'Hilma Who?' No More

Oct 15, 2018 2:37PM

Spiritual sparks helped inspire the radical and visionary art of Hilma af Klint, the new (old) name to know. Her work is on view at the Guggenheim.

A series of paintings by Hilma af Klint, collectively titled “The Ten Largest,” are made-yesterday fresh even though they were created in 1907. They are a highlight of the new Guggenheim exhibition, “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future.” Credit: George Etheredge for The New York Times

NYT Critic's Pick. By Roberta Smith Oct. 11, 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/11/arts/design/hilma-af-klint-review-guggenheim.html

If you like to hallucinate but disdain the requisite stimulants, spend some time in the Guggenheim Museum’s staggering exhibition, “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future.” The museum’s High Gallery — the name has added resonance in this context — displays the show’s rapturous overture, a series of 10 paintings by af Klint (1862-1944), a little-known Swedish painter, modernist pioneer and erstwhile spiritualist. Collectively titled “The Ten Largest,” they may induce disorientation, not the least for the way they blow open art history.

These game-changing works envelop you in hues from dusty orange to pale pinks and lavenders, tumbling compositions of circles, spirals and pinwheels, and unfurling ribbonlike lines that sometimes form mysterious letters and words. The scale of the motifs and the paintings’ sheer size (10 feet by nearly 9 feet) invite you to step in and float away to the music of the spheres. That they are rendered in tempera on paper, lighter than oil on canvas but still quite painterly, contributes to their levitating power. In their wit, ebullience, multiple references and palette, “The Ten Largest” seem utterly contemporary, made-yesterday fresh. But prepare for label shock: they were created in 1907.

Hilma af Klint
Group IV, no 2, The Ten Largest, Youth, 2018
Hilma af Klint
Group IV, no 3, The Ten Largest, Youth, 2018

The year 1907 is imprinted on the minds of many people drawn to modern art as the year it all began — when Picasso opened the path to Cubism with the splintered forms of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Equally startling, 1907 is several years before the triumvirate of European geniuses viewed as the primary innovators of modernist abstraction — Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian — had their breakthroughs, primarily during World War I.

The idea that a woman got there first, and with such style, is beyond thrilling. Yes, I know art is not a competition; every artist’s “there” is a different place. Abstraction is a pre-existing condition, found in all cultures. But still: af Klint’s “there” seems so radical, so unlike anything else going on at the time. Her paintings definitively explode the notion of modernist abstraction as a male project. Despite several decades during which modernism’s history has been expanded and diversified, there is something towering about the emergence of af Klint, which really began in earnest in the 1980s. (She knew she was ahead of her time, and stipulated that her work not be exhibited until 20 years after her death — but it took even longer.)

Her reappearance finally settles the question raised in Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay, “Why have there been no great women artists?” There have been, but their achievements reach us in circuitous ways because of the obstacles that plague artists generally, and women particularly. These reasons — so complex and individual — have to do with the nature of artistic ambition, the psychic and material needs that make fulfillment possible and the extent to which these needs are met by society. Some artists, in response, create their own citadels of rationales, systems and even delusions — especially when exploring abstraction, which society had not yet accepted in art.

As a female artist at the turn of the 20th century, af Klint received only some of the support she needed. Born into a prominent Swedish family — her father was a naval officer and her grandfather was a nautical cartographer — she was able to train at the Royal Academy in Stockholm, graduating with honors in 1887. These honors included the use of a studio in a building where, in 1894, there was an exhibition of Edvard Munch, whose use of thin paint may have been germane to her own.

She supported herself by painting landscapes and portraits and also illustrated a volume on equine surgery. But the true center of af Klint’s art emerged elsewhere, furthered by her scientific interests (Darwinism, subatomic particles) and by spiritual pursuits she shared with many artists around the turn of the 20th century, including Kandinsky and Mondrian. She had long studied occult and spiritualist writings, including Rosicrucianism and Buddhism, and in 1889 she joined the Swedish Lodge of the Theosophical Society. In 1896 she began meeting regularly with four other female artists to pursue occult practices. They called themselves The Five, prayed, made automatic drawings, kept notebooks and through séances attempted to communicate with other worlds.

During trance-like states, The Five eventually contacted spirit guides they called High Masters and even named them: Amaliel, Ananda, Clemens, Esther, Georg and Gregor. By 1904, the High Masters began calling for a temple filled with paintings to be created. When the other four members declined the commission, af Klint accepted and in November 1906 she began work on “The Paintings for the Temple.” They would eventually number 193, ending in 1915 with the three-work Altarpiece series, whose visionary geometries, embellished with gold leaf, are arranged in one of the museum’s bays, chapel-like. In 1908 she took a four-year hiatus to care for her mother, who had suddenly gone blind.

An installation view of the retrospective, at the Guggenheim through Feb. 3. CreditGeorge Etheredge for The New York Times

The Guggenheim show gives us an inkling of af Klint’s parallel lives, following “The Ten Largest” bombshell with a small display of conventional but solid portraits, watercolors of plants and one landscape painting, primarily from the 1890s. Then it plunges — as she did — into her spiritually-guided work, whose temple she envisioned as a spiral-shaped building, similar to the Guggenheim’s. In the superb catalog to the exhibition, Tracey Bashkoff, the museum’s director of collections and the show’s organizing curator, points out that af Klint conceived of this structure around 1930, just as Hilla Rebay, the female abstract painter who was a founder of the Guggenheim, began imagining its spiral.

In its wall labels and vitrines of notebooks, the show only scratches the surface of the carefully recorded systems of color and invented language behind af Klint’s art. “Hilma af Klint: Notes and Methods,” just published by Christine Burgin and the University of Chicago Press, has the fullest description, including a 17-page glossary explaining the various letter combinations that appeared in af Klint’s paintings. For example, “AH—WU = consummation,” “guyw = selflessness” and “Uws = Easter eve is over.” O-o-o-kay.

To be honest, I’m not any more interested in the particulars of af Klint’s belief systems than I am in, say, the mysticism that Agnes Martin conveyed when talking about the delicate stripes and grids of her paintings, or the numerical systems and Mayan hieroglyphs that figured in Alfred Jensen’s bright, crusty checkerboard abstractions.

All great art has a spiritual component — not just a formal one. It’s not surprising to learn from a wall text that “The Ten Largest” depicts the human life cycle. The folkloric motifs themselves suggest fertilization and gestation, while the fading color and emptying fields of the later paintings in the series — including “No. 9, Old Age” — intimate a leave-taking.

As the work proceeds up the Guggenheim ramp, af Klint continues to surprise, if not always with the jaw-dropping impact of the “Ten.” In the 26 small paintings of “Primordial Chaos” of 1906-7, she uses blue and yellow (colors she anointed as female and male) and green, to wrest abstraction from a world of squirming spermatozoa, notational charts, decorative writing and a horseshoe crab that evokes a flying saucer, with three exhausts.

Altarpieces, left to right: No. 2, Altarpiece (Altarbild), 1915; No. 3, Altarpiece (Altarbild), 1915; and No. 1, Altarpiece (Altarbild), 1915. CreditGeorge Etheredge for The New York Times

As with her religious interests, af Klint was not a visual monotheist. There’s a continual fluctuation in forms, references and degrees of abstraction. The richly mixed-media “Tree of Knowledge” drawings from 1913 show an awareness of Art Nouveau, starting with a silhouette reminiscent of a toadstool — or a perfume bottle. The “Swan” series culminates in paintings whose segmented targets on red or black anticipate the unequivocal abstraction of Kenneth Noland, the 1960s Color Fielder.Since 1986, in this country af Klint’s art has been seen in only a few group shows and a solo show at MoMA PS1. But this landmark exhibition is the first comprehensive overview. Her century-old paintings come to us relatively unencumbered by critical or historical baggage. Their spare planes of color and stylistic diversity tie them to the present, underscoring how many painters, especially women, are reinvigorating abstraction by making it flexible and worldly. However af Klint’s achievement alters the past, it belongs to us. Its history begins now.

“Group IX/SUW, The Swan, No. 17,” from 1915. CreditGeorge Etheredge for The New York Times

Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the FutureOct. 12 through Feb. 3 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Manhattan; 212-423-3500, guggenheim.org.

Roberta Smith, the co-chief art critic, regularly reviews museum exhibitions, art fairs and gallery shows in New York, North America and abroad. Her special areas of interest include ceramics textiles, folk and outsider art, design and video art. @robertasmithnyt

A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 12, 2018, on Page C15 of the New York edition with the headline: ‘Hilma Who?’ No More.