Mysticism contained: af Klint’s Paintings for the Future

The af Klint exhibition at the Guggenheim is a sublime encounter, simultaneously entirely familiar yet alien and unexpected. Born in 1862, af Klint was a painter preoccupied with mysticism. One of the first women to receive a higher education at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, she painted commercially for money but pursued mysticism throughout her life. As a teenager, she “participated in spiritistic séances but gave them up due to their lack of seriousness” and in her 30’s she and four other female artists founded a spiritual group that met once a week. The group made contact with spiritual beings which culminated in af Klint channeling the messages she received in a collection of 193 paintings, the majority of which are shown in this exhibition.

The backstory is a bit kooky so I can see why the Guggenheim’s and the af Klint foundation’s official materials insist on framing her as the first abstract artist in the Western world. Absent this framing, I can see how af Klint might be dismissed as a skilled eccentric, and it is quite refreshing and important to give this primacy to a female artist whose mystical works were unknown in her time (af Klint’s will stipulated that these works be shown only after her death). But the current climate makes me, at least, amenable to a more direct engagement with the spiritual messaging. Tarot readings and astrology charts are the cultural currency of now - a 20-something-year-old who doesn’t know their moon and rising signs may as well announce their love for capitalism. A couple of years ago it was even all the rage for tech firms in San Francisco to hire astrologers (ironic, I know, but that’s the west coast in a nutshell). I think, however, the collapse of meaning we find ourselves faced with as the planet overheats and the US is in decline makes it timely to engage with the work of someone who was so committed to interrogating and generating meaning through mystic avenues - these are indeed “paintings for the future”. They immediately reminded me of Jodorowsky's usage of talismanic symbols, except of course Jodorowsky began working nearly a century after these works were made.

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Photographs do not do the work justice - in person, even the blacks emanate with warmth. Though the logic of an af Klint might be easy to overlook when a painting is viewed alone, the breadth of this exhibit allows the internal coherence of these works to shine. To see the exhibition is to enter into a world that is ours but not - the signs and symbols coherent, describing a universe that exists in concert with ours yet with an altogether different focus and perhaps a different set of rules.

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There’s an underlying preoccupation (visual and analytic) with Christianity - there’s a visual examination of religions that is af Klint’s understanding of the logic of religions expressed visually. There’s repeated usage of angels and swans - yet these familiar symbols are recontextualized alongside af Klint’s own systems of meaning. There’s a lot of natural imagery and pastel hues and the unity of dualities. There’s a lot of light beams being refracted into rainbows. There’s a lot of space and enlightenment. And af Klint makes sense of microscopic and atomic processes through her own logic. Though this was not taken as serious science at the time (or now), it’s nonetheless incredible to see the depth of her system of meaning and how she endeavored to apply it so comprehensively.

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Though af Klint was a participant in the formalized mystic orders and societies and conferences of her time, she was aware of the potential of her work to be a bit much. She sought out Rudolf Steiner’s (the founder of the Waldorf school, but at the time known as the founder of Anthroposophy) opinion of her work but he was unable to interpret it and even questioned her process. It was such a discouragement to af Klint that she stopped her mediumistic works until 1912, when she returned to the work with a different approach. She did, however, develop extensive plans for this work to be shown after her demise, and the Guggenheim proves to be a close approximation of her dreams. She imagined that her work would be displayed in a cube with layers. In her paintings it sits in what appears a cosmic setting, sitting between the balance of yellow and blue shapes against a dark background. Yellow and blue were af Klint’s colors for gender, blue masculine and yellow feminine, a logic drawn from the color theory at the time. (The unity of the colors produces green, which I find pretty and satisfying). A beam of light emanates from the top, an ecstatic glow, the orgasmic moment of enlightenment that comes with experiencing the work in its entirety.

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In this exhibit, one moves up the spiral of the Guggenheim, getting more deeply immersed in Klint’s world, feeling closer and closer to that sense of enlightenment, and then the exhibit finishes suddenly. What follows are works that are homages to af Klint by contemporary artist R.H. Quaytman. Though the symbolic language Quaytman draws from is af Klint’s, I found the works to lack the depth. There’s a series of circles on the top spiral of the Guggenheim that stay level even as the building continues to ascend until the circle is level with the ground. This felt like a visual and emotional lid - a capping of the show.

For me, that was the deep irony of this show - that even though this exhibition might be the closest to what af Klint envisioned for her own work, the moment of ecstatic enlightenment that Klint planned for is literally capped by contemporary rumination on her work, a lid on that orgasmic moment of enlightenment. Yet this feels appropriate and honest. And necessary. The works are sublime. But I don’t think we can get caught up on these visions of enlightenment - we need to engage with them and remember their limits, remember that there are other ways of making meaning, and that meaning making is ultimately a communal process. Though af Klint imagined enlightenment, I think we need to keep her earthbound for at least a bit longer. I would pay money for a series of af Klint tarot cards, though. Just saying.

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Paintings for the Future is on view at the Guggenheim until April 23rd 2019. I was too immersed to take pictures, so the photographs were provided by Emily Quindlen, Lauren Matrka, and Jen Lue.