An aura of the occult, an air of whimsy and a sense of unbridled experimentation permeate the exhibition “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future,” which occupies most of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s rotunda. This first comprehensive Af Klint solo exhibition in the U.S. displays her prolific variety and has an agenda: It demands that we rethink, re-evaluate and revise the lineage of art history.
Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Through April 23, 2019
Curated by the Guggenheim’s Tracey Bashkoff, with the assistance of David Horowitz, the show comprises more than 170 paintings, drawings and copiously illustrated notebooks by the Swedish artist and mystic who, though still relatively unknown today, was among the first European modernists to work abstractly. But here the term “work abstractly” needs an asterisk: Grand claims for Af Klint (1862-1944) as visionary and revolutionary surround this exhibition. The show intends to place her in the company of pioneering abstractionists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Robert and Sonia Delaunay, from which, the argument goes, she has been wrongly excluded. Yet part of Af Klint’s obscurity has to do with the artist herself. Believing that the public was not yet ready for her spiritually informed art, Af Klint exhibited only a few of her abstractions during her lifetime. She also stipulated, in 1932, that her work not be shown for 20 years following her death. The first major show of her abstract art was in 1986.
Born in Stockholm, Af Klint studied painting at the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts and established herself as a respected portraitist and professional illustrator for publications on science and design. A diviner as much as an artist, she sought transcendence and cosmic knowledge. Channeling spirits while she painted, Af Klint used art as both her mystical portal and as a visual journal of her journey, which imbues even her mural-sized paintings with the quality of schematics, charts and diary entries. Through séances, Af Klint claimed to have encountered guides who gave her a “great commission” that led her away from representation into abstraction.
This commission included the 193 abstract pictures in her monumental cycle “The Paintings for the Temple” (1906-15), which culminated in three large “Altarpieces,” all of which were to be housed in a multilevel “temple” made of stacked rings connected by a spiraling path. And as you ascend the ramp of the Guggenheim—which Frank Lloyd Wright conceived as “a temple of spirit” to showcase works by Kandinsky, among others—Af Klint’s spare, hard-edged, geometric and biomorphic abstractions at first seem to be right at home.
“Paintings for the Future” includes a handful of Af Klint’s early representational works made prior to 1903, when she began, through spiritual interpretations of natural forms, to work abstractly. Among the few early realist pieces included here are botanical studies; some brooding, monochromatic portrait drawings; and the somber oil painting “Summer Landscape” (1888). In these stiff, tight pictures, as in most of her later work, forms lack weight, presence and movement; colors lack luminosity and spatial tension. The dynamic watercolor study of a mushroom, “Morel” (1890s), with its writhing fleshy cap and gills, is a notable exception.
The show focuses instead on the artist’s breakthrough period, 1906-20, when Af Klint arrived at pure abstraction. This curatorial angle, emphasizing Af Klint’s innovation rather than her evolution, feels unnatural and impatient. Although the show backtracks briefly to Af Klint’s early figuration, it opens immediately with a series of 10 roughly 10-by-8-foot abstract tempera paintings, from 1907, that explore the ages of man.
These large paintings, each a single-colored, scumbled, airy field—often of light blue, or orange, or lavender—are crowded with jovial circles, spirals, mandalas, egg shapes, flowers, symbols, letters and squiggles. Suggesting amoebas or balloons, their forms float and meander like enormous 1960s flower-power doodles, and would fit in among the work of the contemporary Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami. The strongest of the bunch is “Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 10, Old Age,” a pinkish-tinted white field in which a white cross, at the center of an otherwise primary-colored grid, presses forward in the plane. Conversely, most of Af Klint’s abstract shapes—without discernible formal purpose—feel merely placed and inert.
Further up the ramp, and unusual here, is the modest, primary-colored “Group IX/SUW, The Swan, No. 17” (1915). A target of concentric circles in a flat red field, with a tiny triangle at its center, it achieves purity and equilibrium.
Generally, though, Af Klint’s abstractions, at once esoteric and provincial, are a personal means, not a universal end. Viewers are put in the position of voyeurs—not fellow travelers on her spiritual quest. Her cryptic abstractions—fueled by a host of private, occult and religious sources—are intriguing, sometimes fascinating. Af Klint was the first modernist abstract painter. But, unlike her revolutionary contemporaries, such as Sonia Delaunay—the second modernist abstract painter—Af Klint remained an illustrator who decoratively applied (rather than formally explored) her newfound vocabulary. Af Klint definitely deserves our attention, but her curious life and oeuvre remain a footnote to the history of modernist abstraction.
Mr. Esplund writes about art for the Journal. His book “The Art of Looking: How to Read Modern and Contemporary Art” (Basic) will be published in November.