Eye on Art – 2019

My “Eye On Art” column appears monthly in the Sag Harbor Express

For Hilma af Klint, the Future is Now

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Until very recently, if you were to ask an American to name a famous Swedish artist, the likely answer would have been August Strindberg or maybe Claes Oldenburg. The name Hilma af Klint would not have been on the tip of anyone’s tongue. That changed last fall with the opening of the Guggenheim Museum’s exhibition, “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future,” on view through April 23. The show brings out of obscurity one of the most innovative artists of the twentieth century, but one who deliberately sequestered her work, believing that the world was not ready to appreciate it.

Hilma af Klint, Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece, 1915. Oil and metal leaf on canvas?, 93 ½ x 70 ¼ in. The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm.
© Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk

The Guggenheim is the ideal venue for this, the first af Klint retrospective in the United States, since its founding collection celebrated painters such as Mondrian, Léger, Moholy-Nagy and especially Kandinsky, considered the pioneers of non-objectivity. In fact af Klint, who shared Kandinsky’s interest in Theosophy, was creating spiritually inspired non-objective paintings as early as 1906, five years before Kandinsky’s book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, spread the gospel of abstraction devoid of representational content. Unfortunately for posterity, she rarely exhibited anything from that body of work during her lifetime, and stipulated that it was not to be shown publicly until twenty years after her death, which occurred in 1944, the same year as Kandinsky’s.

It was not, however, until 1986 that af Klint made her international début in the exhibition, “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Paintings 1890 – 1985,” held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Three years later, a solo show was organized at P.S. 1 by the artist R.H. Quaytman, whose new series, + ×, Chapter 34, inspired by af Klint’s notebooks, is on display at the Guggenheim concurrently with “Paintings for the Future.”

Born in 1862 in Stockholm, af Klint began her career as a traditional painter and illustrator. In 1904, she joined four other female artists to hold séances in the hope of channeling guides to lead them toward art that expressed a reality beyond the observable world. Known as De Fem (The Five), the group created automatic drawings, a common practice among spiritualists at the time. But in af Klint’s case, they became her primary artistic inspiration. As she later explained, one of the guides commissioned her to undertake a monumental nine-year project she called “The Paintings for the Temple.” When it was completed in 1915, the series comprised nearly two hundred paintings and works on paper.

Installation view of seven paintings from The Ten Largest series, 1907. Tempera on paper mounted on canvas, each approx. 124 x 92 in. The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm.

The show opens with “Group IV,” a suite of ten mural-size paintings from that series, completed in 1907. The imagery, derived from folk art and her own visionary introspection, symbolically depicts the human life cycle. She intended them to be wall decorations for the temple, which she imagined as a structure with multiple levels connected by a spiraling path. By coincidence, that could describe the museum itself, conceived by Frank Lloyd Wright as “a temple of spirit.” Given af Klint’s focus on transcendent imagery, it’s not inconceivable that if Solomon R. Guggenheim and his curator, Hilla von Rebay, had known of her work, they would have snapped it up for the collection when it started in the 1930s.

Filled with arcane shapes, annotated charts and references to primordial life, af Klint’s oils and watercolors illustrate a rich interior life of formal invention, an effort to picture unseen forces that are no less real for being invisible. The search for wisdom and meaning in a rapidly changing world, at a time when science and technology were challenging old norms and beliefs, led af Klint to explore concepts beyond conscious perception. Considered alongside the introduction of electric lighting, the telephone, X-rays and other innovations, her art is an attempt on her part to make sense of a universe in which such inexplicable phenomena occur.

At times her imagery lapses into mysticism bordering on superstition, but frankly it isn’t necessary to decode all the occult philosophizing. Even skeptics and materialists can enjoy the sensuousness of her colorful Eros series, and the complex symmetrical variations in the Evolution and Tree of Knowledge groups and Altarpieces. Her explorations of formal and chromatic relationships prefigure Albers and Klee. However, the fact that af Klint refused to share her work with the wider world meant that no one outside her small circle was aware of her accomplishments. Her belief that a future audience would be receptive to her vision prevented her from receiving timely recognition. Finally, 75 years after her death, the Guggenheim has become, at least temporarily, the spiritual temple she envisioned.