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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Hilma af Klint

I know. I am in the minority, but I was really underwhelmed by Hilma af Kilnt's work.

First of all, I find all that mumbo-jumbo medium stuff off-putting. It seems cultist and whacky. Since I wasn’t on board for that, it was hard to get excited about work, the focus and raison d’être of which, is the mumbo-jumbo medium stuff.

All I could think of when looking at af Klint’s work were doodles in a high school kid's notebook. They obviously meant something, but were unintelligible, aesthetically unremarkable and completely lacking in any sort of soul. More like diagrams than art. Unless you’re a follower of her beliefs, there didn’t seem to be a lot of there there.  

It’s hard not to like the large Paintings from the Temple (pictured Youth), they are beautiful things. But appealing as they are, they’re pretty bland and really quite decorative. In fact, to me, they are precursors to the great Swedish (primarily textile) designer, Josef Frank’s designs. I love his work, but I wouldn't put him in the same class as Kandinsky, or in a show at the Guggenheim. 

While I was going through the exhibition, I took a detour into the gallery with selections from the Guggenheim's permanent collection. Among the works on view was an abstract Kandinsky. I stood in front of it for a while, so struck by how much energy and richness it had as compared to the anemic af Klints hanging just outside. It completely dispels the suggestion that af Klint beat him to abstraction—a silly construct anyway. I also would argue that af Klint’s work isn’t really abstract because the symbols and equations in the work are not purely formal embellishments, they have actual meaning. Picasso and Braque famously inserted words in their later Cubist works. The words were nonsensical, or more accurately, words that make sense, but didn’t have any meaning as relates to the subject of the painting. They were used solely as visual tools to stop the eye from going into space, keeping everything on the flat surface of the picture plane. This focus on the painting as object and not a window into an illusory 3-D world was a concept central to abstraction.  

Don't get me wrong, I applaud efforts to bring stellar female artists (and others previously overlooked) out of the shadows, but let it be someone really extraordinary like Katarzyna Kobro. The problem with her is there's not enough extant work for a big ass museum show and its attendant merch—and that I think hits at the crux of the matter—marketing. (Speaking of which, I almost went for the very Swedish set of two plastic little trays emblazoned with two of the Paintings from the Temple—a perfect place for them. I didn’t end up getting them as I was a little troubled by the scale.) 

I would classify af Klint as an outsider artist akin to Henry Darger. They each created an immense body of work within a self-imposed vacuum. I find Darger’s work far more compelling. It has a passion that is completely absent from af Klint’s. Looking at it, you feel that passion and when coupled with the circumstances of his life, the work becomes a bigger, exceedingly moving story of perseverance and triumph. It's certainly noteworthy that af Klint created an only recently discovered, enormous body of work and belief system, but it’s primarily a human interest story. I object to the slavish adulation surrounding the show, that has given af Klint a stature she really doesn't deserve.