People spend an unusual amount of time in front of Hilma af Klint’s works — longer, it seems, than they normally do with others. That was the case last Friday on the opening day of Tree of Knowledge, an intimate exhibition of eight eponymous watercolors by af Klint at David Zwirner in Manhattan. Visitors slipped quietly, almost reverentially, into a small room at the top of a winding spiral staircase on the second floor of the gallery’s uptown space. They stood still or sat on a sole wooden bench for long minutes on end, engrossed in the paintings as though under a spell.
Af Klint, whose idiosyncratic abstractions infused with spirituality and symbolism have seduced audiences the world over, died mostly unknown and unsung in 1944. The Swedish artist and her pioneering contributions to art history have been recognized only recently, largely thanks to a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2018. That blockbuster survey broke attendance and catalogue sale records for the institution, becoming the most visited exhibition in the Guggenheim’s 60-year history.
Af Klint typically melded iconography from established religions, including Christianity and Hinduism, with unique motifs culled from her personal inner life and experiences, such as the Spiritist séances she partook in as a teenager. Each intricate design in the Tree of Knowledge series, rendered in watercolor, gouache, graphite, and ink, is a variation on the same pictorial theme, a tree with a heart-shaped crown. Incorporating biblical allusions to Genesis as well as organic forms and ornate details, they imply a symbolic progression from innocence to the Fall from Grace, as Åke Fant, an early scholar of af Klint, notes in his 1989 account of her life and career. Created between 1913 and 1915, the suite of watercolors overlapped with af Klint’s Paintings for the Temple (1906-1915), a group of 193 works thought to be among the earliest abstract paintings in the Western canon whose imagery was conveyed to her through a medium.
“Tree of Knowledge depicts a development,” writes art historian Julia Voss in a newly-commissioned essay for the show. “Everything is in motion; everything is growing and pulsating. As is often the case in af Klint’s works, there are two overlapping levels, one biographical and one that relates to the history of humanity.”
Af Klint created two nearly identical sets of the watercolors; the second resides in the collection of the Hilma af Klint Foundation. In fact, the suite on view at David Zwirner is among the very few works by the artist still in private hands. In the early 1920s, she gifted the set to Rudolf Steiner, esotericist and founder of Anthroposophy — a philosophy and movement based on the connection between the human intellect and the spiritual world and one of her sources of inspiration. After Steiner’s death, the works came into the possession of Albert Steffen, president of the Anthroposophical Society, and were recently discovered in the Albert Steffen Stiftung in Dornach, Switzerland. A selection was shown at the Lightforms Art Center in New York’s Hudson Valley last March.
It is said that af Klint was protective of her art during her lifetime and shared it only selectively because she believed society was unprepared to understand it as future generations would. Her prediction turned out to be correct, if not a slight underestimation. The last few years have brought a wave of overdue presentations and publications that evince a seemingly universal fascination with Klint’s mystical abstractions, including the Lightforms exhibition, a feature documentary, a seven-volume catalogue raisonné, and a biography by Voss in German, to be published in English in 2022.
The Tree of Knowledge watercolors, on view at the gallery through December 18, are “the only work from the artist’s visionary Paintings for the Temple cycle to exist outside of the Hilma af Klint Foundation’s holdings,” David Zwirner told Hyperallergic.
“In her will af Klint stipulated that her works in her possession not be exhibited until twenty years after her death and that they are never offered for sale,” Zwirner continued. However, the gallery is offering the series with the caveat that it must end up in a major institution, he added, “where hopefully, a lot of people will have the pleasure of viewing it for years to come.”
The meditative mood in the softly-lit gallery, evocative of the otherworldly atmosphere at the Rothko Chapel, is an indication that af Klint’s allure is here to stay.