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On October 9, 1944, the Swedish occultist and pioneering abstract artist, Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) wrote her last journal entry: “You have mystery service ahead, and will soon enough realize what is expected of you.”
In what has become one of her most famous poems, Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), who was writing some of her greatest poems around the time af Klint entered this world, envisioned the beginning of that service:
Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
Between 1906 and 1915, af Klint created nearly 200 abstract and semi-abstract paintings, along with complementary works on paper and meticulously kept notebooks documenting her plans, thoughts, and research for the creation of these occult works.
In her will, af Klint, who was trained as an artist and known in Sweden for her portraits and landscapes, all of which fit comfortably into conventional traditions, stipulated that these works were not to be revealed to humankind until 20 years after her death. It took 40 years before her work was revealed to an unsuspecting world.
Having already withdrawn from the history of abstract art, which she witnessed, even if from a distance, af Klint pulled even further back by effectively setting an entry point well after her death. A small selection of her paintings were first seen in New York in the mind-blowing exhibition, Secret Pictures by Hilma af Klint, at PS1 (January 15–March 12, 1989), curated by R. H. Quaytman under the direction of Alanna Heiss and Chris Dercon, more than 50 years after she left this dimension.
Dickinson, who lived much of her life as a recluse, wrote more than 1800 poems, with her most productive period lasting less than a decade, from the late-1850s to the mid-1860s. Fewer than a dozen of her poems were published during her lifetime, all significantly altered by editors. Her sister Lavinia discovered the poems, tied up in bundles, after Emily’s death. It was not until 1955 that a complete, largely unaltered edition of her untitled poems was published, overseen by the scholar Thomas H. Johnson.
I don’t think we can point with certainty to any one reason why af Klint and Dickinson withdrew from the material world. The fact is that they did, and the belated entry of their work into history, which to different degrees they engineered, changes how we look at both the past and the present.
What we now know is that af Klint’s long, secret body of work, starting in 1907, preceded the first known works of abstract art by Robert Delaunay, Wassily Kandinsky, František Kupka, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, Francis Picabia and others, which appeared around 1912.
What we also now know is that this secret body of work is not connected to any of the avant-garde movements considered central to the birth of abstraction, Cubism and Surrealism. More importantly, af Klint never made what we have come to call pure abstractions, the term we apply to the works of Kasimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian.
Af Klint’s works — which shift and change throughout the time she was making them — contain symbols, signs, language, diagrams, biomorphic forms, color charts, and geometric shapes. She herself did not always understand what they were about, which is a welcome measure in an age of explanation, justification, and institutionally approved content. Rather, her paintings are models meant to help guide the viewer towards a higher state of consciousness — deeply imaginative, syncretic amalgamations of af Klint’s beliefs and research into esoterica and science. The universe she constructed had little to do with the physical one she inhabited.
At the very least, af Klint’s belated entry into the canon calls into question the various narratives of the birth, life, and death of abstract art, from its origins in early part of the 20th century until its so-called termination in the 1970s — coinciding with the death of painting and originality, and the concurrent rise of appropriation and uncreative acts. That neat narrative — and all the edifices that have been built upon it — is an exclusionary fiction, at best.
By writing herself out of art history, af Klint reminds us that institutionally approved narratives generally function as touchstones for conformists and the weak-kneed. And she has shown that it is possible to elect other measures and possibilities by which to conduct one’s actions.
The exhibition Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (October 12, 2018–April 23, 2019), organized by Tracey Bashkoff, Director of Collections and Senior Curator, with the assistance David Horowitz, Curatorial Assistant, challenges any fixed view of art that you might still cling to. I say this, despite the museum’s blatant attempt to normalize af Klint, which I shall address later in this review.
Hilma af Klint was born in Stockholm in 1862. By the time she was 17, she was involved in séances, trying to commune with the dead, but soon decided that it was a better course of action to attempt contact with higher spirits. After studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, she attended the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, graduating with honors in 1887. During her studies, she met another student, Anna Cassel, who was also interested in spiritism and the esoteric religion Theosophy, as it was expounded by philosopher and occultist Madame Blavatsky, among others.
Together, af Klint and Cassel formed a like-minded group known as “The Five” (“de fem”) with three other women. They met regularly for séances and kept a book in which they recorded the messages they received from The High Masters (“Höga Mästare“). By 1896, if not earlier, the group began to make automatic drawings. This was 25 years after Georgiana Houghton exhibited more than 150 of her spirit drawings in central London in 1871, to an incredulous public.
As af Klint became more adept at automatic drawings — which can be seen as a complete break with resemblance and representation — she was given a task that the other members in the group had been offered but turned down: allowing her hands, like Houghton’s, to be guided by these higher forces.
One of these spirits, named Amaliel, asked af Klint to undertake works of art to be installed in the Theosophy temple. Consequently, in 1906, after two decades of being a landscape artist, portraitist, and illustrator for science journals, af Klint began working on what we commonly call abstract paintings. This is what she wrote in her notebook:
The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.
Af Klint’s entry bears comparison to Forrest Bess’s take on painting. In a letter to Meter Schapiro, he wrote that he was loath to lift “vision up to aesthetics.”
In 1907, af Klint completed the series The Ten Largest, a group of monumental works in tempera on sheets paper later affixed to a large, stretched canvases. These paintings measure more than 10 feet high by nearly 9 feet wide, a scale that fits in with many paintings done by the Abstract Expressionists. The paintings from this series are presented nearly side by side in the museum’s first viewing gallery, just before we begin our circular climb up the interior vault of the Guggenheim Museum.
In these works, af Klint painted her plethora of symbols, signs, and texts in a palette of pink, yellow, blue, red, and green, colors that almost no one at that time would use. They challenge us to see something that we are not used to seeing, much less taking seriously: paintings full of arcane symbols and esoteric signs. This is not new age art; this is art for a new age that, despite what we might wish, still has not arrived.
You can’t start the history of abstract painting over, but you can start it elsewhere. This could mean (one can only hope) that those who did start elsewhere and followed their own trajectory might get another, longer look. The same could be said of those who started painting in the 1970s without nodding, however slyly, to the then-dominant narrative confirming painting’s untimely death.
The family of af Klint has stated that none of these works will ever enter the marketplace, thereby preventing auctions and other false measures to set their value.
Each of af Klint’s series is a highly focused inquiry, augmented by notebook pages and works on paper, that required her to find and incorporate the appropriate visual languages, often in a fresh configuration, to complete the spiritual task at hand. When she felt it was necessary, she would incorporate the ouroboros and two human figures, as in the painting “Group VI, Evolution, No. 13” (1908), or a spectrally sectioned pyramid leading to a multi-pointed orb, as in “Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece” (1915), or different squares of color, each paired with a word or containing a symbolic image, as in the watercolors that constitute two of the groups from The Parsifal Series (1916). She did the series The Atom based on her study of atoms, alchemy, and other scientific and esoteric branches of investigation.
The question whether these are art or not is beside the point; the deeper question is whether we can respond to them without trying to normalize them. Af Klint believed the 193 works that she defined as The Paintings for the Temple (1906 – 1915) belonged in a temple, which she imagined as a circular structure. While the temple was ultimately never built, she made drawings of the structure and left behind clear notes on the order in which the paintings were to be displayed.
This means that no matter where or how many times we show her work — even in a circular structure such as the Guggenheim Museum, as curator Bashkoff happily points out — af Klint cannot be assimilated. She will always be an outsider, whose works cannot be integrated into the mainstream art world, which is also true of Antonin Artaud.
This is why I was disappointed that af Klint’s works were arranged by the museum so that they culminated in the exhibition, + x. Chapter 34 (2018) by R. H. Quaytman, which occupies the top ramp of the Guggenheim’s rotunda. In this exhibition, as explained on the museum’s website:
Quaytman has distilled af Klint’s groundbreaking formal strategies and reconfigured her systematized imagery, thereby illuminating the ties between af Klint’s radical divergence from artistic conventions and her incorporation of scientific discoveries and visual styles, most notably the diagram.
Is that all af Klint’s indescribable work amounts to, the pretext for a show by Quaytman? Is she just the latest apotheosis in the ongoing wheel of the museum’s version of art history, which, in this case, is inseparable from marketplace?
I have one final caveat about this important exhibition. In the catalog, Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future (Guggenheim, 2018), by Tracey Bashkoff, the curator Helen Molesworth moderates a roundtable of invited artists, curators, and art historians. The six participants are all white. Is this the future that af Klint imagined? I don’t think so.
Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future continues at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through April 23.