A Schematic and Spiritual Early Abstraction: Hilma af Klimt

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Hilma af Klint in her studio, 1895

Swedish painter Hilma af Klint is pictured above at age 33, looking entirely comfortable in her studio space in Stockholm among figurative works and wooden furniture. This conventional photograph does not hint at her other body of work: large and dynamic abstract paintings that preceded work by such pioneers of abstraction in modern art as Kandinsky and Malevich. “The Keeper” exhibition, up at the New Museum through September 25, boasts a beautiful gallery with 16 of these audacious, tactile, spiritually driven exercises in expressing the nature of a godly reality through reduced line and color. They make a case for a kind of abstraction not encompassed by the story of a move toward reduction and simplification in response to an increasingly chaotic modern world.

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Installation view, “The Keeper,” New Museum, 2016

Af Klint was in fact trying to express a complex vision of the world. John Yau describes af Klint’s exhibition history and context wonderfully in this essay on Hyperallergic. Yau clarifies how the artist arrived at the mystic belief that “painting was the best medium for bringing the invisible or occult world into the visible.” Her readings in theosophy led her to pursue schematic illustrations in which color has distinct emotional valences (for example, blue represented masculinity; pink, spiritual love). As the image below suggests, af Klint’s works are tactile and imperfect, as if the artist was unconcerned with rigorous line for its own sake, but rather pursued form to make visible the underlying order she found in the world. Her abstract paintings were not shown publicly until 1986, writing her out the history of modernist abstraction that she pre-dated. Since then her work has been increasingly shown.

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The Swan, No. II, Group IX/SUW, 1914-15

Why did Massimiliano Gioni and the other curators include these paintings in “The Keeper”? They don’t suggest an interest in preservation in themselves. Rather than small sketches or drawing diagrams on paper, af Klint choose to work in paint on large canvases, despite the fact that she did not show or sell these works as she did in her concurrent figurative practice. Instead, she preserved these works at home until her death in 1944. Gioni, Artistic Director of the New Museum, also included af Klint’s work in the Central Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. At that time, he defended her mystic occultism, which to many people would separate it from art as such, saying:

“placing a work [of art] next to materials that are difficult to classify [such as af Klint’s], thus repositioning it in a narrative dimension, the reinterpretation of the piece is reactivated as both the trace of a personal experience and a different means through which to conceive our image culture. Thus the work of art returns to its former existence as a mysterious object charged with multiple meanings, and returns to presenting a view on the world.

…What really interested me was to reveal the mysterious and, at time, even mystical fascination with art….To escape from the definition of a work’s quality according to its market value. I believe it is essential that works are inserted into a discourse that embraces the entire system of images, including pieces that do not conform to the rules of the market”

I Dream of Knowing Everything: An Interview with Massimiliano Gioni on the 55th International Art Exhibition, by Christina Baldacci (Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia, 2013)

Perhaps one can interpret preservation more generously, in which case these images display a need of the artist to preserve a vision of inner reality of the world. Their size is impressive. Yet, the square format does not recall the human figure, as is sometimes ascribed to vertically oriented canvases. They remain removed from the human experience in their non-figurative imagery as well–for example, in the dynamic composition of radial swirls spiraling across a red background as in The Swan, No. 9 below. Af Klint also used recognizable elements at times, such as birds or astrological signs. In her hands, these elements serve a symbolic purpose rather than an attempt at illusionism.

The Swan, No. 9, Group IX/SUW, 1914-15

The Swan, No. 9, Group IX/SUW, 1914-15

Af Klint’s paintings do an amazing job of unsettling notions of abstraction in art history and the role of mystic diagrams in high art. The paintings do not confirm to the rules of the market, certainly, but they don’t confirm to the story of high art either. I, at least, experienced them as powerful and challenging images. Even at the overwhelming Central Pavilion at the Biennale, af Klint’s few contributions exercised some kind of magnetic appeal. Seeing a larger group of her paintings at the New Museum now is rewarding, as they easily slip into the Modernist, white cube context but still resist clear categorization. It is touching to see the fragile application of paint and imagine the strange tenacity which drove a young Swedish women to create such unconventional works that operate even today on several registers.

100 Years According to “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” at the Whitney

Motley The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sine Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do  Detail: Detail, Motley - The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sine Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, Archibald Motley, c. 1963-72

I walked in through the back. The first painting I saw in the Whitney’s retrospective exhibition “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” was The First One Hundred Years, a striking phantasmagoric diatribe about race relations in the United States, as you can see in the image and detail above. Archibald John Motley Jr.’s (1891–1981) last painting, it was completed in 1973 after nearly a decade of reworking. He did not paint again. While the rest of the exhibition makes the case implied by its title—Motley, a black artist associated with the Harlem Renaissance, as a jazz age modernist deserving of greater recognition—through a coherent body of work, this painting sticks out as something else entirely.

Archibald J. Motley Jr. (1891–1981), Blues, 1929. Oil on canvas, 36 × 42 in. (91.4 × 106.7 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Blues, 1929. Oil on canvas, 36 × 42 in. Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Motley’s works are presented (if one were to begin at the beginning, unlike me) chronologically, first as a room of Classicizing portraits with clearly defined forms that create gravitas. Then, the exhibition proceeds through scenes of Bronzeville, the area of Chicago where Motley lived, worked, and played, to Mexico, which the artist began to visit in the 1960s. These genre scenes often present figurative groups in social atmospheres—nightclubs and city streets—and these people are largely black, or rather gradations of brown, unusual at the time and also seen in his portraits of family members. With arrestingly tilted spatial constructions and high-key color, the scenes are vibrant, pulsating with a bluesy rhythm. Motley often takes advantage of artificial light to strange effect, especially notable in nighttime scenes like Gettin’ Religion (pictured below).

Archibald J. Motley Jr. (1891–1981), Gettin’ Religion, 1948. Oil on canvas, 40 × 48.375 in. (101.6 × 122.9 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Gettin’ Religion, 1948. Oil on canvas, 40 × 48.375 in. Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

These works hint at a tendency toward surreal environments, but with The First One Hundred Years Motley is in starkly symbolic territory, jumping from colorful but largely Social Realist depictions to an order dictated by an internal compass. The full title of this painting is “The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone; Forgive Them Father for They Know Not What They Do,” which begins to suggest the wallop the canvas carries. Portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and JFK hover in a blue twilight scene amid a house with a devil and a dove and a tall tree bearing a hanged man next to the Statue of Liberty. The red of a Confederate Flag and the devil stands out among the all-over blue tonality. A dark void with suggestions of features haunts the middle, reminiscent of an unarticulated Francis Bacon. In great contrast to the realism, conviviality, and safe distance of the other canvases, here Motley pulls no punches.

The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sine Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, c. 1963-72

Archibald J. Motley Jr., The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sine Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, c. 1963-72. Oil on canvas.

Rather than understanding The First One Hundred Years as a way of ending the exhibition with an exclamation point, perhaps this painting offers a more directly political lens with which to understand the rest of his oeuvre. The genre scenes and portraits are of course already political for creating visual representations of black culture and showing black bodies. But the manner in which Motley depicts black people is a little more difficult than that; Motley’s figures are stylized and general rather than representing particular individuals, but sometimes they verge on grotesque caricature with skin painted an unmodulated black and mouths oversized, garishly red. The labels at the Whitney propose that it is a form of irony on Motley’s part, at a time when irony was rarely seen in painting. The contention is that those in the know would understand that the artist was dramatizing stereotypes rather than taking them at face value. Titles such as “Mulatress with Figurine and Dutch Seascape” also suggest he pointedly engages with social constructs.

Archibald J. Motley Jr. (b. 1891–1981), Self-Portrait (Myself at Work), 1933. Oil on canvas, 57.125 × 45.25 in. (145.1 × 114.9 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Self-Portrait (Myself at Work), 1933. Oil on canvas, 57.125 × 45.25 in. Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

While I don’t have an alternate explanation than the Whitney’s, it is still a shock to see titles that refer to racial designations that would have seemed backwards in Motley’s own time and depictions that from any white painter would read as straightforward racism. In a review in the Wall Street JournalPeter Plagens writes that

Motley called himself a “blues aesthetician,” and the dualism implied by these two words is indicative of his whole career. Motley longed to create a visual equivalent of black music’s vigor, slang and dialect. As a black artist, he could be fearlessly ironic in portraying African-American life, but as an academically trained and Paris-modernized outsider, he couldn’t help but see his subjects through a distancing lens.

That dualism that makes some of his work difficult collapses in The First Hundred Years into pathos and conviction with no distance or irony. The 100 years of the title refers to the centenary since the abolition of slavery in 1865, and the history that Motley depicts since that event looks like a nightmare rather than progress. Perhaps most jarring, it feels relevant today.

Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” is up at the Whitney through January 17.

“The Forever Now” at MoMA: Death, Atemporality, and Zombies

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Installation shot with works by Kerstin Bratsch

 

Critic Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker dates the last contemporary painting show at MoMA to 1958, over 50 years ago. Which is to say, an exhibition of contemporary painting seems timely, if not overdue. Enter “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” an exhibition of recent work by 17 contemporary painters up through April 5. Yet reviews of the show are hardly celebratory. Instead, they ring a death knell.

Installation view of The Forever Now Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, The Museum of Modern Art

Installation view including works by Oscar Murillo, Kerstin Bratsch, and Mary Weatherford, from left to right.

Schjeldahl writes of “dismay,” the “plight of painting,” and “crisis.” Thomas Micchelli, in his Hyperallergic review titled “The Death of Painting: All-New, 2014 Edition,” argues that the show affirms “the inability of painting to do anything surprising or new—aka painting is dead.” Schjeldahl, on the other hand, argues that painting is not dead, but rather that it has “lost symbolic force and function in a culture of promiscuous knowledge and glutting information.” Oh, well, great. From such statements, one can see why there have been no surveys of contemporary painting at MoMA. Painting is on its deathbed; somehow the medium has exhausted itself and is merely preparing to die, safely archived in the depths of MoMA’s warehouses where it can be brought out and examined as a historical curiosity.

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Installation view with Variable Foot (2014) by Matt Connors and Carlotta (2013) by Charline von Heyl.

However, if you visit “The Forever Now,” you might not glean that painting is dead–at least I didn’t. The works on view are big, bold paintings that are not afraid to embrace the medium and use color and size to declare their presence. Jam-packed as they are, they overwhelm MoMA’s space, and, unfortunately, each other. Sticking true to MoMA’s modus operendi to canonize taste, the show’s safe roster includes current art world favorites, such as the Germans Charline von Heyl and Kerstin Bratsch, Americans Julie Mehretu, Rashid Johnson, Mark Grotjahn, and Amy Sillman, and a new-favorite, the young (28-year-old) Columbian Oscar Murillo. Within them, there are some great paintings, and certainly a lot to talk about, but the curation fails to provide a good context for doing so.

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Nine canvases by Josh Smith.

More than review after review carping on the death of painting, what irks me most about the exhibition is its subtitle: “Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World.” “Atemporal” seems a vague, but much cooler way of saying post-modern, while avoiding the complex burden that using the much-debated P-word would entail. Curator Laura Hoptman took the word “atemporal” from Sci-fi writer William Gibson, who, per the exhibition catalog, “in 2003 used the word atemporality to describe a new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once.” Sci-fi and the Internet would indeed provide a great context for a show of contemporary painting, but they are not strongly in evidence here. Hoptman glorifies the painting on view as zombie painting, half-dead and half-alive. While, again, the terminology is cool, the concept is thin, and all it does is reinforce the notion that nothing new can be done in painting (while presenting the acceptance of that as a new freedom).

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Installation view with three paintings by Mark Grotjahn on left.

“Atemporality” seems like purgatory, sentencing painting to the ennui of repeated gestures. But to freely use elements of art historical tradition does not have to equate to a death sentence, or even a half-death sentence. It is glib to say that these works are “atemporal,” that is, post-modern, and leave the relationship to the past with a mere reference to the Internet (capital “I”). Atemporality, zombies, and the Internet feel like a jargon-y sidestep that puts off dealing with what happens to art history when we discard the Modernist progress narrative and cult of originality. Certainly, of all places, MoMA could do a little better by the breadth of work being made today.