The Guggenheim is making a full-barrel bid to canonize Hilma af Klint, the early-20th-century Swedish mystical abstract painter, in art history. It’s only a hundred years late. But then the show is titled “Paintings for the Future,” so perhaps the future she envisioned has arrived at last and she’s finally going to get credit for being so far ahead of everyone else so long ago. The exhibition makes an airtight case for Klint’s being the first modernist artist to paint entirely abstract.
On display: over 160 of some of the most beguilingly uncanny and imaginative works of the last century. They amount to cosmic sonograms of unseen forces in Klint’s very large, iridescently colored canvases with their biomorphic shapes, auras, algae blooms of color, arabesque jellyfish tentacles coiling, geometric configurations, all to — as she put it — “awaken humanity” to unseen astral-transcendental otherness. Each of her works imparts an elemental force, intense shifts between micro and macro scales — you might think you’re looking at a molecular world, then an instant later into celestial infinity — and then what strikes me as some Gaia-like grand plan. Klint created her own optical language with visual, chromatic, structural, and narrative syntax. Her artistic ship sails some of the deepest waters around.
Klint was well born, in Stockholm in 1862, and attended Sweden’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, where she was such a standout that she was awarded a free studio in the same building where Edvard Munch exhibited. She was in the middle of everything going on in that art world. She also spent decades conducting studies of biblical, mystical, mythological, Rosicrucian, Buddhist, scientific, and theosophical sources while holding regular séances as part of a circle of female intellectuals called “the Five.” Her paintings illustrate the group’s complex spiritual concepts. The Five were obsessed with the idea that you could make contact with “higher spirits,” and in 1906, when Klint was 43, two of said spirits instructed her to create a cycle of works to be titled “The Paintings for the Temple” and then design the temple herself.
The current consensus holds that the “inventors” of modern abstraction are Kandinsky, Kupka, Mondrian, Goncharova, O’Keeffe, Popova, and Malevich, among others. But not Klint. In fact, Klint made her totally abstract paintings before any of these others. By 1908, she’d completed over 100 paintings in her celestial commission. (That’s about as many paintings as Mondrian or Barnett Newman made in his lifetime.) She was on fire; history was changing in her hands.
That’s when Klint had what the artist Amy Sillman, in the catalogue, aptly calls “the worst studio visit of all time.” Excited to share her efforts, Klint invited the famous theosophist Rudolf Steiner to examine her work. On seeing the epic project, he disparaged her ideas of relinquishing agency to the forces of the universe, of “translating” ideas imparted to her by divine others, of collaborating with and channeling these “higher spirits.” Never mind that no artists can really tell you where their work springs from or that all feel commanded, as it were, to do what they do and so are, in that way, helpless to do otherwise. Steiner’s stinker of a comment threw Klint off; she stopped painting for four years. Luckily for us, she started again and never stopped. Klint died in 1944 at 81, her “letter to the world” complete.
She’d also had a vision for that temple for her paintings: She wanted “a round building where visitors would progress upward along a spiraling path.” Rather like — the Guggenheim!
Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future opens at the Guggenheim on October 12.
*This article appears in the September 3, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!