Not too long ago, my acupuncturist was heading to China where he would hear a lecture given by his “Grandmentor”. I had never heard that term before, and when I asked, the explanation was that in the Chinese culture, there is a direct connection between your teacher and those that taught him or her.
I thought about this mentoring connection recently when I went to see the Hans Hofmann show at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. The Bruce Museum is a lovely gem, set near the water in what was once a private estate. The museum exhibits an eclectic array of objects and artwork, ranging from animals and dinosaurs, to Indian artifacts, rocks and fine arts. The show I went to see was “Walls of Color: the Murals of Hans Hofmann”, at the museum through September 6th, 2015. Though the focus of this exhibit is the few tiled murals that Hofmann created, the show also includes some of his paintings and drawings.
Hofmann holds a unique position in the development of American abstract contemporary painting. A German artist born in 1880, Hofmann was painting in Europe at the time of the cubists, including Henri Matisse and Paul Cezanne. In 1930 Hofmann travelled to the United States to teach at the University of California at Berkeley; he ended up migrating to New York City within a few years and continued to reside permanently on the East Coast where he would teach and show his work.
Most important, Hofmann taught many of the artists who were to become part of the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940s and 1950s, including Willem DeKooning, Larry Rivers, Wolf Kahn and Peter Grippe. And Peter Grippe was my first art mentor.
Peter Grippe (1912 – 2002) is known for his abstract sculptures, but he also produced ink drawings, watercolor paintings and etchings. At Brandeis University in the 1970s, I took classes with him every year, studying basic and life drawing, etching and sculpture under his guidance. By my senior year I was one of the TAs (teaching assistants) in his studio. And though I consider myself to be a painter, I have to credit Peter Grippe as my first mentor with teaching me the foundations of the fine arts as well as a love of creativity.
During those years Grippe talked frequently about Hans Hofmann, and even kept a beat up book of Hofmann’s drawings and etchings in the studio. So, as I walked through the Hofmann show, I was very aware of the “Grandmentor” relationship. But what did that mean to me?
I looked for the threads that tied generations of artists together. Hofmann was noted for using geometric shapes, including squares and rectangles, in many of his abstract paintings. These same shapes became three-dimensional in Grippe’s works. Hofmann employed vibrant, deep colors in his artwork, not being timid about using a rich color palette. This trait, too, is clearly seen in many of Grippe’s paintings.
But did the thread continue to me? Grippe stressed the importance of using clean compositions, where shapes are pared down and frivolities are left off. He showed me about finding a focus (“Give me something to look at,” he would say) and enhancing that focus so that it can serve as a center of interest. Grippe always searched out the light in any piece, noting the cool shadows and glints of warmth. I look over my artwork and see that I have taken these lessons to heart. My compositions tend to be simple without extra fuss: moreover, I usually employ a focus and a visual pathway for my viewers to follow. I learned from Grippe to jump into my palette and not be afraid to use deep juicy colors, many of which I could almost trace with my finger right to Hofmann’s palette.
I never met Hans Hofmann; in fact, he died in 1966, years before I went to Brandeis as a fine arts major. Yet, Hofmann’s influence on Grippe and ultimately on me is clear. The thread has lengthened from Hofmann as the teacher of American Abstract Expressionists, now to me, and I am fortunate to have him as my “Grandmentor”.
'The Gate', 1959-1960, collection: Solomon R.
'Incan-Mayan' by Peter Grippe, 1944.
'Berkshires Audobon Property' by Margie Samuels, 2013.