Hans Hokanson, Source

Hans Hokanson, Source, 2015. Cherry wood, 98 × 20 × 25 inches. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Friends of the Artist Gifts, 1978 (1978.87). Photo by Ben Aqua.

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Valerie Fletcher: Hans Hokanson was born in Sweden and came to the United States in 1951. In New York, he studied drawing and painting, but unable to support himself through his art, he became a master cabinetmaker and furniture designer. In the 1960s, he turned to carving directly in wood, continuing a tradition of direct carving that had originated early in the century, partly as a reaction to the increasing industrialization of modern life.


Hokanson’s approach to abstract forms in his carvings was influenced to some degree by the fact that he worked as an assistant in the Museum of Primitive Art in New York in the late 1950s. There he saw first hand how native carvers from Africa to Oceania created forms usually for ritual and symbolic purposes, but visually fascinating as abstract constructions, at least in the eyes of the modern sculptor that Hokanson was. He moved to the Hamptons area of Long Island and spent the rest of his life there living in rustic simplicity. He was a practitioner of Zen Buddhism and his sculptures reflect that direct connection with the natural materials he used and focusing on bringing out their intrinsic qualities.


Source, this sculpture from 1977 was carved from cherry wood. It, like the sculptures of Raoul Hague, was predicated on using a single massive segment from a tree trunk; and this was from an exceptionally large cherry tree. What Hokanson did, unlike Raoul Hague, was he liked to articulate the wood into swerving, rising forms that suggest the movement of perhaps water and the idea of a very active growth in the wood or in life in general. He also articulated the surface creating a kind of rippling effect. This indeed he got from the direct carvings of certain West African sculptors. But his effect here in this wood is to suggest perhaps the rippling of the surface of water or the rippling of small leaves in a light breeze; the idea that even though that this is a massive piece of wood, it has a lightness and a delicacy and a variability that we would associate with living itself and not simply with the remnant of life.

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Hans Hokanson, Source, 1977.

American, born in Sweden 1925-1997


A native of Malmö, Sweden, Hans Hokanson came to the United States in 1951. While aspiring to be a painter, he supported himself with carpentry work and became a master cabinetmaker and furniture designer. His first wood sculptures were assemblages of abstract components, and by the 1960s, he was carving directly in solid wood.


Profoundly inspired by the philosophy and aesthetics of Zen Buddhism, Hokanson’s carvings engaged his entire body and mind. However, he did not practice the spontaneity that is often associated with Zen mastery. Instead, he preferred to make detailed preliminary drawings before starting a new sculpture—the antithesis of Anthony Caro (1924–2013), who improvised directly with heavy steel.


Hokanson’s interest in abstract forms was largely inspired by his work as an assistant in the Museum of Primitive Art in New York. There he studied the well-known wood artifacts from Africa and lesser-known carvings from Indonesia, especially Papua New Guinea. These complex curving forms reverberate through some of Hokanson’s formalist abstractions.


During the 1970s, Hokanson began making sculptures from massive tree trunks. Source was carved from the trunk of an exceptionally large cherry tree. “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 of his remarkable compositions consist of enormous freestanding spirals that took considerable skill and many months to hew from the solid wood.


The silhouette, surface, and title of Source allude to organic movement and growth. Its 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 chiseled textures of the surface echoes 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. 

Hans Hokanson, Source, 1977. Photo by Ben Aqua.
Hans Hokanson, Source, 1977. Photo by Ben Aqua.

Location: FNT Rotunda

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