The smooth blocks of vivid colour that appear in Pre-dawn are a characteristic feature of Hofmann's paintings after 1958, the year he closed his art school in New York. Irving Sandier has suggested that 'Hofmann may have derived the idea of using rectangles in his painting from one of his teaching techniques: attaching pieces of construction paper to the canvases of his students'.1 André Emmerich has confirmed that 'Hofmann used sheets of commercial Color-Aid paper to plot out the "slabs" in his paintings and we have in fact examples of used Color-Aid in the files and portfolios left by the artist'.2 A circular form cut-out of Color-Aid paper, of the same diameter as the orb which appears in Pre-dawn and in related paintings such as Nirvana 1963 (private collection) and Rising moon 1965 (private collection), was also found among Hofmann's papers.3
In Pre-dawn the contrast between the smooth, brightly coloured rectangles and the surrounding darker relief-like congestion of paint sets up the sort of spatial tension or 'push-and-pull' effect by which Hofmann urged his students to synchronise their development of form and colour. This pictorial grammar, with its idea of the picture plane as something inviolable, was especially appealing to critics wishing to defend abstract painting. For Hofmann himself, however, the push-and-pull tension of his paintings was a way of translating into specifically pictorial terms the underlying force-counterforce dynamic which he perceived in nature, and this is clearly reflected in Pre-dawn, not only in its lyrical title, but in the way it is composed. Like a conventional landscape, the weight of the painting remains at the bottom, while the red disk, a specific reference to sun or moon, floats above.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.306.
- Irving Sandier, The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism, New York: Harper and Row, 1970, p.147, n 5.
- André Emmerich, correspondence with the Gallery, 19 February 1985.
- Cynthia Goodman, Hans Hofmann, New York: Abbeville Press, 1986, p.103.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010