“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 per se 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 other guy-heroes who shaped Modernism partly as a competitive bro-manship. Probably not to Hilma. Along the lines of Kandinsky, but much more so, she was wrapped up 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. The distinctive 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 the 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 a towering male figure in her Spiritist/Theosophic circle (Rudolf Steiner). 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 Surprematism. 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 large spreads of of small color and shape studies based on gender coding and other symbolic correlation. But not less fascinating.