Tag Archives: Hilma af Klint

The Cosmology of Agnes Pelton

Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, at the Whitney Museum (WMAA), through June 21, 2020.

(As of this posting, the museum is temporarily closed due to Covid-19 emergency; check museum website.)

Luckily, I got to see this transporting show before the bad news hit —including the closure of the Whitney and virtually all other NYC museums, the Met Opera, Broadway, live t.v., and more until further notice.  Hopefully things will normalize soon, and then the sophisticated spiritual surrealism of Ms. Pelton will be the perfect antidote to the current gloom.

Starting from a European-based realism, Pelton gradually moved very deeply into nature and finally the outing of inner visions through the course of a somewhat peripatetic life, literally and metaphorically—ending up as a yogi-transcendentalist painter in Palm Springs, CA.  In the Whitney presentation back-story material (wall text) is nicely brief so that visitors stay focused on the surfaces of these contemplative works, which effectively approximate the states of mind and imagination that apparently motivated them.  They emit a collective quietism–via smoothed brushwork, softened contours, and dusty, twilight-like palette, with intermittent flashes of glowing atomic detail.

Many include recognizable botanical forms highly abstracted, for example, linear Deco-like lotuses or floating arabesque ferns.   As in the florals of Georgia O’Keeffe, these can yield archetypal central female forms, furthered in Pelton’s oeuvre by ova-orbs and some female figures.  The inevitable comparison between these two peers is interesting as much for their divergent sensibilities, styles and artistic aims as for shared ones.  (Their artist circles overlapped although there is no known direct contact between them; Pelton was more consciously involved with female-centered experience.)  Elsewhere Pelton goes full-on cosmological—the kind of thing associated canonically with Kandinsky and now—and here more so—Hilma af Klint’s idiosyncratic celestial mysticism [see Klint]; Pelton’s work evokes more intimacy. Her surrealist affinities lie in her morphing of watery, heavenly, and biological elements, e.g., flower heads and petals into rippling waves and stars.  A major inspiration for many early modernists (broadly) was music—as Pelton herself, an accomplished pianist, emphasized in her case, and which should be recalled in forthcoming exegesis in this arena. 

Agnes Pelton, Lotus for Lida (Egyptian Dawn), 1930; in the current WMAA exhibition
Agnes Pelton, Fires in Space, 1938; in the current WMAA exhibition

SPIRITIST SENSATION HILMA AF KLINT AT GUGGENHEIM

“Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future”; at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, through April 23, 2019.

Everyone with any interest in the history and mystery of art (or maybe just everyone), must know about the Swedish turn-of-the-century artist, Hilma (1862-1944), who, very much on her own with conscious intention created abstract art before, it seems, its widely dubbed pioneer, Wassily Kandinsky.  Does it matter who got there first (even if that could be securely delineated)?  Probably, to Kandinsky and the other guys who shaped Modernism partly as a competitive bro-manship.  Probably not to Hilma.  Along the lines of Kandinsky, but much more so, she was immersed in a syncretistic spiritual calling.  The specifics are murky and were apparently malleable throughout her life, a blend of Christian,  Eastern and occultist beliefs and practices that included communing with the dead and “spirit masters” who initially inspired her (according to her) to paint autonomously without studies.  She did have early academic training and proficiency in botanical illustration and Impressionist (more or less) landscape by then, seen in examples on view.   The abstraction appears somewhat suddenly, full force, in colossal paintings jointly titled,The Ten Largest (c. 1906-1915).  In these, plant and amoebic life are suggested in the biomorphic shapes and squiggles floating against flat, sectioned planes, occasionally punctuated with idiosyncratic, alpha-numeric  markings.  Her palette features mauves, ochres, and ceruleans with a dusty cast partly due to the tempera-like paint medium on paper that she preferred even for large work, but is carried over also in matte oils. 

These “largest” are exhibited in the museum’s High Gallery off the main ramp (as shown above; view from above)—virtually the only space in this museum that could well accommodate them (a criticism of Wright’s ramp design when the museum opened in 1959,  by which time most abstract painting had become substantially larger than the Kandinskys at the nucleus of the collection).  Yet,  Wright’s winding “snail” could not be more apropos for the bulk of this show, given that Hilma imagined several dozen of her works in a grand spiral “temple.”  

So the show is brilliant for its melding of transporting, otherworldly art and environ, as well as the rich cache of a little known oeuvre.  While it is not surprising that any prolific pre-war woman artist has not had more exposure, in this case, Hilma hid, or at least did not show publicly, most of her abstract work, prognostic about its probable tentative reception, and perhaps discouraged by a  negative response from Rudolf Steiner, a towering male figure in her Spiritist/Theosophic circle.  She did find kindred souls in a small sisterhood of like-minded women artists, also not surprising among woman artists in history who pursued art careers against social odds.

Later, her explorations became a bit more Bauhaus-formal, though prismatic “ray”paintings with pyramidal and planetary forms and sporadic cryptic scribbling can evoke, variously, Freemasonry-type symbolism, early 20th-century Orphism, and Malevich’s Suprematism.  Figuration is also reintegrated after a point, perhaps in an effort to be more accessible, though all remains mostly enigmatic.  It gets somewhat esoteric and precious, not to mention opaque as far as content, in scrutinizing the featured large spreads of small color and shape studies based on gender coding and other symbolic correlation.  But not less fascinating.