For painters the 1970s was a decade of unrest, but unrest in a different way from the turbulent 1960s. The 60s saw abstract painters coming up against limitations, reduction and disappearance. The 70s were about finding new pathways, new ideas and different existences in order to break out of the theoretical dead ends and find new possibilities for painting. Let’s say this moment was “après la révolution.” Many artists continued to approach painting from a theoretical angle trying to open up the endgame of reduction. While other painters began to look to a more classic kind of visual experimentation tied to the 19 Century fin de siècle. In either case there was a lot at stake for painters as older alliances and new ideas were jockeying for power in the art world.
For many of the Color Field painters and Lyrical Abstractionists continuity of space across the surface was the goal. George’s work from the late Sixties was economical and reductionist – line, open space and limited process all come to play. But In these drawings from the Seventies George is pushing against that smooth field and away from Impressionism. He’s is experimenting with Cezanne’s idea of Post-Impressionist broken space and strange continuity in order to contend with Greenberg’s crew of Impressionist influenced abstract painters. This connection to Post-Impressionism becomes very apparent when comparing George’s approach to composition and line with Cezanne’s work. And these drawings speak to George’s need to experiment and push his work in different directions – away from the more facile color field painters in fashion at the time. In fact all through George’s career you can see the outward push and then a return in his work – out to the edges where nothing is sure, and then back to familiar territories and familiar beauty. It feels like he was resting, thinking, trying to understand the implications of his visual experimentation. After a long and successful career in 2010 George made his most important break with Post-War American Abstraction, and if you look at these drawings you can see that the break began in the 1970s.
“In the shift to visual information in society, millions are looking – a lot – at constantly changing images on their TVs, computers and hand-held devices. The world is awash in visual information; unedited and torrential, pixellated, flickering, backlit, and instantaneous. This hasn’t necessarily resulted in greater pictorial literacy, but it probably has affected the way we look at art, and the making of art. In painting it probably accelerated what was already happening: more and more fractured, shifting, unexpected and surprising pictorial space.” [George Hofmann on Fractured Space ]
“Experimental painting was caught in a double bind. Often the people who supported painting had very conservative rules and criteria for what painting should be. Some of these rules and restrictions came from Greenbergian formalism, while others came out of Abstract Expressionism or geometric abstraction. And then, on the other hand, there were people who took the theoretical stance that nothing at all was possible in painting. As a result, the most innovative work was caught in the middle, attacked from both sides. Of course one of the big problems was that a lot of experimental painting was coming from unexpected sources: African Americans, women, lesbians, gays, and counterculture dropouts. This experimental painting came from people who didn’t fit the traditional profile of what a painter was supposed to be.” [David Reed and Katy Siegel in conversation with Phong Bui]
“There are two main camps, those who believe a painting can be made with a prescribed set of conditions and those for whom painting is the result of a series of emotional responses that evolve over the course of its creation. The former favor adherence to a more rigorous process and the latter tend toward more liberal, expressive use of material.” [Ben LaRocco on High Times Hard Times]
“In 1961, Andy Warhol made a thirty-two–panel painting, each panel meticulously reproducing a Campbell’s soup can with a different flavor of soup. The same year, Roy Lichtenstein startlingly turned his compositional skill to enlarged comic-book simulations. And Claes Oldenburg created The Store in a temporarily rented space he filled with slapdash and wonderfully slapstick plaster reliefs and replicas of supermarket products, splattering them with paint in a way that literally and figuratively “commodified” Abstract Expressionist gesture. The mass media and the arts began to mirror each other. The literal and impassive repetitiveness of Warhol’s work found parallels in the objectively systematized abstraction of Frank Stella, which would soon lead into a movement that became known as Minimalism. On almost all new art fronts, the hand was being withdrawn from action, and the subjective and unique were being imagined away. The influence of Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt replaced that of Pollock and de Kooning.” [Klaus Kertess on Joan Mitchell – Seen Written]
“The other point is a more elusive one: the prettiness that was a legacy of 19th century painting still echoes in painting today – the desire for harmony in composition (Renaissance) and even the appeal, through the everyday-ness of the subject in Impressionism, still hangs on as a guiding idea and an unspoken foundation of art. People still make paintings that appeal, that are composed to balance, to be attractive, etc. We all do!
But to shift the base of composition away from this is difficult, because it involves going against a long tide of what we believe to be right. I still find that wish resonating within me, and know that it is so ingrained as to be almost unerasable. I think the Cubists still had the old idea about Appeal (only the Expressionists and a few others didn’t quite) but, because this idea is so deeply ingrained, it is a very hard one to shake, and we only see it loosening, somewhat, in FS, in part because of the diffusion in images – and this is all to the good.” [George Hofmann Fractured Space Part II]
“Paul Cézanne was an experimental innovator. A month before his death in 1906, the 67-year-old Cézanne wrote to a friend:
“Now it seems to me that I see better and that I think more correctly about the direction of my studies. Will I ever attain the end for which I have striven so much and so long? I hope so, but as long as it is not attained a vague state of uneasiness persists which will not disappear until I have reached port, that is until I have realized something which develops better than in the past… So I continue to study… I am always studying after nature, and it seems to me that I make slow progress.”
This brief passage expresses nearly all the characteristics of the experimental artist — the visual criteria, the view of his enterprise as research, the incremental nature and slow pace of his progress, the absorption in the pursuit of a vague and elusive goal, and the frustration with his perceived lack of success in achieving that goal of “realization.” The critic Roger Fry explained that Cézanne’s frustration was a consequence of his uncertain attitude and incremental approach:
“For him as I understand his work, the ultimate synthesis of a design was never revealed in a flash; rather he approached it with infinite precautions … For him the synthesis was an asymptote toward which he was forever approaching without ever quite reaching it.”
Sometimes it takes a while for a painter to find the right technique – it can take decades. For artists that aren’t necessarily idea generators, but visual generators it’s a long road of experimentation – it doesn’t come all at once.” [David Galenson on the Two Lifecycles of Creativity]
I see George’s work just in this way and I believe artists should be looking at this experimentation as inspiration. Here in the 21st Century – particularly at this moment when everything is possible – George may well be the “father of us all.”