New York

Agatha Wojciechowsky, Untitled, 1970, pastel on paper, 13 1⁄2 × 13".

Agatha Wojciechowsky, Untitled, 1970, pastel on paper, 13 1⁄2 × 13".

Agatha Wojciechowsky

Death is met by sweetness and light in the ebullient, ethereal work of Agatha Wojciechowsky (1896–1986), a renowned spirit medium, teacher, artist, and healer whose drawings, paintings, and sundry personal effects were on display here in a modest but moving presentation titled “Spirits Among Us.”

Wojciechowsky (née Wehner) was born in Steinach, Germany, came to the United States in 1923, started a family while living in New Jersey, and eventually settled in New York City with her husband, Leo, and two children, Ingeborg and William Roland. She was keenly aware of her preternatural gifts for a long time, claiming that she received her first communiqués from the hereafter when she was only four. But instead of running away from these encounters she embraced them and resolved to hone her talents—she joined the Universal Spiritualist Association, studied with medium Bertha Marks (who introduced her to a girl named Mona, Marks’s phantom guide), and became a spiritualist minister in 1961. However, she had no desire to create art until 1951, when she was well into middle age. It was during this period that Wojciechowsky began experiencing fits of restlessness in her hands. These bouts were often quite intense and sometimes, in order to still—and steel—herself, she’d “clutch her purse so hard . . . that her fingernails bled,” according to Charles O’Neal, a devoted pupil and the director of a short Super 8 film about Wojciechowsky from 1976. With Marks’s help, Wojciechowsky learned that the spirits were attempting to rouse her into action, as they wanted to use her hands to write, draw, and paint. Ultimately, she heeded their commands: Wojciechowsky generated scores of texts in an arcane language whose fanciful letterforms resemble a jittery amalgam of Cyrillic, Arabic, and Hebrew, and produced hundreds of images, frequently teeming with alien forms and faces—i.e., portraits of ambient souls. Like many mediums who take up automatic picture making, Wojciechowsky was reluctant to identify as an artist because she saw herself, first and foremost, as “an instrument of the spirit world.” Yet her work found its way into the collections of several major institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and she’s been shown alongside a bevy of modernist luminaries, such as Marcel Duchamp and Isamu Noguchi. Yet one wonders if she secretly may have been embarrassed by her lack of formal artistic training. Apparently, Italian Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese once contacted her. Unfamiliar with his work, she visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan to investigate. She was supposedly so overcome by the exquisite skill and beauty of his art that, in a paroxysm of rage, she destroyed a slew of her own watercolors.

Of course, Wojciechowsky had nothing to be ashamed of: Her output is playful, affectionate, and tender. Heaven was everywhere in this enigmatic exhibition, perhaps most splendidly in the polychromatic tableau Untitled, 1970, a pastel-on-paper rendering of a ladderlike being with multiple heads who is rising from a verdant field into the firmament, which seems to be occupied by red, gold, and green . . . flowers? Angels? Celestial schooners? Maybe all of the above. A colored-pencil drawing from 1971 features an outline of someone’s right hand that’s packed with tiny, serene faces—representations of the sitter’s myriad past lives. And in a wall-mounted vitrine installed below Wojciechowsky’s silvery spirit trumpet (a device used by mediums during séances to better hear the whispers of the dead) sat a typed-up holiday sermon authored by the artist, part of which reads OPEN YOUR HEART TO US, THIS CHRISTMAS SEASON, LET US PUT A DROP OF OIL IN YOUR LAMP OF LIFE TO MAKE IT WARM SO AS WE YOUR TEACHERS AND FRIENDS FROM THE WORLD OF SPIRIT CAN STEP CLOSE TO YOU. . . . TAKE OUR OUTSTRETCHED HAND AND OUR BLESSING AS OUR CHRISTMAS PRESENT TO YOU. . . . IN SPIRITUAL LOVE TAKE OUR GREETINGS.

Amen, dear reverend, and countless thanks.