BAMPFA’s ‘Push and Pull’ honors artistic vanguard Hans Hoffman

BAMPFA /Courtesy

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A new exhibit on display at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive until Dec. 11, “Push and Pull” features a collection of paintings by the late German-American abstract expressionist painter Hans Hoffman. Some of the paintings on display are works that he specifically gifted to UC Berkeley.

Hoffman taught art at summer sessions on campus in 1930 and 1931 and, soon after, permanently left Germany for the United States. He would go on to teach a whole generation of artists in New York, dozens of whom would go on to successful careers. Interestingly, Hoffman first showed promise in engineering as a teenager, patenting a number of scientific inventions before ultimately embarking on a career in art.

The concept of “push and pull” was important to Hoffman and showed up in his painting, teaching and writing. The phrase encapsulates his idea that, from molecules to blood vessels to fish in a pond, life is motion. He believed that paintings, as evocations of life, must move.

The seven works on display at BAMPFA were all produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a period when Hoffman’s work, while always representational, moved its farthest away from figuration. These works live in a world abstracted to shapes and colors. Bright rectangles pop out of muted backdrops, creating an inscrutable three-dimensionality on the canvas, as if looking down at downtown buildings from a helicopter. Anyone who has taken Professor David Whitney’s popular class on perception will think of it upon looking at the works. Low-level inputs lay the foundation for how the visual system works, and Hoffman uses depth cues such as occlusion and distance fog to push and pull objects in his paintings.

“Silent Night” (1964) is essentially a few blocks of yellow, tan and orange on a backdrop of indigo and green. But his strokes within these blocks add texture, haze to the night sky, the imperfections of the natural world. Each of the blocks is alive in its own way, its own tidepool of brushstrokes. Looking at the painting as a whole, your mind may fall right into the autumn night of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” That Hoffman captures this with so little imagery on the canvas is an impressive feat of information compression.

In “The Vanquished” (1959), a black morass with the consistency of molasses spreads over everything else on the canvas. It coagulates into tiny mountain ranges and bleeds onto a sickly green area. A small red blob in the midst of the sewage brings to mind a heart beating its last beat in the midst of the mess. Elsewhere on the canvas, a colorful outcrop sticks out like a coral reef while Hoffman’s signature recedes into the backdrop.

A work called “Auxerre,” which sold last year for $6,325,000 at a New York auction — a record price for Hoffman’s work — hangs in the exhibition as well. A stained glass cathedral window in the French town by the same name inspired Hoffman to paint it. “The whole world, as we experience it visually, comes to us through the mystic realm of color,” Hoffman once said. His work shows an obsession with the associations that color fishes out of us.

At Hans Hoffman’s whim, the canvas can resemble anything from the surface of the Sproul Plaza bulletin board with its decades of hardened paper fragments to IKEA furniture. Globs of paint smear up and off the canvas in ways that can only be truly experienced with the canvas in front of your eyes. It’s worth spending an hour away from the usual bombardment of digital stimulus to take a mental vacation to Hoffman’s geometric realm.

“Push and Pull” will be on display at BAMPFA  through Dec. 11.

Contact Parthiv Mohan at [email protected].