In a Galaxy of their Own Design: Line and Atmosphere in Hans Hartung
Hans Hartung at Nahmad Contemporary
January 12 to March 17, 2018
980 Madison Avenue, Third Floor, between 76th and 77th streets
New York City, nahmadcontemporary.com
Two major gallery presentations of the artist Hans Hartung (1904-1989) – the exhibition under review here and Hans Hartung: A Constant Storm, Works from 1922-1989 at Perrotin, 130 Orchard Street (through Feburary 18) – are currently resolving a curious paradox. Since the 1970s, the groundbreaking and highly inventive modernist has been cited as an understudied figure on this side of the Atlantic. This observed neglect, however, hasn’t been remedied by comprehensive considerations of his oeuvre in American exhibitions, nor, for that matter, in English. The tide is now changing, as the two New York shows and a concurrent display at Simon Lee Gallery in London portend the artist’s rediscovery. The exhibition at Nahmad Contemporary, in particular, affirms the exigency and rewards of reviving Hartung.
This tightly curated exhibition showcases the German-born, post-war French artist as a veritable master of medium: An almost mathematical sensibility for line and composition are shown to tame his highly inventive artistic processes and violent automatic gestures. A mythology of isolated periods of genius has emerged around Hartung’s work, as he is most widely regarded for either the “long grasses” of his early career or his reinvention by way of frenetic spray-gun paintings during his senescence. Covering four decades of prolific production in fourteen works, the exhibition establishes coherence between the early experiments in regulated line and the later, anarchic spray-gun renderings by revealing the artist’s guiding principles and theoretical preoccupations.
In particular, the exhibition divulges Hartung’s enduring exploration of line as a central compositional device. Tracing his manipulation of line from the earliest work in the show, the 1952 monochrome T-1952-3, to a pairing of ambient works from 1982, illuminates the artist’s use of line as both formal structure and emotional envoy. Where T-1952-3 records Hartung’s gestural slashing of the canvas, for which he has become classified as an “action painter,” his later works T1982-H29 and T1982-K29 transpose torrid scrawls of mental exertion amid atmospheric zones. Searing his signature linear scratches atop bands of placid gradations of color in the later works produces a complex tonal register that moves from unbridled action to staid retrospection within a single canvas.
Though the artist’s fascination with line remains a constant throughout his career, he continually innovated around the line, both in its conceptual ideation and in his technical execution. The examples from 1982 evidence Hartung’s response to the growing Parisian interrogation of calligraphy, calling to mind the Eastern influences of Hartung’s Art Informel confreres Zao Wou-Ki and Lee Ungno. Perhaps owing to his colleagues’ deconstruction of traditional Eastern ideograms into sites of abstraction, Hartung’s conceptualization of calligraphy allows line, in his handling, to multiply in signification—all at once line is a test of malleability, a marker of vital emotion, and a conduit for language. Through its explorations of line, the exhibition also studies the artist’s changing methods of applying paint on canvas. In T1982-H29 and T1982-K29, for example, Hartung achieved his network of dynamic lines by thrashing the canvas with a paint-covered tree branch.
While Hartung’s quasi-calligraphic lines communicate his participation in Parisian modernism, they also symbolize his American relevancies. His unique tree branch painterly process, for example, immediately recalls Pollock’s drip. Similarly, his atmospheric backgrounds signal Rothko. Importantly, Hartung and Rothko recognized their shared artistic sensibilities and maintained a convivial friendship. Following Rothko’s death in 1970, Hartung even suggested that Rothko’s iconic paintings were galvanized by a trip to Hartung’s studio in the late 1940s: “[He] saw a painting in progress, in which large horizontal monochrome strips crossed the canvas; the painting was at an intermediate stage and I had not yet added the graphic elements. Rothko was especially interested and moved.” Maybe Hartung’s reputation as a connoisseur of line has been responsible for the lack of take up in America. The Nahmad show reveals Hartung’s equal attention to ambient atmospheres—in works like T1966-H11, T1980-R36, and T1982-E8—in a way that should more securely locate his achievement within an American sensibility.
A hinge-point of this exhibition is the grouping of three captivating paintings from 1971 [see installation shot, above]. Taken individually, the works are as philosophically rigorous as they are spiritually evocative. Jewel-toned curvilinear masses orbit atop uniformly black backgrounds as rounded parallel black lines slice swaths of color with destabilizing precision. While some of these works touch upon a cosmological realm, Hartung also engages in what was a vibrant conversation at that time among contemporary painters about the modernist grid—the aesthetic ordering principle first promulgated by artists such as Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg. In this gesture, Hartung liberates the bound geometries of the grid, discards primary colors in favor of a daring palette, and casts them in a galaxy of their own design.
This highly meditative triad of works lends further insight into Hartung’s displacement of de Stijl’s rigid parameters. In T-1971-R19 and T-1971-R21, the artist brackets the vertical edge of the paintings with blocks of color, amplifying the assertion that these are paintings, rendered on canvas, contained by their own materiality. By defining the limits of the canvas, Hartung debunks the high modernist lore that grids radiate into infinity, extending beyond the work endlessly.
Hartung’s spray-gun paintings were a radical departure, instigated after a stroke limited the artist’s mobility in 1986. In the vein of Matisse’s cut-outs, Hartung’s adversity is often seen as the creative catalyst for his artistic reinvention in his last years. The robust presentation of his work at Nahmad Contemporary puts these seemingly divergent works back into conversation with his oeuvre as they have us seeing the frantically sprayed lines as continuations of his charged gestures with brush and branch. The selection of works in this show makes for a generously navigable understanding of the artist without limiting our sense of Hartung’s dynamic, indomitable explorations of concept and technique.