Hofmann was born in Weissenberg, Germany. He first began to study art in 1898 in Munich where he was introduced to Impressionism. In 1904, he moved to Paris to further his artistic studies, and there he met Matisse, Picasso, Braque and the Delaunays. Hofmann immersed himself in this avant-garde art world and drew inspiration from the Fauvist, Cubist, and Surrealist movements. With the outbreak of World War I, Hoffman returned to Germany, and in 1915, he opened the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts in Munich. Hofmann focused primarily on teaching for the next several decades, and he developed a unique and powerful teaching philosophy, which he ultimately compiled into a book titled Search for the Real. In 1930, he was invited by a former pupil to teach at the University of California, Berkeley; he returned to the U.S. to teach once again in 1931, and finally in 1932, he emigrated there permanently because of growing political unrest back home in Germany. In 1933, he re-established his school in New York where he inspired and influenced generations of artists, many of whom went on to have prestigious careers including Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Wolf Kahn, Joan Mitchell and Allan Kaprow.
In the 1940s, Hofmann began to devote himself increasingly to painting and the next two decades were a crucially important period for his artistic growth. Hofmann was steeped in the traditions of European Modernism, however, he also maintained a lifelong commitment to experimentation, always aiming to approach each canvas as if it were his first. Hofmann absorbed the lessons of such masters as Cezanne and the Cubists, adopting their method of interpreting the world through fragmented interlocking planes. However, for Hofmann, Cubism opened up the possibility of color as volume, a structural element in its own right. Furthermore, Hoffman continually sought to explore certain binary relationships in his work, the most famous of which is his principle of push and pull, a concept that he crystallized around 1948. For Hofmann, “a work of art must translate the three-dimensional experience of life onto the two-dimensional surface of painting.” He believed that this task was to be achieved through certain counterbalancing forces that animated the picture plane and created depth, known simply as “push and pull.”