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.