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Chameleon With a Paint Brush

Influential teacher/painter Hans Hofmann mastered many styles without making any his trademark

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FOR some artists, retrospectives are dangerous, for others, a form of vindication. Of no one is the latter more true than Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), the painter/teacher who exerted a powerful influence on American artists during the 1950s and early '60s but whose reputation dimmed considerably after his death.

For anyone still in doubt, I recommend the Hofmann restrospective at the Whitney Museum here. It includes over 100 paintings and drawings representing almost every phase of his career. No work from his Paris period (1904-14) has survived, and there are a few other minor gaps here and there that probably will never be filled. But overall this is as valuable a retrospective as anyone could wish.

Although Hofmann was born and educated in Germany, his greatest creative stimulation as a young man came from his association in Paris with Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and Delaunay. All had a significant and lasting impact on his work. In fact, according to Cynthia Goodman, the exhibition's curator, ``Hofmann absorbed Matisse's color lessons so successfully that Clement Greenberg later claimed `that in America in the 1930s one could learn Matisse's color lessons better from Hofmann than from Matisse himself.'''

Caught in Germany by the outbreak of World War I, Hofmann established an art school in Munich in 1915. Teaching agreed with him, and in the early 1930s he came to the United States to teach at the University of California at Berkeley and at the Art Students League in New York. In 1933, he opened his own art school in Manhattan, and within a few years he was generally regarded as the foremost art teacher in America.

His art, on the other hand, was not yet as widely recognized. According to Ms. Goodman, Hofmann painted in a wide range of styles that remain ``elusive to categorization.'' She goes on to say that his artistic vocabulary ``synthesized elements of Fauvism, Cubism, and Expressionism, all of which he had encountered firsthand in Europe....''

He was not, however, an imitator or a follower, only someone for whom the fashioning of a personal ``signature'' style required much time and thought.

During the late 1930s and early '40s, he concentrated on portraits, figure studies, landscapes, and other subjects drawn from life. While theoretically representational, these paintings were often expressionistically executed, with hot, saturated colors, bold gestural brushstrokes, and forms that often appeared more abstract than real.

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