The woman who pioneered abstract painting
Hilma af Klint was ahead of her time, and of all the men who followed in her footsteps
if you go
What: Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future
Where: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue, New York
When: Through April 23.
Until the last half of the last century, Swedish painter Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) was pretty much on no one’s radar. And that’s the way she wanted it. After she veered into abstraction in the early 1900s, she insisted that her works be kept under wraps — seen by very few, virtually hidden — until 20 years after her death. She was convinced they would not be understood.
Even more oddly, she directed that two mathematical characters, + x, accompany her written legacy. Nearly all her notebooks display the symbols on the first page. “All works,” she wrote in a 1932 notebook, “should carry the sign shown above.”
Af Klint is internationally celebrated today, but her oeuvre did not emerge from the shadows until 1986, when it was included in a groundbreaking show, “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
It turns out af Klint, a woman, pioneered abstract painting. She took it up years before Vasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich. But she did it on her own terms, in her own way.
She produced more than 1,200 artworks during her career, including conventional landscapes, portraits and scientific illustrations that she sold to support herself. The retrospective here is exhaustive, with more than 170 drawings, paintings and notebooks, the bulk from 1906-20, lining the ramps. Prepare for a workout.
A spiritualist, with an appetite for the occult and things that go bump in the night, af Klint was part of a group of women who styled themselves The Five. They held séances and communicated with spirits. Hilma became a medium, falling into trances and channeling invisible powers, known as “High Masters.” The spirits had names: Amaliel, Ananda, Clemens, Esther, Georg, and Gregor. A 1933 notebook includes a sketch by the artist of several sprites. They look like shooting stars.
Think of af Klint and her cohorts as translators. They met regularly, kneeling around an altar and looking for the spirits to move them, to guide them. Automatic drawings — recordings of their contacts — that the women made during these sessions are on display.
In 1906, af Klint agreed to accept a “great commission” from the Masters to create a vast cycle, “The Paintings for the Temple” (1906-15). She produced 193 works for the sanctuary, though the holy place was never built.
Her pivot to abstraction stemmed from a desire to understand the universe and how things work, cosmically speaking. She was a truth-seeker, in search of higher knowledge. The art was informed by occult philosophies like theosophy and the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, as well as scientific breakthroughs like Darwin’s theory of evolution and the discovery of subatomic particles — things that cannot be seen.
Visitors to the show can tap into that spirit, beginning in the High Gallery, where 10 monumental, ecstatic paintings known as “The Ten Largest” (1907) are presented. This series charts the stages of human life — Childhood, Youth, Adulthood, Old Age — and looks like it could have been made today, or in the 1960s era of trippin’ and flower power. The works, which were painted on the floor (think Jackson Pollock, decades later), appear quite decorative, but they convey mystical messages.
The Ten were created in an astonishingly short period of time, around 60 days. They are a blast of color and free-floating forms; some of the forms are familiar, some not at all. There are flowers, tendrils, pinwheels, snails — lots of snails — swirls, curlicues, circles, overlapping circles that look like Venn diagrams, circles that look like eyeballs, and two bulbous yellow shapes that are connected and look like an hourglass (a hot-air balloon? squash?).
And then there are the writings — individual letters and unrecognizable words sprinkled here and there, like code. These paintings are a wild spill, a window into altered states of consciousness.
Af Klint described the process of painting The Ten this way: “It was not the case that I was to blindly obey the High Lords of the Mysteries but to imagine that they were always standing by my side.” In 1916, she quit channeling and assumed full control of her art.
Near the top of the ramp, the exhibit achieves transcendence again with the showcasing of “Altarpieces” (1915), a trio of geometric works with triangles and gold orbs, the last leg of “The Paintings for the Temple.” Conceived to hang in the house of worship’s inner sanctum, they radiate splendor and otherworldliness.
Af Klint’s vision for the never-realized temple included a spiral staircase. The design was eerily similar to Guggenheim museum co-founder Hilla Rebay’s vision for the spiral monolith on Fifth Avenue, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. But the similarities were purely coincidental, curator Tracey Bashkoff writes in the catalog.
It is no coincidence, however, that the ever-graceful edifice, founded as a “temple of spirit” to house non-objective art, is now hosting an exhibit by a pioneer of non-objective art, one who was enamored of the spiral motif (remember the snails?). As Bashkoff writes, “The spiral, symbol of evolution, progress, and growth, and linked to forces of nature, embodies and houses af Klint’s visions.”
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