Essay by Valerie Fletcher
A native of Malmö, Sweden, Hans Hokanson came to the United States in 1951 and lived briefly in Los Angeles. He studied drawing and painting at the Art Students League in New York from 1961 to 1963. While aspiring to be a painter, Hokanson supported himself by carpentry; he became a master cabinetmaker and furniture designer. His first wood sculptures were constructions of abstract components. Then in the 1960s, he focused on carving directly in solid wood, continuing the tradition descended from Constantin Brancusi and others.
Hokanson’s approach to abstract forms was influenced initially by his work from 1956 to 1961 as an assistant in the private Museum of Primitive Art in New York (which later became the Department of Primitive Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art). There he was exposed not only to the well-known wood artifacts from Africa but also to the lesser- known carvings from Indonesia, especially Papua New Guinea. Those complex curving forms reverberate through some of Hokanson’s formalist abstractions.
Hokanson lived most of his adult life in rustic simplicity in the Hamptons area of Long Island; his work is little known beyond New York. He was profoundly inspired by the philosophy and aesthetics of Zen Buddhism. The act of creating (carving) for Hokanson involved the entire mind and body; it was not merely an exercise of manual skill (although his technical mastery was virtuosic). Hokanson did not espouse the spontaneity that is often associated with Zen mastery. He preferred to make detailed preliminary drawings before starting a new sculpture—the antithesis of Anthony Caro, who never made studies prior to improvising directly with heavy steel.
During the 1970s, Hokanson liked to use massive tree trunks for his carvings. Source was carved from an exceptionally large cherry tree trunk. “I am influenced by the volume…of the wood.…The wood itself…encourages me, speaks back to me. I am in direct confrontation with the surface,” he said. Some remarkable compositions consist of enormous freestanding spirals that took great skill and many months to hew out of solid wood.
The forms, surface, and title of Source allude to organic movement and growth. The undulating upper forms seem to reach for the sky, while the surface patterns may also suggest a waterfall or brook; the term “source” in French means a natural spring. The sculpture merges representation of flowing water with organic abstraction to such a degree that there is no distinction between them. The chiseled textures of the wood’s surfaces echo sources in nature: the flicker of sunlight on water, the patterns of sand at low tide, leaves fluttering or water rippling on a breezy day.
Valerie Fletcher is Senior Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Her research on groundbreaking aspects of international, globalized, and transnational art have resulted in numerous exhibitions and publications.