While the idea that originality can be taught is somewhat oxymoronic, there is no denying that some of the most ground-breaking artists in history were students, at one time or another, influenced by the teachings of masters and their work. Provincetown artists were no exception, and if you had to trace the roots of Provincetown’s reputation as a leading center of innovative art, the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Art would be the first place to look. It was the pedagogy of the school’s founder, famed Modernist and Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), that inspired generations of artists to obliterate the grasp of tradition and Academic convention, each in his or her own way. Opened in 1935, the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts marked a new tide in both the art colony and American art history.
When Hofmann emigrated from Germany to the United States, he brought with him a direct knowledge of European Modernism and the avant-garde from his exposure and participation in art movements such as Cubism, Fauvism, Surrealism, De Stijl, Blaue Reiter, and Die Brüke. A contemporary and student of monumental artists such as Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, and Wassily Kandinsky, Hofmann learned and lived in the very center of the avant-garde. Picking up the best from the best, he amalgamated Cubism’s treatment of volumes and the bright expressive palette of Fauvism into his pedagogical theory. His “push and pull” approach, as it came to be known, refused to remain tied to one point perspective and narrative legibility. Thus, Hofmann theorized the seemingly impossible — a new way to translate nature’s three dimensions into a two-dimensional picture plane. His teachings sought to create dynamic compositions using abstract geometric forms and color swatches to foster severe tensions and reconciliatory balances.
Hofmann’s influence was visible throughout the art world. Countless figures belonging to the New York art scene ventured to the lush land and sea of Provincetown to take part in the creative atmosphere fostered by the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Art. Among those were husband and wife duo, Lillian Orlowsky (1914-2007) and William Freed (1904-1984), who benefited greatly from both Hofmann’s influence and the Provincetown art community. Lillian Orlowsky was not ashamed to praise Hofmann’s influence. She claimed Hofmann had taught her how to see, stating: “I became aware of nature that went beyond the surface appearances of a two-dimensional picture plane.” After moving to Provincetown permanently in the 1940s, Orlowsky reoriented her work toward increasingly aggressive abstractions. Characterized by work that deconstructed large, solid forms and a more brisk, active application of paint, Orlowsky rightfully emerged at the forefront of Hofmann’s favor and enjoyed praise as she too pushed the boundaries of American art. Like most of Hofmann’s students, Orlowsky did not mirror or mimic her teacher’s art. Instead, she departed from his mantra using a lightened palette in place of the bold, seemingly masculine hues of the stoic Hofmann. As seen in Untitled (Abstract), softer color swatches composed of smaller individual units replace the earlier, more sculptural forms indebted to Hofmann. However, Untitled still bodes of Hofmann’s “push and pull” theory, as the free-form abstract language of geometric interactions and color planes bespeak the negotiation of movement and balance.
William Freed, like Hofmann, preferred that nature inform the composition and structure of paintings. His unique, expressive rhythms came to characterize his beautiful harmony of Cubism and Fauvism. Within the layered planes of lyrical color one may still recall experienced reality. Simultaneously, the tensions of intersecting perspectives and planes of color throw the composition into a battle for balance and stasis. Freed’s work Still Life of Fruit and Bottle parleys Hofmann’s “push and pull” theory while maintaining a sense of individual subjectivity of vision and compositional preference. Juxtaposed at first glance, Orlowsky and Freed’s paintings appear to be vastly different, like most of Hofmann’s students’ works. Yet a closer analysis reveals a common foundation in their use of “push and pull”.
Sam Feinstein (1915-2003) took to Hofmann’s theories almost instantly. Boasting an illustrious seventy-year artistic career spanning realism, expressionism, and abstraction, Feinstein was able to break from rigid, proportioned figuration in favor of abstraction as direct result of Hofmann’s teachings. Coming to Provincetown in the late 1940s, Feinstein found his own beliefs in the beauty and order of nature embodied in Hofmann’s theories. Under Hofmann’s tutelage, Feinstein mastered a distinctive language of abstraction incorporating vast stretches of color emphatically penetrating the canvas in a dynamic, interwoven balance of texture. Pieta III typifies the negotiation of nature onto a picture plane, as the rough blasts of color and chaotic forms give the canvas a vivacious, living character. This abstracted equilibrium drew from Hofmann’s “push and pull” theory, by which nature’s ebbs and flows were translated into painted forms.
As American art moved to the forefront of innovation in the 20th century, Hofmann’s students evolved into the spear-heads of many notable movements in art. Orlowsky, Freed, and Feinstein and other Provincetown artists such as Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), Lee Krasner (1908-1984), and Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) transformed a country formerly indebted to the European masters into a beacon of the avant-garde in its own right. Hofmann’s school fostered individuality and unique development as his unorthodox methods of critique and direct manipulation startled the art world. Hans Hofmann was a catalyst of more than just Modernism and Abstract Expressionism, but of American and international art at large.
In what ways are the works of Hofmann’s students similar and different? How is the influence of Provincetown visible in their work? How is Hofmann’s “push and pull” theory embodied in the works above?
Make sure to visit these works, among others, in The Tides of Provincetown: Pivotal Years in America’s Oldest Continuous Art Colony 1899-2011 on display from July 15 – Oct. 16, 2011!