Modernist Architecture and Hans Hofmann: Some Added Context

This essay by JJ Bauer (Visual Resources Curator and Lecturer, Art Department, UNC-Chapel Hill) includes selected information and images from her February 24th Art For Lunch talk at the Ackland.

Modernist Architecture and Hans Hofmann: Some Added Context

24ANTIQUES2_SPAN-popupBefore they worked with Hans Hofmann on mosaic murals for building projects in New York, there is evidence that architects William Lescaze and Kelly and Gruzen were already incorporating modernist abstract mosaics into their designs and rethinking the place of other forms of art in modern architecture in the 1950s.

A Known Precedent

Noted International Style modernist architect William Lescaze incorporated a 60 foot wide mural by Max Spivak on the long interior wall of the two-story lobby of the Calderone Theatre in Hempstead (Long Island), New York in 1948-1949, in his own words, “to bring life and interest to a very large wall located in a strategic area.”[1] The mural was then reflected back at movie-goers from a mirror on the opposite wall as they arrived at the mezzanine level via escalator from the lobby. 711-Third-web  750_750_1_e52384b0-4c98-b5b4-f788-d425a17bc0feThe architect was not unique in thinking Spivak’s non-objective mosaics were appropriate artworks to be incorporated into modernist architecture that otherwise eschewed anything that could  be considered superficial or applied decoration. Writing about the nascent career of Spivak in the New York Times, critic Aline B. Louchheim states, “And it seems equally astonishing that modern architecture and mosaic decoration, deeply compatible by nature, should not by this time have had a long and prolific marriage. For modern architecture finds its beauty through expression of its structural design and through emphasis on the intrinsic handsomeness of its materials. And mosaics, becoming an integral part of the architectural elements, enhance them without obscuring their function.” She then goes on to speak about mosaics in terms comparable to those Clement Green
berg was also just beginning to apply to the New York School of painters that included Hans Hofmann, emphasizing mosaics’ use of color, variations in tone, irregular pieces, and, above all, flatness and formal patterning.[2]
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Meet the Staff: Nathan Marzen

NATHAN MARZEN is the Ackland’s Chief Preparator.

How long have you been at the Ackland?
I started in May 2013.
What brought you to the Ackland?
I like the environment of a university museum and the focus on using the collection and exhibitions for education. When I interviewed, I was particularly impressed with the Ackland’s use of the Study Gallery. It’s a small enough museum to give me a variety of experiences and there’s a staff here that is ambitious enough that we do a lot of big things. We’ve also got a diverse collection with a lot of interesting art to work with.
What do you do at the Ackland?
As Chief Preparator, I am involved in many different aspects of exhibitions and collections care. I lead exhibition design, preparation, and installation. I manage the art storage vaults, the movement of artwork, and special projects such as our recent addition of color (on the walls) and replacement of carpet in the galleries.

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The Ackland through Young Eyes

K-12 tours are a vital part of the Ackland Art Museum’s community outreach. Interactive in nature, they engage students in interdisciplinary activities outside of the classroom. Please visit to learn more or request a tour. 

Bill Cosby’s late ’90s television show “Kids Say the Darndest Things” may be off the air now, but I felt like an audience member when I observed a group of kindergartners taking a tour at the Ackland. They came to learn about different art forms—and definitely weren’t lacking in funny, yet intuitive, comments.

They all gathered on the floor, sitting “criss-cross applesauce” and wide eyed, admiring the art from the Ackland’s permanent collection. The girls donned bright patterns and bows in their hair, and the boys were sporting superhero shirts and tennis shoes.

It came as no surprise that the art work that garnered the most attention was a colorful, contemporary IMG_1318 (1)piece by Hans Hofmann. The Ackland docent leading the group asked the inquisitive kids what objects they saw in the picture. They all raised their hands, waiting to be called on. At first, they remarked on the bright colors and shapes that resembled animals and mountains, but their comments quickly took a different turn.

One boy enthusiastically raised his hand, bouncing up and down, until he was called on.

“Um… there’s a Hans in ‘Frozen’!”

And then came the squeals of excitement. Surprisingly, there is not a big difference between a group of 5-year-olds talking about “Frozen” and a group of 21-year-olds talking about “Frozen.” There will always be one trying to out-do Idina Menzel by belting “Let it Go” at the top of their lungs, and one repeatedly asking if anyone wants to build a snowman. Needless to say, I’ve never felt more connected to a kindergartner.

DSC00317On their tour, the group also went back in time and learned about Hercules, another one of my all-time favorite Disney movies. They sat quietly as they listened to tales of Hercules’ battles and admired an ancient Greek pot he was depicted on. The kindergartners even decorated their own pots on paper. The kids put a modern twist on themes in ancient pottery and drew modern day superheroes.

Watching their eyes light up as they explored each gallery made me smile and think back to when I was their age. Visiting the Ackland is a great opportunity for young minds to explore and engage in hands-on activities, all while having fun.