. Intended for a public gathering place as well as for a call to worship, these works bring the holy and human together through deft strategy.
While social-realist mural artists of the same era sought to capture the laborer's essence in representational, narrative compositions, Hofmann frees that essence through abstraction, as if creating a power source for the whole city. These nine studies are both a beautiful illustration of his theories in practice and a cognitive template that one can use on almost any 20th-century abstract work.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mural, Interrupted"