BAMPFA’s Hans Hofmann exhibition is culmination of its celebrated benefactor

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Berkeley inspired Hans Hofmann. After he escaped Germany in the 1930s, the city provided the forward-thinking setting the abstract artist needed to continue his teaching and practice. In the most comprehensive showing of his work to date, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive celebrates its most esteemed benefactor.

“Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction” offers a fresh perspective on one of the great American abstractionists. Composed of nearly 70 paintings, from private collections and much of the museum’s own, the exhibition organized by curator Lucinda Barnes encompasses works ranging from shortly after Hofmann left Berkeley to right before his death in 1966. Placed in such extensive, near chronological order, “The Nature of Abstraction” fashions Hoffman as benefactor, teacher and radical.

Previously working as an engineer for the State Ministry of the Interior in Munich, Germany, Hofmann moved to Paris to pursue his fascination with the arts. Shortly after immersing himself in the Parisian avant-garde scene, he was forced back to Germany by the Great War. Establishing his own modernizing art school back in Munich in 1915, domestic political pressure led him to take up the offer to join his friend Worth Ryder in the UC Berkeley faculty.

Despite only spending two summer sessions teaching at UC Berkeley from 1930 to 1931, the city’s progressive culture left its mark on the artist. “Summer Bliss,” painted in 1960 for the university in memory of Ryder, captures the idealism of the city in its halcyon green scene.

And three years later, he generously recognized the space Berkeley provided for his career, donating 47 paintings and $250,000. The gift substantially raised the international profile of the then-University Art Museum, now BAMPFA, helping fund the construction of its previous building in 1970.

In the first major exhibition of Hofmann’s work at the Center Street BAMPFA, Barnes presents Hofmann as a pioneer but also distinctly as a teacher. The complex still lifes he painted of his studio that begin the exhibition underline both the vital space his escape to America provided and the curriculum he was creating for his students to practice. Hofmann’s works from the 1940s and early 1950s almost offer an abridged history of abstract expressionism itself. Throughout the exhibit, his East Coast influence becomes more apparent — we see the inspiration of Miró, Kandinsky and Pollock mesh with his established inspirations such as Picasso or Matisse.

Despite being about a decade older than his contemporaries in this New York scene, Hofmann was neither imitating nor instructing his contemporaries. Instead, Barnes shows Hofmann actively engaging with the experimentation of this East Coast avant-garde. In 1957, after a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Hofmann closed his schools to turn to painting full time for the first time since his arrival in the United States. The exuberant canvas color planes for which he is so recognized, blending dimensions with flat color on top of dense backgrounds, soon emerged from his newfound artistic freedom.

In a Monday preview, Barnes described Hofmann’s abstract experimentation as “freeing up color, form and space.” Just as Berkeley provided the space for Hofmann to continue his work, his generous gift helped provide the space for further artistic expression in the city. “The Nature of Abstraction” feels like the culmination of Berkeley’s relationship with an artist of the avant-garde.

Whether as a gift in comprehensive celebration of the artist or a celebration of the artist’s own gift to Berkeley, the exhibition is an expression of just what the freeing up of space can achieve. Hans Hofmann has inspired Berkeley.

‘Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction’ is on show at BAMPFA until July 21.

Contact Nash Croker at [email protected].