Hans Hofmann

Nulli Secundus


Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2136 x 1318 mm
frame: 2184 x 1368 x 50 mm
Purchased 1986

Display caption

'Nulli Secundus', Latin for second to none, is a painting of Hofmann's late period. Hofmann emigrated to the U.S.A from Germany in 1930 and in 1934 set up an art school in New York. He was a widely influential teacher. However, it was only after he closed his school in 1958 that his painting blossomed. Hofmann tended to work out the compositions of his paintings by pinning coloured paper shapes to his canvas. His work is a synthesis of Cubism, Fauvism and geometric abstraction. He regularly evoked nature but was keen to respect the inherent differences between pictorial experiences and those of the natural world. He wrote: 'In nature, light creates color: in the picture, color creates light.'

Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry

T04847 Nulli Secundus 1964

Oil on canvas 2136 × 1318 (84 1/8 × 51 7/8)
Inscribed ‘64 | hans hofmann’ b.r. and on back of canvas ‘Hans Hofmann’ t.r. and in another hand ‘Cat # 1537 | Nulli secundus | 1964 84 × 52 oil on canvas’ t.r.
Purchased from the artist's estate through André Emmerich Gallery, New York (Grant-in-Aid) 1986
Exh: Hans Hofmann - A Centennial Exhibition, André Emmerich Gallery, New York, Dec. 1980–Jan. 1981 (no number, repr. in col. [p.22]); Hans Hofmann: Late Paintings, Tate Gallery, March–May 1988 (21, repr. p.46 in col.)
Lit: Alan Gouk, ‘Put Up Or Shut Up: Hofmann at the Tate’, Artscribe, no.29, June 1981, pp.24–7, repr. p.25; Tate Gallery Report 1986–8, 1988, p.81, repr. (col.)

‘Nulli Secundus’ is a painting from the late phase of Hofmann's career. Its lower half is dominated by an area of red, with smaller, horizontal areas of black in the middle and at the bottom of the painting. There is a smooth layer of white paint at the very top of the work. Immediately below, on the left and right, are areas of blue. The blue patch on the right has been applied with a lightly loaded brush and the paint has been dragged from right to left. To the left of this is a smear of yellow paint which has been squeezed directly from the tube. The blue area on the left has been vigorously brushed and is of an uneven thickness. Below this Hofmann has applied, in turn, white, green and yellow in thick layers, wet on wet, dragging the brush in forceful vertical strokes so that the colours are mixed. Just below this, above left of centre, is a section of thick impasto where Hofmann has squeezed red, yellow, green, white and black paint directly from the tube. There is also evidence of the use of a palette knife. In the bottom right corner, where the artist's signature is located, Hofmann has repeated the white he used at the top suggesting, misleadingly, that the white is a ground over which the other colours have been applied. In fact, both areas of white were applied relatively late in the painting process.

Hofmann, who was born in Germany, spent his apprentice years in Paris just as the Fauve movement was emerging. In 1914 he moved to Munich where he set up the first of his art schools. In 1930 he emigrated to the USA and three years later established another school in New York which was to prove to be a highly influential breeding ground for second generation Abstract Expressionists. Hofmann's presence as a European in New York, and as someone who had had first hand experience and acquaintance of the European avant-garde, was of considerable importance to young American painters.

Hofmann's early paintings embraced the styles of Fauvism, Kandinsky and certain elements of German Expressionism. By the early 1940s he began to make abstract paintings which referred to and were derived from nature, and which had an affinity with the contemporary work of Arshile Gorky in their biomorphic imagery. He applied the paint in some of them by dripping in a manner which was later to become associated with Jackson Pollock. There are also a number of Hofmann paintings of the mid-1940s which echo Pollock's interest in ‘primitive’ culture. In this period Hofmann's painting was essentially organised along conventional lines of landscape, still life and figure but his style and interests fluctuated.

In his paintings of the late 1940s Hofmann began to favour a surface of thick impasto, often of bright and virulent colour. By the mid-1950s he was beginning to show signs of using the rectangle as the basic organising principle of his work in such paintings as ‘Scintillating Space’, 1954 (University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley, repr. Cynthia Goodman, Hans Hofmann, New York 1986, p.66, no.51 in col.), where rectangular slabs of colour are articulated and enlivened by smaller dabs in a manner associated with the art of his European contemporary, Nicolas de Stael. It was the development of the use of the rectangle which was to form the signature style of Hofmann in later years, especially after 1958 when Hofmann closed his school at the age of seventy-eight to concentrate on painting.

Hofmann's later paintings can be divided into two types: one where the rectangle was paramount (see, for example, ‘Pompei’, 1959, T03256), and the other where vigorous brushwork and a variety of marks and gestures describing disintegrating or less material forms obscure the underlying rectangular structure, such as in ‘Nulli Secundus’.

In his paintings from the late 1950s onwards Hofmann manifested his theories relating to the interaction of colour, known as ‘push and pull’. In 1954 he published an essay in the catalogue to his exhibition at the Kootz Gallery, New York in which he denounced the practice of perspectival projection as having ‘concealed [the] plastic secrets’ of the picture surface (‘The Resurrection of the Plastic Arts’, reprinted in Sam Hunter, Hans Hofmann, New York [c.C1963], p.44). He defined plasticity as follows:

Plasticity means to bring the picture surface to automatic plastic response. The picture surface answers every plastic animation ‘automatically’ with an aesthetic equivalent in the opposite direction of the received impulse. Push answers with the corresponding equivalent of pull, and pull correspondingly with push. A plastic animation ‘into the depth’ is answered with a radar-like ‘echo’ out of the depth, and vice versa.

‘Push and pull’ was Hofmann's method of creating space in a painting without subverting the integrity of the surface. By juxtaposing blocks of colour he aimed to establish opposing forces and counterforces in his painting. In the same essay he argued that ‘Renaissance perspective’ was concerned with creating only depth. ‘Depth does not answer back pictorially. This produces a sterile space which is the exact opposite of “pictorial” space...pictorial space is an aesthetically created space and is as such as real as nature. Its reality is based on the reality of the hidden inherent laws of the picture surface’ (ibid., p.44). In rejecting tonal gradation and linear methods of creating depth and space Hofmann developed the practices of Constructivist artists and, in particular, Mondrian. Elsewhere he asserted that ‘depth as a plastic reality must be two dimensional in a formal sense as well as in a sense of color. “Depth” is not created on a flat surface as an illusion, but as a plastic reality’ (‘The Search for the Real in the Visual Arts’ in Hans Hofmann, Search for the Real and Other Essays, Andover, Massachusetts 1948, p.49). ‘Push and pull’ implied expansion and contraction and these contrasting forces, he stated, ‘are activated by carriers in visual motion. Planes are the most important carriers, lines and points less so’ (ibid.). Hofmann also observed that even the most minor adjustment to one colour called for further changes to other colours, so as to achieve an equilibrium and maintain an all-over intensity.

Although the seeds of his art were sown in an earlier phase, it was not until the late 1950s that Hofmann fully realised images which demonstrated the plausibility of his theories. The space-creating effects of colours in juxtaposition are perhaps less evident in T04847 than in other paintings by Hofmann but, although there is no regulatory or dominant rectangle, the formula of ‘push and pull’ underpins the work.

Hofmann's practice of counterbalancing colour forces was a metaphor for his understanding of the workings of the inner forces of nature. As he wrote in ‘The Colour Problem in Pure Painting-Its Creative Origin’: ‘In Nature, light creates colour; in the picture, color creates light’ (reprinted in Hunter [c.1963], p.46). Hofmann stated that, whatever the final appearance of a painting, it was always derived from the observation of nature. Among the ‘Excerpts from the Teaching of Hans Hofmann’ published in Search for the Real and Other Essays, Hofmann stated: ‘Whether the artist works directly from nature, from memory, or from fantasy, nature is always the source of his creative impulses’. Thus, it may be assumed that ‘Nulli Secundus’, with its contrast of intense heat with aquatic coolness, was based on the observation and appreciation of nature. Seascapes and aquatic themes always fascinated him, perhaps as a result of the periods he spent every summer on the Atlantic Coast at Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he ran a summer school.

In addition to its space-creating properties, Hofmann believed that colour possessed musical characteristics. He wrote in ‘The Search for the Real in the Visual Arts’ that, ‘Color is a plastic means of creating intervals. Intervals are color harmonics produced by special relationships, or tensions. We differentiate now between formal tensions and color tensions, just as we differentiate in music between counterpoint and harmony’ (p.50). His ideal, he claimed, was ‘to form and paint as Schubert sings, and as Beethoven creates a world in sound’ (quoted in ‘Hans Hofmann 1880–1966’, Tate Gallery exh. cat., 1988, p.12).

In spite of their underlying structure, Hofmann's paintings were created in an improvisatory way. In an interview given towards the end of his life Hofmann stated: ‘I let things develop according to my sensing and my feeling, to my moods, especially those in which I find myself when I get up in the morning’ (Irma Jaffe, ‘A Conversation with Hans Hofmann’, Artforum, vol. 9, Jan. 1971, p.37).

The smudged and scumbled handling of paint in T04847 is similar to that in paintings such as ‘Golden Autumn’, 1963 (repr. Hans Hofmann: Late Paintings, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1988, no.18 in col.), ‘Flaming Lava’ (repr. ibid., no.32 in col., as ‘Hazy Sun’) and ‘Evening Red’ (repr. ibid., no.29 in col.).

The title of T04847 when translated from the Latin means ‘second to none’. The significance of the title is not known. However, in the last years of his life, beginning in 1961, Hofmann often titled his paintings in Latin and used a Latin dictionary to do so. Generally speaking, Hofmann determined his titles after making the work. He executed ‘Nulli Secundus’ in his studio in New York at 52 West Eighth Street which, until 1958, had been occupied by his school.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996