It’s been a long time coming for the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint. Born in 1862 in Stockholm, her works during the years leading up to and after the turn of the 20th Century marked an increasingly surreal departure from the studied realism of her peers, and into a state of abstraction the made her a leading voice in the development of the language and practice of modernism. Yet af Klint’s work is also frequently held aside from her peers of the era, that is, until now, with an ambitious and thrilling Guggenheim exhibition aiming to put her work back into its proper historical and aesthetic context.
This survey of af Klint’s work marks the first major solo exhibition in the United States devoted to the artist, offering an unprecedented opportunity to experience af Klint’s long underappreciated artistic achievements. Organized by Tracey Bashkoff, Director of Collections and Senior Curator, with David Horowitz, Curatorial Assistant, it focuses in particular on the artist’s breakthrough years, 1906–20, when she first began to produce nonobjective and stunningly imaginative paintings, creating a singular body of work that invites a reevaluation of modernism and its development. Moving through her work, and the radical departures of her pieces during and after 1906, the exhibition is a vivid breath of fresh air for viewers accustomed to the scholarly rhetoric of the Russian and French academics who would ultimately follow af Klint’s model of painting. Wasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, and others would take similar strides to rid their own artwork of representational content, yet at the same time, would also take years to catch up to the pieces that af Klimt was making while artists like Kandinsky were still experimenting with the language of the Russian countryside.
The key perhaps lies in her embrace of the esoteric, and of the belief in a future still to come. Stipulating that her works were not to be shown until twenty years after her death, the artist seems to have an innate sense of historical progression, painting not for the discourse of her era, but rather for a future that has yet to emerge, and for a world of art that had yet to come into view.
Works like her first major group of largely nonobjective pieces, The Paintings for the Temple, grew directly out of her interest in theososphy, using the spiritualist practice as a medium to articulate mystical views of reality, and to project her own subjectivity into a space where her voice had joined with new spiritual truths and new visions of the universe. Stylistically diverse and challenging, they pull together biomorphic and geometric forms, expansive and intimate scales, and maximalist and reductivist approaches to composition and color. She imagined installing these works in a spiral temple, a note of particular intrigue given the winding walkways. It’s an incisive note, and a fascinating point of entry for the exhibition, a reflection on just where the artist’s works have landed in a future she sought to paint into reality, or perhaps a self she tried to paint into a possible future.
The show closes April 23rd.
— D. Creahan
Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future [Exhibition Site]