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Movie review: "Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter"

Movie review: "Hans Hofmann: Artist/Teacher, Teacher/Artist"

Screen Shot 2017-02-05 at 10.41.39 PMThis is a movie I grew fonder of after the half-point, once I realized that the filmmakers were indeed going to talk at length about Hofmann's art and not just his teaching style and school in Provincetown. (Over the first 30 minutes, I grew really worried we would never be told anything about Hofmann outside his classroom.)

I first learned about Hans Hofmann in the opening pages of New Art City by Jed Perl, and his paintings on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art have long been among my favorites because of their geometrical shapes and bright colors. I was thrilled to find a documentary about Hofmann on Amazon. It is divided roughly in two parts, the first part about how he taught and the second part about his work. Since he died in 1966, the only footage of him is archival and shows him painting one of his canvases, but many of his former students provide valuable insights into his teaching and painting style.

(He liked students to have lots of paint on their palette, although students at the time were quite impoverished and paint costs a lot of money. One of his favorite tricks to make students view the world differently was to tear one of their drawings into two and shift the two parts every so slightly so that they would not be quite aligned with each other any more. Also, how he got his students to paint abstract art while staring at a real model or a still-life was quite striking.)

The pictures shown of his art are superb, and the movie also benefits from many black-and-white pictures of his teaching days at his school in Provincetown, MA. I wish at least one critical voice had been included - Louise Nevelson, for instance, was told by Hofmann she was wasting her time when she went to Germany to study with him in the early 1930s. That didn't prevent her from studying with him when he moved to the U.S., where he had no control over which students enrolled in his course at the Arts Students League. And Nevelson is long dead but this is just to make the point that no every student thrived with Hofmann as mentor, and so perhaps a counterbalancing voice or the mention of a particularly stinging criticism would have been helpful in positioning the man with respect to his fellow artists and his times.

Ultimately, the movie does have profound deficiencies regarding Hofmann's biography - we never learn how he met his first wife, how they married, did they get along, did they have friends. In fact when she is first mentioned, half an hour into the movie, she is named "Mrs Hofmann" and no one bothers giving her a first name until the filmmakers announce she has died and Hofmann has remarried. But the movie isn't really about Hofmann the man: as its title indicates, it is about the precarious balance he tried to maintain between his work as a teacher and his work as an artist. It is repeatedly multiple times during the 55-min documentary that the assumption in the NYC art world of the time, and perhaps still today, was that one could not be a good artist if one were also a teacher. It is to Hofmann's credit that he pursued both and left his mark in both. 

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5.


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