New York

View of “Hilma af Klint,” 2018–19. From left: Group X, No. 2, Altarpiece, 1915; Group X, No. 3, Altarpiece, 1915; Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece, 1915. Photo: David Heald.

View of “Hilma af Klint,” 2018–19. From left: Group X, No. 2, Altarpiece, 1915; Group X, No. 3, Altarpiece, 1915; Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece, 1915. Photo: David Heald.

Hilma af Klint

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum | New York

View of “Hilma af Klint,” 2018–19. From left: Group X, No. 2, Altarpiece, 1915; Group X, No. 3, Altarpiece, 1915; Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece, 1915. Photo: David Heald.

Perhaps more than a painter, Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) was a profound seeker. During her adolescence in her home country of Sweden, she attended séances so that she might commune with the dead. A precocious student at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, she deepened her commitment to spiritualism; later, she opened herself to theosophy, Buddhism, and Rosicrucianism, among other teachings. As a young woman, she worked as a scientific illustrator, so dutiful was her attention to nature—her own canvases at that time were rather straightforward portraits and landscapes. But in 1906, at the age of forty-four, she turned her attention away from the material world and devoted herself wholly to mystical realms. Her hand found its true purpose: to make visible what the eye cannot see, to communicate esoteric knowledge without betraying it or distorting it with earthly references. Thereafter, af Klint became one of the most singular, yet least known, painters of the twentieth century.

Central to her prodigious output—and to this marvelous exhibition, which features more than 170 paintings and works on paper, with glimpses inside her notebooks—are “The Paintings for the Temple,” 1906–15, “the great commission” received from Amaliel, one of her spirit guides, which transformed af Klint’s practice. At his invitation, she abandoned representation for good and spent eight years creating 193 otherworldly paintings to fill a spiral temple, which was never built. (One cannot overlook the delightfully eerie prescience of this directive while wandering inside the winding Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.) Believing she was destined to be understood and appreciated in times to come, af Klint showed her work to almost no one, presenting only a small selection of her paintings while alive, and prohibiting their public display until twenty years after her death.

So-called abstraction, of course, has always been a part of visual culture, but according to modernism’s time line, it was af Klint who got to it first—years before Wassily Kandinsky, et al. Much has been made of this fact—and the Western canon is rightly being revised because of it—but equally striking is how af Klint reimagined the role of the artist, seeing herself as a receiver more than a creator. In freeing herself of a certain measure of ego, she achieved a radical artistic self-possession, and ultimately chose to follow her “inner voice.” The dictations regarding how to create new forms rooted in nature but not in imitation of it would arrive from there. Her kaleidoscopic palette was influenced partly by color theory, as well as by her own ideas about the symbolic value of certain hues. In some works, even her brush appears to be searching, as though paint was both her guide and her medium.

One of af Klint’s most astonishing productions from the “Temple” cycle, Group IV, The Ten Largest, 1907, was intended to communicate the four stages of life: childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age. Each about ten feet tall, these graceful and jubilant works on paper mounted to canvas feel as luminous and sacred as cathedral windows. Across the ten paintings, vibrant floral forms, elegant spheres, and curlicue lines in blues, yellows, and lilacs (childhood) are replaced by a grid of muddy red, white, gold, and blue on a pale-peach background (old age). If these paintings feel fresh, loose, and a little unsettled, eight years later af Klint would complete the final canvases of her grand project: three commanding (and nearly diagrammatic) altarpieces expressing what she perceived as evolving symbolic order. In the foreground of Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece, 1915, rises a pyramidal shape, composed of color spectra lined up together, its tip cutting into a hovering gold-leaf disk. A wondrous image for contemplation, to be sure, but how to understand such mysterious transmissions? The exhibition doesn’t elucidate much more than the broadest of af Klint’s brushstrokes, but that’s not a shortcoming. (It will take more time before the experts decode the artist’s dense visual language.) Rather, it is proof that her work, as she’d divined so many decades ago, telegraphs with great force and eloquence both the unknowable and the unknown, here in her future, our present.