Each year it seems New Yorkers are properly introduced to a relatively unknown artist through a major gallery show. There was Albert York in 2014 in Matthew Marks whose forthright paintings of the East End of Long Island were both freshly modern and classical at the same time, the 17th century printmaker Hercules Segers at the Met who invented exotic landscapes without leaving his studio and earlier this year the virtuoso, multi-disciplinarian Marc Camille Chamowicz at the Jewish Museum. Now apparently it’s the turn of Hilma Af Klint at the Guggenheim, an artist who died in 1944 but is posthumously wowing young artists, serious critics and amateur fans like myself, or at least for a short while. Her paintings are mystical, spiritual and pregnant with the (misplaced) optimism of a new century; they seem come from thin air but I was left with self-doubt walking up and down the familiar spirals of the Guggenheim brushing shoulders with the multitudes of adoring students, who could be found later in the shop buying posters of the work, tee shirts and fridge magnets.
She started as a young artist painting landscapes and conventional scenes with enough competence to find a place in art school. There is a beautiful watercolor on paper of a few long stemmed flowers, pale and exaggerated with her neat disciplined handwriting along the top, a tender image and a moment of connection and intimacy. But this is not the norm, the show itself is made up of a large set of paintings which are depopulated by people and things, they are non-objective, abstract works, flowing and richly, diversely colored. They demand to be seen in person, as a printed reproduction will not allow you to see the thinly painted textures, the opaqueness of the brush strokes. Dare I say they are deeply feminine in these non-binary times? I note an immediate reference to a current contemporary artist, Lily Van Der Stokker, who paints with the same instinct, a softness and warmth in her palette and images derived from organic, biomorphic shapes. But other than their prettiness, the brave abandonment of figure or focal point I am left with nothing much to hold onto or admire.
She may or may not have beaten her male counterparts to “invent” abstraction. Reading the reviews you are left with the feeling that it is a triumph for feminism and you sense that the critic Roberta Smith would not have been more ecstatic had Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon to find a Nail Salon. Other critics too like Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker found a lot to admire here also and there we already have the thumbs up from the key art institutions, museums, critics and curators but I was left cold by the show and found myself perversely building a case against her.
Firstly, much of the latter work on paper, although beautiful, reminded me of ceramic designs of the industrial revolution, the kind of imagery I could imagine quickly passing by in a Wedgewood exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum, in other words, they are decorative drawings. This thought led me to other artists making work many years (and centuries) before AF Klint without figuration and the list is endless, from the original American’s blankets and handicrafts to Islamic arts, to useful crafts made in candlelit farmhouses; non-objective artifacts rapidly outstrip objective ones. But we are hooked to the figure. Earlier this year Mary and I were in a cold cave in Western France, trying to ignore the voices of children, the overly engaging tour guide and the slippery floors to see a group of chalk lines that have existed untouched for 17,000 years, of game, of dinner made with an economical lines and elegance that outsmarts some contemporary artists today. This we were informed, was the first art work. There is a widespread tendency to think of the history of art as a race of sorts, first as mastery of the medium and secondly of the idea. In the west we have a chronology of these developments, of the twists and turns, and these conclusions are reached not by dictatorial studies but through consensus.
Which returns us to Af Klint, as she is anointed, fully accepted into the fold, art history reinvented a little. This was hinted at both by the Guggenheim text and by Roberta Smith, is this a readjustment or realignment of art history? Should we now be rewriting the familiar texts to give her the crown of inventing abstraction? Well, I still have a problem with this and at its root is deciding the difference between what is good and what is bad, has she been excluded from history until now because her work lacks worthiness, because it was withheld twenty years after her death or was it the fault of society or a lack of agreement and interest ?
There is a famous statement accredited to Ileana Sonnabend who said that she only bought art she hated, it speaks of the need to learn from an artist, from critics and the other potentially more corrupt self-serving stakeholders swarming around a successful artist. What I have learned is to not trust my own judgement when first looking at art work; this is never truer of this show, which requires revisiting several times, hopefully with more of an open disposition and to stop questioning if this is just a triumph of institutional acceptance and consider whether it is indeed a show of ground breaking art.