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9 Women Artists Celebrating the Spirituality and Legacy of Hilma af Klint

Claudia Cheng
Feb 24, 2022 2:00PM

As the rise of abstraction swept through the Western art world in the early 20th century, so, too, did a turn towards spirituality. Within the context of prevailing art movements, such as Realism and Impressionism, as well as materialistic philosophies and values, artists like Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevich, and František Kupka yearned for meaning beyond reality, and ushered in the rise of abstraction. These pioneers of abstract art sought inspiration from spiritualism and theosophy, a synthesis of world religions, sciences, philosophy, and color theory. And while these male artists are renowned as the pioneers of abstract art, their female counterparts have, until recently, gone overlooked and underrecognized in the art-historical canon.

The Swedish artist Hilma af Klint received overdue acclaim in 2018 and 2019, when her retrospective “Paintings for the Future” drew record-breaking crowds to the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Af Klint’s visionary abstract paintings date back to as early as 1907, around five years before Kandinsky made Composition V (1911), which has widely been recognized as the first abstract painting in Western art history.

In 1904, af Klint recorded in her notebooks that she was informed by a spirit guide that she would be called on to convey the spiritual world in her paintings. She went on to create 193 paintings between 1906 and 1915, known as “Paintings for the Temple.” Af Klint envisioned these paintings to fill a round building with a spiraling path that would take visitors upward—not unlike the structure of the Guggenheim, which housed her retrospective a little over 100 years later. Swathed in geometric forms and color, these abstract works were to inspire their viewer into a transcendent reality.

She also created “Ten Largest” (1907), a series of 10 three-meter-tall paintings to represent the human life cycle, from early childhood to old age. These immersive abstract paintings engulf the viewer in their blooming botanical and biomorphic forms that float on expanses of dusty pink and celestial blue. Enigmatic symbols and euphoric spirals swirl and dance like a dream unraveling across the colossal canvases. At once rapturous and meditative, these works can be seen as foundational to abstract art.

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Af Klint was hardly the only woman artist of the 19th and 20th centuries who employed art as a language to explore spirituality. Agnes Pelton, Hilla Rebay, Georgiana Houghton, and Emma Kunz, among others, were also creating mind-blowing mystical works that were born from spirituality. And while institutions have begun to place these artists’ works into the canon—in addition to af Klint’s Guggenheim retrospective, Houghton was celebrated in a survey at the Courtauld Institute of Art in 2016, and Pelton was given the spotlight at the Whitney Museum in 2020—there is still much to be done to integrate women artists’ narratives into discussions of modern art. Despite this, the legacies of these visionary pioneers are palpable today among the works of a strong cohort of contemporary women artists.

The works of emerging and established women artists who explore spiritual themes in their work are featured in the new curated collection, “Window to Her Soul.” Instead of painting external realities, these artists depict inner spiritual experiences. From visionary drawings of botanical mysticism that allude to womanhood, to mesmerizing paintings that portray the liminal space between the physical world and the mind, these works inspire the viewer into a state of enlightenment through the metaphysical properties of color and form. Here, we offer a glimpse into the practices of nine of the featured artists.


Anna Zemánková’s drawings of flora and fauna not only embody the female experience, they’re also projections of her transpersonal visions from spiritist mediums. The Czech artist once said, “I grow flowers that grow nowhere else.” Zemánková’s work is also largely inspired by motherhood. In her works that bear the words “birth” or “nativity” in their titles, organic shapes combine with intangible bursts of light, alluding to womb-like formations or the halos of religious imagery.


Loie Hollowell
Split orbs in gray, purple and yellow, 2021
GRIMM

Loie Hollowell’s hypnotic works are imbued with spirituality and sensuality. Her use of symmetry relates her paintings to the female body as well as the otherworldly realm. Many of her paintings, which often resemble planetary shapes, allude to pregnancy or the female anatomy, lending cosmic resonance to intimate experiences. Her depictions of the intangible may inspire viewers to free themselves from the material world and connect with the subconscious.


Inspired by spiritual contemplation and rituals, Garrard’s paintings encapsulate the feeling of lightness of being. The artist collects natural materials on her travels and refines them into pigment, which she uses to create organic color palettes that flood the picture plane with light.


Theodora Allen
Calendar, No. 4, 2019
PRIMARY

Theodora Allen investigates metaphysical ideals in her subdued yet luminous paintings. Allen immerses her viewer in mystical, jewel-toned blue motifs that seem to be bathed in the soft glow of moonlight. Exploring the liminal space between the physical world and the mind, Allen’s images of celestial bodies and nature are timeless.


Though widely recognized as a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism, Hedda Sterne always maintained independence from labels and styles. Throughout her prolific career that spanned more than 80 years, Sterne proclaimed that her work was simply a diary of her life, rather than a part of a movement. In August 1996, Sterne wrote in her journal, “The lines in a painting, the motion of a train, light beams, falling rain, the trace of a jet plane softening into a cloud… Looking out I am filled with such tenderness and gratitude. The leaves moving in the wind move me like a Verdi aria.” Inspired by both Earthly and ethereal beauty, her work opens up a portal to boundless imagination. Are they of shimmering seas? A jet plane soaring into the infinite sky? The horizon of a sunset or a plane of thought? Sterne’s exquisite work oscillates between visceral elements of the physical world and the ineffable spiritual dimension.


Megan Rooney
Stand Up Sky, 2021
Thaddaeus Ropac

Megan Rooney’s celestial canvases transcend time and space. Energetic lines and swaths of colors reveal her body’s gestural dance across the canvas. Rooney has compared the act of painting to hovering in flight over the surface of the canvas and searching for places to land, touching down and lifting off. The artist sands back her canvases to paint over them again, resulting in ethereal, ephemeral planes of color akin to windows into the sublime.


Molly Greene’s luscious paintings that investigate science, spirituality, gender, and philosophy are rooted in Surrealism. Rendering hair, flowers, and plants in psychedelic colors, she transforms the familiar into otherworldly forms that seem voluptuously alive.


In her beguiling paintings, Robin F. Williams portrays monumental female figures in otherworldly scenarios. She conveys the complexities of womanhood through supernatural figures, ghosts, and witches, which she renders in airbrushed veneers of oil, as well as acrylics, colored pencils, and pastels. The enchanting and enigmatic gazes of her female subjects bewitch the viewer, enveloping us in the mystical world she has created.


Laura Berger’s enticing paintings are inspired by rituals, symbols, and dreams. In her works, figurative imagery is paired with spare, minimal environments to explore themes of spirituality and humanity. External identifiers such as race and age are removed from Berger’s figures to accentuate the woman’s soul.

Claudia Cheng
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019