Figuration Forever, A Review of Kay Hoffman at Patron Gallery

Mar 6, 2019 / by Chris Miller / Newcity

There’s a thirty-year hiatus in this sixty-year retrospective of Chicago sculptor Kay Hofmann. Four of the pieces were made in the year or two following her graduation from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1955. Thanks to a fellowship, she spent most of that time in Paris, where she was apparently under the spell of that city’s great cubist sculptors: Ossip Zadkine (1888-1967), Jacques Lipschitz (1891-1973), and Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964)—all three of whom, by the way, also spent many years living in the United States

As with all of the subsequent sculpture in this show, these four early pieces are carvings that represent the female body. “Resting” and “Waiting”, both carved from hardened clay, appear to be observational. One seems studied from a professional model while the other appears worked up from a quick sketch made at a train station. “Moving” and “Figure”, both carved in wood, appear more inspired by contemporary sculpture. The dynamics of “Moving” seem inspired by a cubist sculptor like Lipchitz, while the pattern of solids and voids in “Figure” are closer to the liminally figurative work of Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth. Apparently, she had not yet discovered a direction uniquely her own.

Then, three decades later, comes a more voluptuous, forty-inch standing female nude titled “Pride / With My Tools.” Carved in black walnut, the emphasis has now moved to a smooth, highly polished surface and the natural wood grain patterns flowing above full, ripe forms. It’s almost Venus-like, but seems more about being a healthy, sensual woman rather than one for ogling. There is no face. There are no eyes. It’s the expression of a body, not a personality. It radiates self-content and solitude. It’s so much more about asserting the power, confidence, and breezy elegance of femininity than any formal, historic, or academic discipline.

Switching to alabaster in 1989, a soft stone that offers a translucent surface and a greater variety of coloration and texture, the artist has been exploring similar themes ever since. My favorites are “Fond Memories” (1990s) and “Coral Fantasy” (2006). Both pieces feature a tangle of interwoven body parts that feels like an erotic, free-floating water ballet.

The gallery has chosen to display most of these skillful carvings on platforms about sixteen inches off the floor. This makes the gallery feel much more spacious than if it were cluttered with a forest of shoulder-high plinths. It allows the installation to feel more decorative as it creates a quiet and peaceful mood. But it also makes each piece less confrontational, and unless you crawl around on your knees, you will miss how thoroughly each lateral view has been composed.

This work does not really belong in the mordant world of contemporary art. It is an irony-free, virtuosic celebration rather than a critique of American life. The compositional discipline comes from the early twentieth century and the buoyant self-gratification comes from post-war suburban America. Yet still, Kay Hofmann is showing us the kind of life you might like to have today. (Chris Miller)

Kay Hoffman’s “pour toujours” shows through March 9 at Patron, 673 North Milwaukee.