Hilma af Klint

Current Obsession No. 5


Simple question: why did Hilma af Klint’s show at the Guggenheim, which just closed, do so well?

By all rights and by any standard of measure, it should have, of course, but that doesn’t always mean it does. According to the museum’s director, Richard Armstrong, the Swedish artist’s exhibition was the best attended in the Guggenheim’s eight decade history. More, apparently, than “The Art of the Motorcycle,” even. It was such a hit that they extended open hours until 8pm for the last week of its four-month run to accommodate the crowds. And this for an artist who was largely unknown to American audiences, never having had a major retrospective on these shores, who, when she was still alive and painting requested that her work not be shown publicly until twenty years after she died.


I learned this and many other facts from artist and af Klint expert Josiah McElheny. A small group of us was lucky enough to tour the exhibition with Josiah, who has been involved in the painter’s legacy almost since people started paying her any mind, and who contributed to the show’s catalog. I’d already seen the show once, but it absolutely flabbergasted me round two. It was a show that deserved to be experienced multiple times, and the second visit was very different than the first. We went on the closing weekend, so there were huge lines and lots of people. But the work was still quite visible; the museum managed the hordes reasonably well, never admitting so many that it became a problem.

In the large, open room off the rotunda, hung a series of ten gigantic paintings that are, probably, her most important contribution: The Largest Ten. These were completed very rapidly, under the direction of spiritual beings known to Hilma and her cohort as the High Masters. Imagine a young Swedish woman seized by the need to paint these massive works – abstract paintings at a time when abstraction was not yet a concept. Josiah downplayed the question of whether or not she was the first abstract painter. She was guided by somewhat different concerns than many secular Modernists. And it’s true that the question of primacy is maybe just a distraction from bigger questions. But it’s still worth marveling at the date 1906 for these monsters, with their biomorphism, color-coded meanings, and made-up language, and then project back to 1896 for her earliest automatic drawings. Ahead of the curve? Nah, no curve there. No road, no dirt path – she was making it up, paving as she drove. Or the High Masters were. In any case, Hilma heard their call when nobody else seemed to. And they told her to make abstract paintings a few years before Kandinsky, Arthur Dove, or even the great Midwestern abstractionist Manierre Dawson, who is ritually omitted from history books for reasons of region, rather than gender.


Which takes us to the point. The more important question than primacy is simply why, given that Hilma af Klint’s work has been known about by curators and historians for more than 30 years, has she been excluded from the canon? She was nowhere to be found in the recent Inventing Abstraction exhibition at MoMA. How is that possible? Perhaps this helps us explain the popularity of the show. Sure, seen outside of the context of their creation, in simple formal terms they’re beautiful, playful, and colorful, and they’re embedded in a killer narrative of spiritualism and mystery. What’s not to like? But beyond the sensuality and storytelling, af Klint’s paintings seem to have touched on a nerve, maybe the same one that made Wonder Woman a surprise blockbuster – a desire for corrections to the sins of historical omission that have kept women innovators out of the limelight. Here, in big, bold artworks, is an alternate history, an accurate history, displayed, appropriately enough, in a museum founded by a woman, Hilla Rebay, who was herself an abstract artist. Or, as she wanted it to be known, a “non-objective” artist. If the art world in the era of Modernism had been run by women, perhaps we’d be using that term, rather than “abstract,” which is less specific and arguably more confusing.

Hats off to Hilla and Hilma for starting to set things straight.

A Pair of Poets

Current Obsession No. 4


Two wild-child members of their distinct generations. Two very different writers for whom language was a passionate operation. Michael McClure is the elder, born in Kansas fifteen years before Frank Stanford arrived in Mississippi, and he has now outlived his younger colleague by more than four decades. (Stanford committed suicide in 1978, just shy of 30 years old.) I’m currently reading and rereading McClure’s Ghost Tantras, as goo-ga a book as 1964 might have seen, a kind of roaring, sputtering ur-text of hum/animal utterance. Standard English mutates into all-caps nonsense, sound-joy meant to be savored aloud, simple horny exuberance oozed into writing. In 99 playful, sensuous proclamations one hears McClure as he morphs from being a central figure of the Beats through star-status as a hippie-whisperer, then mogrified into another entity altogether, something like the adrift character in Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Nog – continuously moving between categories (male/female, human/beast/plant/mineral/gas), notating these constant transformations with an aim, as he puts it, to create “a poetry of pure beauty and energy that does not mimic but joins and exhorts reality and states the daily higher vision.” It can be goofy, kid-like, dated, or idiotic, but I love it for its unbridled positivity. Here’s what “Ghost Tantra 85” looks like:

stooon grahh drahhr toomowr thown yeee bleesh nathoor coop stile peehn blash n’rooor
gahhr grahh gahoooor roooh grahhr
the brown silver grass-leaves in trillions – rustle
and move as fur of a vast breerth.
– The green spruce are hugging
ascending to a laughing leap.
Time & space whistle together where we
are non-mammalian
and our gahroon molecular voices yearn.
Brah theee ah hoool y’rahh thahr! Thoo!

On YouTube, there’s a beautiful little excerpt from a film called Abstract Alchemists of the Flesh, in which McClure reads some of the Tantras to animals at the San Francisco Zoo. My copy of Ghost Tantras, by the way, once belonged to Julian Beck, director of the Living Theatre; its title page bears his inscription. Cover by Wallace Berman.

Stanford is just about the diametric opposite of McClure. Where McClure is spontaneous and appears not to edit his spiraling love screed (see the pristine manuscript page reprinted as a frontispiece), Stanford is taut, making every word count, whittling everything down to lethal sharpness. In the unpublished The Last Panther in the Ozarks, excerpted in the compendium What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford, one finds the poem “To Find Directions,” with its single directive line: Go to the graveyard. (Is it too much to say that they’ve lived their lives like they wrote, McClure continuing unabated, Stanford cutting his short, the ultimate edit?) In these poems, beauty lies in wait in bleak, terse lines about death and memory, sex and death, death and minnows, lots of death, ghosts, but not ghost tantras, couched in realistic observation, backlit aura, told with the swagger of a rocker. They’re prose poems, stories or scenarios, sometimes mediations based in his homeland in the American south, often working people poems, poems of poverty and sadness with glints of reverie that do not last.

The Arkansas Prison System

Is like a lyric poem
with seven basic themes
first the cottonpicker
dragging behind it a wagon of testicles
a pair of pliers which can fill in
for a cross in a pinch
then there is the warm pond
between the maiden’s thighs
next we have some friends
of yours and mine
who shall be with us always
Pablo the artist
the pubis of the moon
Pablo the cellist
panther of silence
Pablo the poet
the point of no return
and in case of emergency
the seventh and final theme
of this systematic poem
is the systematic way
death undresses in front of you

Come back to this page for new Current Obsessions each week. You can also follow @johnccorbett on Instagram

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