New York

Hilma af Klint, Tree of Knowledge, No. 1, 1913–15, watercolor, gouache, graphite, and ink on paper, 17 7⁄8 × 11 5⁄8".

Hilma af Klint, Tree of Knowledge, No. 1, 1913–15, watercolor, gouache, graphite, and ink on paper, 17 7⁄8 × 11 5⁄8".

Hilma af Klint

Hilma af Klint’s numinous, farsighted output never fails to illuminate. She believed that her art would be understood only by people of the future. Perhaps that was why her 2018–19 retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York was the institution’s most attended exhibition ever. Miraculously, af Klint (1862–1944) consistently has more to give. Consider the eight delicate drawings from the Swedish artist’s 1913–15 “Tree of Knowledge” series, a recently unearthed body of work that made a rare public appearance at David Zwirner’s tony space on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. An inscription on the back of one image notes that each piece should be “considered as a prototype of a new period.” That idea came through clear as a bell in the show, which offered an unexpected development in the mystic’s herstory—a marvelous revelation from a vast oeuvre many of us thought we already knew.

Af Klint produced these works as she was completing her first major group of biomorphic and geometric abstractions, “The Paintings for the Temple,” 1906–15, a hypnotic series of 193 canvases, which the artist made between the ages of forty-four and fifty-three, that were generated in part through her spiritualist practice as a medium. In 1908, Rudolf Steiner, the head of the German Theosophical Society, visited af Klint in her Stockholm studio, where he viewed some of the early “Temple” paintings. So began an enduring association: In 1920, the artist became a lifelong member of the Anthroposophical Society, which Steiner had founded in 1913. Af Klint made two sets of the “Tree of Knowledge” drawings, presenting one as a gift to Steiner for the Goetheanum, the headquarters he had designed for the Anthroposophical Society in Dornach, Switzerland. (The artist studied there on and off between 1921 and 1930.) Steiner’s cache landed in a private collection around 1927, and at Zwirner it was slated to be sold to a public institution (anything less would be criminal). The other set is held by the Hilma af Klint Foundation in Sweden’s capital.

Made with watercolor, gouache, ink, and graphite on approximately eighteen-by-twelve-inch sheets of paper, most of the drawings feature the outline of an arboreal form haloed by two spherical objects: one representing the earthly sphere, the other the divine. The orbs are united by a long vertical spine—the trunk of the tree—running down the center of each work. In Tree of Knowledge, No. 1, a red-and-purple heart rests at the bottom of the plant form. Like a seed germinating, the shape sprouts blue and yellow veins, producing a looping circulatory system that runs up and down the tree. All the pieces radiate a geometrical Art Nouveau vibe and promulgate af Klint’s own idiosyncratic motifs and symbolism. For example, blue and yellow represent femininity and masculinity, respectively—two harmonizing aspects that the artist believed each human possesses.

There was, of course, an allusion here to the “tree of knowledge of good and evil”—one of two specific trees, along with the tree of life, named in the biblical story of the Garden of Eden from Genesis 2:3. Yet I didn’t sense af Klint making arguments about ethics or morality in these works, even while apocalyptic anxieties and dread from the outbreak of World War I must have been on her mind. Rather, she once again provided shelter from the storm through a focus on rooting and grounding in utterly groundless times. Works such as Tree of Knowledge Nos. 3, 4, 5, and 6 produce a variegation in color and line that is so openhearted, fantastic, and joyful that I left the show believing that af Klint was genuinely telegraphing a more sustainable, equitable future for us all: a “new period” of spiritual awareness that we all need now more than ever before.