Exhibit of the week
Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, through April 23
Hilma af Klint’s recent rediscovery “forces a rewrite of art history,” said Sebastian Smee in The Washington Post. At least five years before Wassily Kandinsky supposedly invented abstract modern painting, af Klint (1862-1944), a Swedish woman in her 40s, had already produced the most splendid abstract works of the entire century. Though the academy-trained artist painted portraits and landscapes to make a living, she also harbored a deep interest in spiritualism that, beginning in 1906, inspired her to create nearly 200 huge abstract paintings that she intended to one day display in a spiral-shaped temple. Only in 1986 did a few of her major paintings re-emerge, and “news of her genius has spread slowly.” That makes the current run of her first comprehensive U.S. solo exhibition perhaps the “most mind-altering” and historically significant art event of this season.
“In their wit, ebullience, and palette,” af Klint’s best abstractions “seem utterly contemporary, made-yesterday fresh,” said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. They “invite you to step in and float away” as they “envelop you in hues from dusty orange to pale pinks and lavenders, tumbling compositions of circles, spirals, and pinwheels, and unfurling ribbonlike lines that sometimes form mysterious words.” A viewer needn’t know anything about af Klint’s spiritual beliefs or the messages she believed she was channeling from the astral plane. Her paintings have enormous power purely on a visual level, and given that her achievement was so long hidden from the public, “its history begins now.”
Let’s not oversell af Klint’s accomplishments, said Lance Esplund in The Wall Street Journal. Her peak period lasted only 14 years, and even then, she was using painting to provide a mystic portal to her own spiritual journey. The paintings are more like illustrations or diary entries than explorations of artistic form. Though she deserves our attention, “her curious life and oeuvre remain a footnote to the history of modernist abstraction.” Actually, her fascination with the occult makes her especially interesting now, said Ben Davis in ArtNet.com. At a moment when faith in reason is breaking down, it’s good to be reminded that many educated Westerners in the early modern era were also casting about for ways to fill the hole left by the erosion of religious faith. Not that af Klint needs special pleading. Her work isn’t just great; “it’s beyond great.” ■