Tag Archives: modernist painting

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 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.


 


Topographic Painting, Worlds Apart: Thomas Cole; Tarsila do Amaral

Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings; through May 13 at The Met (Fifth Avenue building).

Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil; through June 3 at the Museum of Modern Art.

The organization of and examples in The Met’s Thomas Cole exhibition effectively create a transporting experience for viewers that follows the artist’s journeys between England, the United States, and Italy in the early 19th century.  Cole (1801-1848) was the product of an era in which continental aesthetics and art history were becoming consciously intertwined with artistic goals specific to the painting medium, especially; close imitation of both nature and the idealized form of “the ancients” was di rigueur.  Cole breathed air into the former—that is, within meticulously detailed and composed, glazed and polished landscape scenes and scenarios.  Whether portraying a precise locale or synthesizing and staffing various settings into monumental narratives and allegories, his pictures convey credibly atmospheric, weather-y conditions.  This propulsion he shared with peers like Turner and Constable, who are included, among others, for comparative contexts, not least to convey a splurge of individualistic technical flourish apparent beyond overlaps in nascent Romantic sensibilities associated with outliers from The Academy.

Themes broached in Cole’s oeuvre turn on colonial savage versus civilized significations and sublimes, and prescient ecological concerns in tandem with the accelerating Industrial Revolution; but, above all, the cyclical drama of nature, in full light of the encroaching Anthropocene, climactic in his renowned, metaphoric, Course of the Empire series, which is highlighted in a make-shift niche that allows easy cross-referencing between the stages of civilization depicted.

Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973) also created parallel worlds in paint that are nonetheless locally grounded in desert and jungle topographies of her homeland.  At the Modern, viewers are plopped into marshmallow-mound landscapes punctuated by stylized flora and fauna, bright suns, and sometimes bulbous humanoid bodies.  Stand-outs depict un-nameable creatures scuttling along flat bubbles and bands color, encroached upon by out-sized indeterminate foliage and melting cacti.  Part European-modern—Post-Impressionist, Surrealist, abstractionist—and part indigenous, in form, symbolism, and inspirations.  Put another way, Gauguin, Matisse, Tanguy, and Magical Realism milled to morphic and coloristic essences while conveying a real connection to earthy surrounds.

Modernist Mash-up Master: Joaquin Torres-Garcia at MoMA

“Joaquin Torres-Garcia: The Arcadian Modern”

Museum of Modern Art, through February 15, 2016

One art historical context for the Frank Stella retrospective at the Whitney: the mash-up modernist paintings and constructed reliefs (along with a few sculptures), of Uruguay-born Torres-Garcia (1987-1949), fortuitously on view concurrently at MoMA. Torres-Garia spent much of his career in Europe and the U.S. absorbing the latest stylistic, sometimes utopian, trends in painting. He ended up with a kind of catholic abstraction that carried Cubism through De Stijl (closely) and Russian Constructivist tendencies (among others) into a personal idiom that added recurring pictographic symbols.

Torres-Garcia started out in Barcelona (his Catalan father had decided to repatriate when the artist was 17), and the earliest works here show the post-impressionist modernisme of Picasso and the El Quatre Gats gang–street scenes and figures with fluid contours and deft, minimal description.  An anomaly, before he moved definitely into quasi-geometric intuitive abstraction, is a classicizing fresco study on view (also recalling Picasso); the project to which it was related did not come to fruition and apparently set him off naturalism for good.

I like the muddied Mondrians, in which black skeletal contours are smudged into variegated  white, yellow, red and blue “windows” with subdued painterly gusto; and also some incredibly simple and raw constructed reliefs that convey the utmost respect for the nuanced visual mystery of juxtaposed shapes and textural surfaces. A number of tawny, analytic cubist-type compositions include proto-Jasper Johns number schemes; playful numeric and alphabetic elements are strewn across the later work more boldly. It seems the pictorial cryptography of Paul Klee also made an impression, especially in a few linear townscapes with fish flying overhead among the stars.

The fish symbol became a mainstay of Torres-Garcia’s finally signature style.  Later glyph-studded, loosely grid compositions recall those of Adolph Gottleib from around the same time (c. 1940s-early 1950s).  An anchor is another symbol woven throughout that perhaps alludes to his perpetual literal and artistic travels.  A few black and whites feature linear figuration that isn’t so far from Keith Haring’s paint-drawing sensibility on an intimate scale. There is also a display of charismatic rough-hewn toys made for his kids that fit right in as art the way those by Picasso do.

The show provides both an engaging crash course on directions in abstraction in early 20th-century art and comprehensive exposure for an artist who, it seems, collegially and respectfully followed and led, experimented thoughtfully in small increments, and came up with an accomplished, compact oeuvre that now also signifies a link between an international network of artistic peers.