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Karen Wilkin reveals Hans Hofmann’s many facets

January 23, 2017 // by Denise M. Reagan

Karen Wilkin's relationship with MOCA Jacksonville started in 2013 when she contributed an essay to the catalog for Abstraction over Time: The Paintings of Michael Goldberg. The New York native is an independent art curator and critic who specializes in twentieth century modernism.

As a contributing art editor at The Hudson Review and a regular contributor to The New Criterion, Art in America, and The Wall Street Journal, Wilkin's expertise and opinion are highly regarded in the art world.

Karen Wilkin Image Courtesy of Edward Rubin
"I’ve been doing this a long time," independent curator Karen Wilkin says. "Part of the job is knowing what’s where and knowing whom to ask in order to locate things." Image courtesy of Edward Rubin.

Wilkin co-curated MOCA Jacksonville's featured exhibition Hans Hofmann: Works on Paper with former MOCA Director Marcelle Polednik, who's now the director of the Milwaukee Art Museum.

We asked Wilkin about the origins of the exhibition and what it teaches us about Hofmann's work.

How did you meet MOCA Jacksonville?

I first met Marcelle Polednik when she was a curator in Monterey. She was hoping to organize an exhibition of East and West coast Abstract Expressionism, and invited me to take part in a preliminary study session, talking about Hofmann in Berkeley, a topic of mutual interest. We stayed in touch and I later asked her to write one of the introductory essays to the Hans Hofmann Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, for which I was a contributing editor. Because of my interest in New York Abstract Expressionism, she asked me to contribute an essay to the catalog of her Michael Goldberg show, and I came to Jacksonville for the first time to lecture on Goldberg. Coincidentally, I had worked with Jaime DeSimone when she was at the Addison, before she came to Jacksonville, when I did a major touring show for them in 2011-2012. 

Hans Hofmann Photo Portrait
Portrait of Hans Hofmann, c. 1960-65. Reproduction, including downloading of Hans Hofmann works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

How did the idea for the exhibition develop?

If you work on Hofmann--this is my third Hofmann exhibition--you discover how important working on paper was throughout his long life. Yet there has never before been a complete retrospective exhibit of this vital part of his work. The Hofmann Catalogue Raisonné, to which I contributed an introductory essay, is of paintings only. It seemed obvious that we needed to look hard at this neglected aspect of Hofmann's art. When Marcelle learned I was interested in doing a Hofmann works on paper retrospective, she asked if I'd like to do it for Jacksonville.

At MOCA Jacksonville, we often joke about the exhibition planning and development process as “curatorial magic.” Would you be willing to share some details about your curatorial process, e.g., how did you develop a checklist and/or secure loans?

I've been doing this a long time. Part of the job is knowing what's where and knowing whom to ask in order to locate things. When I visit a collector, I note works by artists I'm particularly interested in. When I visit museums, which I do often and in many places, as a curator and as a critic reviewing shows, I ask about works in the collection by artists I work on. And I have a lot of curator and dealer contacts who can steer me to collections I don't know. When word gets out that a show of say, Hofmann on paper, is in the works, people get in touch. Then you just choose the best work to tell the story and hope that it will be made available. You write a lot of pleading letters. 

Hans Hofmann Untitled Self Portrait c 1941
Hans Hofmann, Untitled, Self-Portrait, c. 1941. Watercolor on paper. 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Private collection, courtesy of Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe (New York). With permission of the Renate, Hans & Maria Hofmann Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The exhibition focuses on Hofmann's works on paper. Why is this such a timely project and contribution to understanding who the artist is

Hofmann drew, made watercolors, and painted on paper all his life. Drawing was an integral part of his teaching, and there were periods when, because of the demands of teaching, he only drew. Hofmann's first show in America was of black and white drawings. What's fascinating is that while the imagery of Hofmann's works on paper and on canvas is intimately related, the material differences between them provoked different responses. Hofmann's works on paper are often more spontaneous, looser, and more playful than his canvases--and certainly more intimate. We are allowed to see a more informal side of a very great artist. That's a privilege.

The show is timely because interest in Hofmann has been growing steadily. His wide range of approaches was once seen as problematic, when artists were supposed to have “signature styles”--think of Pollock's pours or Newman's Zips. Now variety is seen as a plus. But, as I said, no one has looked comprehensively at this part of Hofmann's oeuvre before.

The chronological exhibition includes many sections. If you had to narrow in on one area, what body of work do you see as crucial to understanding his works on paper? 

Hofmann's most notable characteristic is variety. He worked in many different ways, sometimes at the same time. We broke the show into sections to clarify the multiple facets of this endlessly inventive artist. To appreciate Hofmann, you have to acknowledge the variety, so it's impossible to isolate a single aspect. The critic Clement Greenberg, a life-long admirer of Hofmann, called him “a virtuoso of invention.”

Hans Hofmann Bird Flight 1943
Hans Hofmann, Bird Flight, 1943. Colored crayons and black felttip pen, 11 x 14 1/8 inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Woodward Foundation, Washington, D.C. 1976. With permission of the Renate, Hans & Maria Hofmann Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

What's the most challenging and/or rewarding part of guest curating for a museum?

Dealing with distance is the most challenging part of being a guest curator. It's harder if you have to deal with translation. I recently worked on an exhibition of Vincent Barré, a wonderful contemporary French sculptor, for the Musée Matisse in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, the town where he was born. I'm pretty well bilingual in French, but I can't write French the way I do English. The artist and I had to revise the translator's version of my text five times to make it the equivalent of the English. The most rewarding part of any project comes when all the works you've been thinking about and looking at in different places for years are finally all in the galleries, together. Of course, you'd like to start writing your catalog essay then, not before.

If you don't mind sharing, what is your next project?

I'm working on a retrospective of John Graham, with Alicia Longwell, the curator of the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, Long Island, for the Parrish. Graham is a fascinating, too little-known figure, a modernist painter, theorist, expert on African art, dealer, mystic, shaman, and Don Juan, who was an important mentor and catalyst for the Abstract Expressionist generation in New York. De Kooning called him one of the smartest guys about art in New York. Graham repudiated modernism around 1942 and concentrated on meticulously painted figures inspired by Ingres. The show is a spinoff of one I did for the Addison Gallery of American Art, American Vanguards: John Graham, Arshile Gorky, Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, 1927-1942, which The Boston Globe called the best show of 2012.

Hans Hofmann Construction 1948
Hans Hofmann, Construction, 1948. Ink and oil on paper mounted on board, 17 1/4 x 14 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase, 50.4. With permission of the Renate, Hans & Maria Hofmann Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

RSVP for Art and Ideas: Karen Wilkin, a discussion with the curator on Thursday, February 9. The event is free, but seating is limited, so reserve your spot.




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