Walls of Color: The Murals of Hans Hofmann at the Ackland Art Museum, UNC-Chapel Hill. (Emily Bowles)
Although the German-born artist Hans Hofmann is most famous for his Abstract Expressionist works and schools of painting, primarily in New York and Provincetown, Mass., where he taught painters Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Rivers, and Lee Krasner Pollock, and sculptor Louise Nevelson, among others. He was also an accomplished mural designer. Several of these commissions can still be seen today in Manhattan’s midtown and Hell’s Kitchen.
This unknown and fascinating chapter of Hofmann’s career is the focus of an exhibition, Walls of Color: The Murals of Hans Hofmann, which originated last May at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., then traveled to the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami, and is now at the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill through April 10.
The centerpieces of the exhibition are nine seven-feet-tall oil studies Hofmann created for the redesign of the Peruvian port city of Chimbote, 230 miles north of Lima. These were done in collaboration with the Catalan architect Jose Luis Sert, who designed the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair (the same pavilion where Picasso showed his legendary mural Guernica). The unrealized Peruvian project was to include a huge mosaic wall, made of local stone, by Hofmann for a bell-tower-like structure; the wall would have been based on Hofmann’s concepts of Abstract Expressionism and would also have featured symbols of traditional Peruvian history, culture, and religion.
One of Hofmann’s two extant Manhattan murals wraps around the elevator bank of the main entrance hall of 711 Third Avenue, a 1956 building between
44th and 45th Streets in Manhattan, designed by modernist architect William Lescaze for the developer William Kaufman. With a brightly-colored, collage-like design that also contains abstract hieroglyphs, Hofmann’s mural was made using over a half-million Venetian glass tiles, each smaller than a postage stamp, in 500 shades.
In 1958, the New York City Board of Education commissioned Hofmann to create a 64-foot-long and 11-foot-tall mosaic mural for the ground floor exterior of the High School of Printing (today the High School of Graphic Communication Arts) at 439 West 49th St., west of Ninth Avenue. This has an abstract design of biomorphic and geometric shapes, created in yellow, green, blue, red and black glass tiles. The school was designed by Hugh Kelly and B. Sumner Gruzen, the latter of whom owned several paintings by Hofmann.
The exhibition describes and depicts Hofmann’s mural works through painted studies, mosaic maquettes, photos, and ephemera. The exhibition’s original curator, New York University professor of modern art Kenneth Silver, who is also an adjunct curator of art at the Bruce, said these pieces “show us not only Hofmann’s working methods but also just how significant these murals were to the development of his art in general.” Also featured in the exhibition are 1950’s studies of an unrealized mural for a New York apartment building and later paintings that demonstrate the influence of the mural projects on his easel works. According to Silver, Hofmann’s “dealing with minute squares of the mosaic medium pushed him to thinking about the rectangle,” a major theme in the last ten years of his painting career.
Hofmann, who was born in Weissenburg, Germany, in 1880, worked for the director of public works of Bavaria as a teenager. He then studied art in Munich and Paris, where he befriended Matisse and Picasso. He taught in Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, and the French Riviera before moving to the United States in 1932. Hofmann closed his schools in 1958 to fully devote himself to painting. He died in 1966.