Hilma af Klint, The Swan, No. 21, Group IX/SUW, 1915, oil on canvas, 60 1/4 x 60 1/4".

The idea of a secret masterpiece seems ludicrous. Indeed, as Marcel Duchamp famously argued, a work of art needs to be known in order to be: Its existence depends on “the artist on the one hand, and on the other, the spectator who later becomes the posterity.” The viewer’s contribution, he maintained, is equal in importance to the artist’s, and in the long run perhaps even greater, because, as he put it elsewhere, “it is posterity that makes the masterpiece.” Now try to imagine a situation in which one of these elements is missing. It begins to sound like an art koan: What happens to a work without anyone to see it? Without an audience, the work would seem to exist in a diminished and wanting state of expectancy, waiting for posterity’s deliverance like a tree falling in the forest.

A case in point: A large wooden crate arrives in my office at Moderna Museet, Stockholm. It looks as if it has been traveling for centuries, and it radiates mystery. This curious cargo is from the estate of Swedish artist and mystic Hilma af Klint, who, when she passed away in 1944 at the age of eighty-one, left a legacy of more than one thousand secret artworks. Her surprisingly large abstract paintings from the first decade of the twentieth century—some, at eleven feet high, commensurate to the scale of Abstract Expressionist canvases produced just after her death—are among the most intriguing works I have come across in recent years. Ever since encountering her “Series II” from 1920—intimate geometric renderings in oil and graphite of spiritual unity among the world’s religions, presented by Catherine de Zegher and Hendel Teicher in the exquisite 2005 exhibition at the Drawing Center, New York, “3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz, and Agnes Martin”—I have been eager to see more by this still relatively obscure pioneer. Hence the heavy wooden crate in my office, which the Hilma af Klint Foundation has brought over from a modest storage site outside Stockholm. Will we find the unknown masterpiece? Does such a traditional conceit of canonization even apply to an artist whose work seems to have invented its own language and belated reception?

Inside lies treasure indeed: The crate now transferred to the museum’s conservation workshop, our team unpacks hundreds of hitherto unknown works by af Klint, which have never been properly documented, let alone exhibited. Soon the room is filled with paintings, drawings, and watercolors that blend biological shapes (reminiscent of seeds, buds, and more complex organisms) with geometric shapes (triangles, squares, and circles; spirals that run vertically from top to bottom; intricate strings of cubes that form concentric circles). On one sheet, enigmatic letter combinations painted to resemble elaborate ornaments join a cross, which recurs elsewhere as an unambiguous crucifix and, more often, as a reduced geometric support for ornate, even floral, elements in bright, artificial colors. Af Klint worked in series, some of which bear names that allude to her deep involvement in theosophy and the occult sciences, such as “Primordial Chaos,” 1906–1907; “Evolution,” 1908; and “Atom Series,” 1917. (“I am an atom in the universe that has access to infinite possibilities of development. These possibilities I want, gradually, to reveal,” she once wrote.) Even when the works have no title, they are always carefully numbered in pencil, the artist’s recognizable script appearing on the upper corners. There are works on paper as delicate and poetic as anything I know from the beginning of the twentieth century, some anticipating Minimal and Conceptual approaches that wouldn’t emerge for decades.

In addition to the pictures, the crate yields thousands of diary pages and speculative notes mixing text and image. Our conservation team scrutinizes some 150 notebooks filled with drawings and jottings on the spiritual forces af Klint detects as the source of her own artistic activities, as well as on the morphologies of plants, flowers, feathers, all rendered in detail and juxtaposed with mathematical diagrams and flowcharts. One such meticulous watercolor, dated April 29, 1919, shows a white wagtail next to a square divided into four sections; a diagonal of red, yellow, and blue arrows pointing toward the upper left corner somehow displays the bird’s vital force, the Aristotelian entelechy, or, as the artist puts it in pencil, its “guidelines.” In af Klint’s pictorial universe, the semiotic level is never radically separated from the world of visual forms; her cosmic figures send out mysterious linguistic messages that, as a mystic, she seemed to channel from another dimension, often referring to herself in the second or third person. One of the spirits told her: “You are called to present in pictures a wonderful linguistic system that we term the influence of miraculous powers on people’s outer and inner lives. True, the pictorial language comes from the Orient, but it will be illuminated by a northern light and will be explained in conjunction with outer signs and inner life.”

Spread from Hilma af Klint’s sketchbook containing drawings of flowers, mosses, and lichen and their astral guidelines, 1919.

In her lifetime, af Klint kept her activities a secret. What she showed the world were skilled but traditional portraits and landscape paintings—and in her will she stipulated that the abstract paintings were not to be shown in public for twenty years after her death. Only a close circle of confidants had any knowledge of these clandestine works, though her journals indicate she worked on them almost daily. Clearly, she felt that the world was not yet ready for her pictures. But this did not imply she was unconvinced of the hidden works’ significance. On November 4, 1906, the same year she started to paint realities beyond those recognized through the five senses, she notes: “You will commence a task that will bring great blessings on coming generations.” Indeed, there is no doubt that af Klint felt she had a great calling, more important than anyone alive could fully fathom, herself included: “Your mission is to open their eyes to a life that lasts for eternity.”

Is af Klint the first Modern abstract artist? Many have asked this question, but the paucity of known works has kept the answer equivocal. After more than a decade of practicing séances and collective experiments in automatic drawing, in 1906 af Klint initiated a body of work that brings together her skills as a painter with her otherworldly strivings and in many ways anticipates the later, far more famous breakthroughs of abstract pioneers between 1910 and 1913, including Wassily Kandinsky’s first abstract watercolors, Frantisˇek Kupka’s first Orphist works, and Robert Delaunay’s first targetlike discs that resemble af Klint’s totally abstract discs from the following year. Her first series of small-scale nonrepresentative works, “Primordial Chaos,” combines abstract forms with elements that seem to signify the elemental forces of a cosmic creation process, but the next year, in 1907, af Klint had already developed a pictorial language of pure abstraction in which concentric circles and germlike organic forms encounter a strict geometric grid, as in No. 5, The Large Figure Paintings. Although she claimed that her large cycle of works was not really executed by her, but rather by spirits working through her, it is hard not to answer our question in the affirmative.

As did so many early abstract pioneers, she sought intellectual sources of inspiration. In 1901, the theosophists Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater, who were not artists but asked others to execute their images, published Thought-Forms, a book with which af Klint was no doubt familiar, and which states that thoughts have two sensory effects, a radiating vibration and a floating form: “To paint in earth’s dull colors the forms clothed in the living light of other worlds is a hard and thankless task,” they state in its introduction. Af Klint, Academy of Fine Arts–educated and the secretary of the Society for Swedish Woman Artists, took these ideas into the world of art. Between 1906 and 1915, she produced 193 paintings often referred to as “The Temple” or “Paintings for the Temple” and which seem to constitute a series with a beginning and an end. The temple in question was not only a metaphor for the unity of these paintings. Af Klint envisioned a kind of building (scholar Elizabeth Finch has posited that its floor plan is suggested in the remarkable Group 1, Parsifal Series from 1916) that would carry the spiraling movements of many of her paintings beyond a single work. This structure would make possible a spatial situation in which future viewers—af Klint must have had them in mind—would move upward toward higher spheres, as they would be able to at the legendary Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York that Frank Lloyd Wright began designing in 1943, the year before af Klint passed away.

As it turned out, af Klint’s first major museum exhibition took place forty-two years after her death, and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in the sprawling 1986 exhibition “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985,” organized by Maurice Tuchman. There, for the first time, a number of her paintings were presented next to works by the trailblazers of abstract art. Since then, her work has been on display at institutions across Europe and the US, including P.S. 1, the Centre Pompidou, and the Albertina in Vienna. But in addition to the works that have been known since the 1980s, there are hundreds of never-before-seen drawings and paintings—a few shown on these pages—many of which will radically broaden our understanding of her oeuvre. The close scrutiny of her journals will make legible a cosmology that encompasses the tiniest details of everyday observations as well as metaphysical speculation concerning the dual nature of life itself. All in all, af Klint has left behind some fourteen thousand pages of journals, a colossal body of text that analyzes her life as an artist and as a spiritually receptive being, working not to please her own contemporaries but for a future humankind. In fact, the true critical assessment of her oeuvre has only just begun. We have a handwritten list of her works, produced by a librarian in 1945; a few catalogues; a useful book in Swedish by art historian Åke Fant; and some little-known academic studies, many of which are informed by the occult teachings of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy, to whom af Klint was deeply attached.

Hilma af Klint, The Swan, no. 17, Group IX/SUW, 1915, oil on canvas, 59 1/4 x 59 1/2".

As if underscoring the latent tension between private, intimate production and public, universal ambition in this undertaking, she once noted in her diary: “It was claimed that I was a pioneer and was subject to a method of working that was not understood.” Since her art was not shown at all, af Klint did not even grant it a chance to be misunderstood. Tuchman’s exhibition remains the most ambitious attempt to contextualize her work. People came to encounter the fathers of abstraction, but “to their surprise found its mother,” as Anna Maria Svensson aptly put it in an essay accompanying an af Klint exhibition at the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin in 2005. While af Klint’s output seems to challenge the standard accounts of an entirely male initiation of abstraction in art, there has been curiously little interest in this artist from feminist quarters (she was not known at the time, for instance, to be invited to Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party), with the notable exception of the Drawing Center’s catalogue. The premature reflexes of the reliably conservative critic Hilton Kramer in his review of the very first public display of af Klint’s work are telling enough: “To accord them a place of honor alongside the work of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, and Kupka, in the section of the exhibition devoted to the pioneers of abstraction, is absurd. Af Klint is simply not an artist in their class, and—dare one say it?—would never have been given this inflated treatment if she had not been a woman.” Needless to say, Kramer’s negative assessment is in direct contrast to my own enthusiasm when first encountering this work.

Numerous writers have pointed out that af Klint shared her esoteric interests with many of the best-known early abstractionists. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Stockholm was visited by the leading representatives of various occult movements, and Aleister Crowley famously had his epiphany, allegedly in a hotel room in the Nordic capital in 1896. Af Klint attended lectures by Besant and Steiner, and her library contained the key theosophical writings by Madame Blavatsky. Sometime around 1908, af Klint had an informal studio visit with Steiner in Stockholm, a fact that clearly would have made Mondrian envious (he famously wrote Steiner a letter that remained unanswered). Thus any critical attempts to reduce her paintings to mere diagrams illustrating occult doctrines could to a certain extent be—and have been!—extended to her prominent contemporaries. It also seems clear that her understanding of evolution—the word recurs in her writings and in many of her works—has more in common with the eclectic mysticism of the theosophists than with the teachings of Darwin.

But one crucial aspect sets af Klint apart from these colleagues: her radical isolation. Whereas the male pioneers of abstraction combined their interests in metaphysical speculation with progressive politics and new educational programs and were busy penning manifestos and establishing institutions (sometimes creating the sense that the early avant-garde was one big revolutionary art school spreading across the Continent), af Klint limited her exchange to a tight group of clairvoyants hiding in a studio far up in northern Stockholm. In other words, her abstraction had no public dialogue.

And yet despite this isolation, her work is as outrageous and unexpected as any produced during this period of rapid and radical experimentation. There is really nothing conventional about af Klint’s paintings, and simply nothing quite like them. On the contrary, they seem to arrive from nowhere, as if flirting with the very thresholds of visibility and dimensions of perception that their forms explore.

Rather than present a domain of static mathematical truths or Platonic forms, af Klint enacts a realm of vibrant life—of spiritual evolution and immanence alike. Her version of abstraction is compatible with the processes of teeming nature rather than the precision of heavenly geometries. Her visual cosmos can therefore sometimes appear to have more in common with the speculative biology of Ernst Haeckel or the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead than with the transcendental purity of Suprematism or the rigorous system of Neo-Plasticism. There are even moments when af Klint’s biomorphic imagination seems remarkably in sync with today’s experimental explorations of living form (think of the networks of artist Tomás Saraceno or architectural theorist Sanford Kwinter, among many other examples). In af Klint’s trove, we find helical patterns in bright colors reminiscent of schematic seashells or microscopic genetic structures: the forms always evolving, growing, expanding outside her own obsession with traditional dualisms, to hint at a dimension of life emerging in matter as much as in the mind.

The artist’s sketchbooks are proof of an obsessive and ongoing observation of the biological diversity found in nature. It is as if the geometric shapes one finds next to plants and animals on the page are extracted from these life samples and become diagrammatic renderings of the vital forces governing their growth. Sometime around 1919, the meticulous renderings of botany and birds that af Klint executed as a student in the 1880s appear in combination with abstract shapes representing the spiritual forces involved, as in the watercolor Violet Blossoms with Guidelines, Series 1, of that year. Form is never distinct from life in af Klint’s art: The spiritual forces that sometimes emerge in purity in her paintings are, as her drawings and notes indicate, also present in everything that is alive.

Hilma af Klint, Violet Blossoms with Guidelines, Series 1, 1919, watercolor on paper, 19 3/4 x 10 5/8".

Perhaps this is a new kind of mystical empiricism, one that has passed through the higher spheres only to return to the natural life surrounding an artist with a keen sense for form. In 1917, she wrote:

Firstly, I shall try to understand the flowers of the earth, shall take as my starting point the plants of the world; then, I shall study, with equal care, that which is preserved in the waters of the world. Then it will be the blue ether with all its various animal species . . . and finally, I shall penetrate the forest, shall study the moist mosses, all the trees of the forest and all the animals that dwell among the cool dark masses of the trees. . . . Everything is contained within the black cube: The greenery of the earth is the bottom of the cube, the blue air is its roof, and the water-filled part is situated at that section of the cube that I rest my back against.

Af Klint’s text and images indicate a very personal interaction with form. Here she introduces the black cube as something to rest one’s body against; her vibrant geometries present a kind of biological synesthesia (blue ether, moist moss, cool trees). Not only do natural and mathematical shapes repeat like mantras throughout her abstraction, but af Klint in fact described herself as such a vessel, filled from above while constantly overflowing. Her imagery was intended to lead the viewer into levels of awareness beyond those known from two-dimensional illusionism and three-dimensional reality, to allow her glimpses of another universe. And yet a bisected square’s potential is not simply an otherworldy phenomenon: Instead, af Klint’s exacting studies of the geometries of life itself catapult us into spheres at once higher and more down-to-earth than our everyday perception provides.

This journey into such dimensions didn’t happen in af Klint’s own time, because the audience (and perhaps even the science) she had in mind belonged to the future. She shares this patient prescience with Duchamp, whose elusive explorations of the fourth dimension were not meant for his contemporaries, but were rather riddles for posterity: “The danger is in pleasing an immediate public; the immediate public that comes around you and takes you in and accepts you and gives you success and everything. Instead of that, you should wait for fifty years or a hundred years for your true public. That is the only public that interests me.” Knowing that her contemporaries were not ready for her works, Hilma af Klint waited. Posterity may have a word to say. Are we ready to receive af Klint’s art? Can we unpack its meaning now?

Daniel Birnbaum is director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, where the exhibition “Hilma af Klint: A Pioneer of Abstraction” will be on view this winter through spring (see page 101).