A Schematic and Spiritual Early Abstraction: Hilma af Klimt

Hilma-af-Klint-studio-1895

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.

Phone Tag: Interview with Rachelle Sawatsky

Installation view, "Reincarnation Clash", China Art Objects, 2016

Installation view of “Reincarnation Clash,” China Art Objects, 2016

For this iteration of Phone Tag, I Skyped with the L.A.-based painter Rachelle Sawatsky from her home one morning, with the bright sun, chirping birds, and sound of traffic creeping in. Previous Phone Tag participant Monique Mouton knows Rachelle from their time studying at Emily Carr Institute in Vancouver, B.C., and connected us. Rachelle plays ideas about abstraction and figuration off each other in painted ceramic objects and writing in addition to paintings. Her recently closed exhibition at China Art Objects Galleries in L.A., depicted animals on fantastical journey described in poetic titles such as “The Animal Lover’s Guide to Tragedy/The Emotional Person’s Guide to Plot” and punctuated by high-hung shaped ceramic tiles dipped in watercolor. In this interview, the artist describes the fluid and generative way she moves between word and image, trusting an image, and her interest in the writings of Agnes Martin.

 

Phone Tag is a generative interview format, where I ask each participating artist five questions (plus others as the discussion meanders). At the end, I ask him or her to introduce me to a working artist whose attitude and work they find interesting and inspiring, who I then interview with the same five questions.

***

LW: “So I know you have an exhibition at China Art Objects that went up recently. What have you got going on now?”

RS: “I’m in a show this fall, in Vancouver, at a museum, so I’m working on figuring out what pieces are going to go in that. I’ve been working on a series of new drawings that stem from Agnes Martin’s writings. I’ve been thinking about her work a lot, for several years, and how there seems to be a point of view, a perspective, but no body in her work. So I went on this internet trail and I found some early work she did. She destroyed most of her early work, but there’s some… a lot of it is figurative… some Greek and Biblical myths…but it still seems to obfuscate the body, the queer body in particular…. So, that is an interest of mine, but in these drawings I’m not using her paintings as a starting point, but her writings, and thinking about metaphysical language as a way to generate new ideas for imagery.”

LW: “I didn’t realize. Did she do a lot of writing?”

RS: “Yeah. There’s a volume of collected writings that are published. They’re feel super inspired by New Age and Eastern Philosophy, but she said that it isn’t specific to any religion. I’m going to go on a trip this winter, once it gets colder in the desert. Spend some time in the landscape where she lived and draw and write.”

LW: “Is this something that has been percolating for a while?”

RS: “I’ve been talking about it for years. And then I was like, I should just do it now.”

"Roulette" 2016 oil and flashe on canvas, 58 x 104 inches

Roulette, 2016, oil and flashe on canvas, 58 x 104 inches

LW: “Totally. Is she someone you think of as an influence? And, more generally, who has influenced your practice?”

RS: “Probably the painters that have influenced me the most would be Joan Brown, Agnes Peltin, and Maria Lassnig. I think all of them are interested in developing bodies of work or systems of articulation, systems of thought, around the emotional life… and thinking of metaphysical states and your personal life in the same sentence. Those have been some keystones for me. Also, I look at a lot of drawings by Rosemarie Trockel and Louise Bourgeois and Marisol.

For the most recent show I did—that’s still up at China Art Objects—I wrote a poem about being on a plane and imagining all the different people on it and what would it be like to suddenly become them and live their lives. This poem expanded into a narrative poem I wrote for the show that also had a plane crash where all the bodies reincarnated as animals. Then I made all these narrative paintings telling this far-fetched story. I had this celestial body of ceramic stars all dipped in watercolor that were hung all over the walls at different heights. I was kind of imagining a metonymic relationship between the two bodies of work, in that the watercolor ceramics are dipped so they have these horizon lines, this sense of the registration of the earth through the watercolor. And these paintings are kind of like interior space or exterior spaces, kind of ambiguous, and the whole feeling is like being on a plane, lightness and airiness….At the same time I was reading Patricia Highsmith’s The Animal-Lovers Book of Beastly Murder, about short stories from the perspective of animals who are kind of mistreated and have revenge killings on their owners…. So there is darkness in it too.”

LW: “Nice.”

RS: “Yeah. So, fiction is a big interest of mine, and artist’s writings. In this show, Patricia Highsmith is someone I was really thinking about and Joan Brown, too.”

"Reincarnation Clash" 2016 oil and flashe on canvas, 52 x 58 inches

Reincarnation Clash, 2016, oil and flashe on canvas, 52 x 58 inches

LW: “Have you always thought of yourself as an artist? As a visual artist versus a writer…do you distinguish?”

RS: “I was always into both. The first time I ever did art, the first memory I have about art, is when I was in a preschool program, when I was like 4 or something, and we had different activities but I never knew the names for them, and one of them was Cooking, and we made peanut butter and jam sandwiches, and the other one was Art, so we would paint. I always thought they were the same activity…doing messy things with liquid… I’ve always really gravitated toward making as a process of experimentation with materials.

I also wrote a lot of stories and poetry since I was a kid. I used to think of them as separate from my artwork. More recently, over the past few years, I’ve been using my writing as a generative process for working with imagery. Imagery is something that feels somewhat new to me. I think that it’s really through my writing that that has happened.”

LW: “Do you ever use text in your paintings?”

RS: “No. I think part of the reason I neglected to use my writing in shows before is that text sometimes has a very authoritative function. In relation to something visual, it’s comfortable for someone to read a text in a gallery and feel a sense of something explaining something. And I enjoy making things that might have an uncomfortable relationship to language, or more of a relationship to materials or physicality or another kind of poetics or objectness. For this reason I never used text alongside my work as I thought that it would interfere with this, but I’ve found through poetry I’ve been able to find different affinities.”

LW: “Yeah, I feel like you seen them differently, images and text, and it changes the dynamic to put them together, for sure.”

RS: “I’m interested in the strange compositional possibilities of it too, in editing…looking at different bodies of work, whether its drawing or ceramics or paintings, and kind of like working with the show in mind and writing to kind of compose the exhibition. For another show [at Harmony Murphy Gallery], I made a body of work called Stone Gloves, a series of drawings that were exploring emotional and psychological boundaries within the body. A lot of them also had animal and, like, ET imagery in them too, this kind of non-gendered bodiliness that I was interested in. Those drawings all had titles that made up the line of a poem. I’ve recomposed the poem and worked with it in subsequent exhibitions reinstalling the drawings in different ways. I think that it’s interesting to work with text  compositionally.”

Untitled, 2015, watercolor and glaze on ceramic, 20 x 21 x 2.25 inches

Untitled, 2015, watercolor and glaze on ceramic, 20 x 21 x 2.25 inches

LW: “That makes sense to me. Where are you now—are you in your studio?”

RS: “No, at home.”

LW: “I can hear the birds outside; it sounds very pleasant. Do you have a studio? What’s an ideal day like in the studio?”

RS: “Getting up really early. For the past show I meditated every day. That was a way to bring less intention to everything I made and to be open to whatever kind of free associative thing happened. So, that’s become a part of my practice. Just have no plans. To make things all day. Probably meet someone for a late lunch or a beer at a Mexican restaurant near my studio.”

LW: “Have you been in the same studio in LA since you’ve been there?”

RS: “This is the second or third studio I’ve had. It’s really great. One thing I really enjoy about being in L.A.—it’s quickly changing—it’s getting more expensive—but still at this point it’s manageable. I feel a lot of freedom here to have a large studio to myself and be able to make large work and to be able to also work outside because the weather is nice year-round.”

LW: “What about the ceramic pieces—are you able to make those…?”

RS: “I make some of those in my studio but I also work in another ceramic studio as well.”

"Heartbreak Confusion Disaster" 2014, chalk paster on newsprint, 20 x 24 inches

Heartbreak Confusion Disaster, 2014, chalk paster on newsprint, 20 x 24 inches

LW: “Do you think it’s better for an artist to be in a big city like L.A., where is getting more expensive, or to be in a smaller, quieter place where maybe the focus could be more on making?”

RS: “That’s a question I ask myself a lot. Personally right now I enjoy living in L.A. because I feel like there’s a lot of really great people here, who I have a lot of energy with. It’s nice to be in a place where you feel like you’re rocks rubbing against each other making sparks. I enjoy those stimulating interactions. There’s a lot of that going on in L.A. and I’m interested in a lot of artists working here. In that regard, L.A. works for me at this point. I imagine at some point in the future I’ll move somewhere quieter to work but for now, it’s really great.”

LW: “How was Vancouver?”

RS: “I visit there quite often and I have a lot of friends there. I feel like there’s a lot of creative exchanges that I still have there. The rents are super expensive, especially studio rent. I think it would really change the work I made if I were to live there.”

There’s also a lot of nature around there, which is really different and great. Here we have more desert, and there it’s a forest space. I used to spend a lot of time in the woods there – there are all these little islands off the coast and my parents have a cabin there –so I used to work a lot in the cabin.”

Untitled, 2015, watercolor and glaze on ceramic, 12 x 11 x 2.25 inches

Untitled, 2015, watercolor and glaze on ceramic, 12 x 11 x 2.25 inches

LW: “That sounds fantastic. Is that where you think you pull so many animals in your work from—from nature? Or is it more metaphorical?”

RS: “Well… I am influenced by the animals around me. Like, my cat passed away a year ago, and I think somehow I wasn’t intending to reimagine his reincarnation. But I just kept painting cat bodies. I didn’t realize it until I hung the show. But I also think there’s this other level of the imaginary, or, imagined beings. The imagery of metaphysical realms is something that’s kind of an intriguing challenge for me right now. Also, imagery that is  somewhat irreverent to abstract transcendental painting, which has a lot of formalism to it…”

LW: “Yeah, and heavy spiritual overtones…”

"Romance" 2016 oil and flashe on canvas, 52 x 58 inches

Romance, 2016, oil and flashe on canvas, 52 x 58 inches

RS: “Yeah, I’m imagining replacing those with dark humor instead. I think about giving a painting permission a lot. Allowing each painting to come into its own in its own way and not necessarily thinking about a style or a finish. To stay with the image, whether that’s this plane crash or something like that.. is more of a challenge than to imagine the painting expressing a continuity of an aesthetic style.”

LW: “Well if you’re trying to let go of control, do you do a lot of paintings and sketches, or do you kind of just paint on canvas and keep going?”

RS: “I use both drawing and writing in preparatory ways. Sometimes I’ll write a line and think ‘What if I painted this?’ And then I’ll draw maybe a little bit. I don’t think of it as losing control… it is more about trusting whatever poetic confusion the image holds. I work slowly and sometimes repaint a painting several times. The paintings in the show at China Art are very pictorial, and I was really into the idea of a kind of blind sincerity of illustrating a line. Sometimes my drawings come from a very different place, like, the aggressivity of something internal or anti-kind-of-formalness. So it’s sort of a fluctuation of a lot of different energies and forces.”

LW: “It’ll be interesting to see how this translates into Agnes Martin, who I only know through her paintings, but just seems so different in my mind…”

RS: “Yeah, I imagine it being really different. I’m thinking I’m just going to pretend I’ve never seen anything she made.”

LW: “But for this upcoming show in the fall, you’re working more with existing work?”

RS: “Yeah, I am. I’m making an installation, drawings, and the ceramic wall paintings I’ve been doing. And then I’ve also recently been experimenting with screenprinting my chalk pastel drawings onto ceramics, so then there’s another element where some of the ceramics start to feel photographic –some of them are made with paper clay and with watercolor–they feel like paper. Or, slightly sculptural as the edges are all painted, as if they are canvases that has messed-up painting on the sides.”

LW: “Great, thank you for participating in Phone Tag.”

RS: “It was a pleasure to meet you.”

LW: “Yes, likewise!”

Phone Tag: Interview with Ezra Tessler

This Furtive Burg, Ezra Tessler

This Furtive Burg, Ezra Tessler

For the this iteration of Phone Tag, Chase Westfall connected me with the Brooklyn-based painter Ezra Tessler. Ezra is a painter who received his MFA from Bard College in 2015. He recently showed his work at ZsONA MACO contemporary art fair in Mexico City with Páramo Gallery. His work often deals with the nature of painting and image-making itself, and how it might expand the sphere of what painting can do in the world. Not realizing how close we live to one another in Brooklyn, we Skyped one recent morning, discussing Ezra’s recent paintings, navigating teaching and making work in New York, and somehow balancing life concerns at the same time.

Phone Tag is a generative interview format, where I ask each participating artist five questions (plus others as the discussion meanders). At the end, I ask him or her to introduce me to a working artist whose attitude and work they find interesting and inspiring, who I then interview with the same five questions.

*****

This Furtive Burg (alternate view), Ezra Tessler

This Furtive Burg (alternate view), Ezra Tessler

LW: What are you working on now?

ET: I just came back from Mexico where I was in a two-person booth at MACO with Barb Smith, a sculptor who did her MFA at Bard with me. I worked on two bodies of work for that show. One group was a kind of three-dimensional painting, something I’ve been working through for a number of years. I wanted to do more than just makes “pictures.” I didn’t want to make paintings as images just to be consumed on the Internet. So I’ve been thinking about a kind of parity between the surface of the painting and the structure of the painting, a possible non-hierarchy between those two things. I’ve been making paintings where the structure is sort of equal to the surface. For example, there are the paintings I make that use clay and oil, these sort of pictorial landscapes. So there’s a pictorial space to them but they come off the wall at angles. Between the pictorial space and the physical space of the painting is this idea that they would create a sort of third experience of space for the viewer. If the cheesiest way to think about a painter’s aspirations is that he or she would like to move the viewer, these paintings try do that in the simplest possible way, they do it by literally making you move around the painting.

I had been thinking a lot about Cézanne, and the ways in which an apple looks like it’s about to jump off the canvas but also looks like its flat and dead. I like that idea of two distinct things—still and in movement, coming and going, falling apart and forming at the same time. Ideally these paintings feel like they’re coming and going at the same time.

Tessler_02

Installation, Bard MFA Thesis Exhibition

LW: But you’re often working with more abstract imagery. So not like an apple…

ET: Exactly. I just finished grad school, during which I constantly battled a perceived struggle between figure and ground. I think a lot of my mentors came from a generation of painters still thinking in immediate ways about Abstract Expressionism and this idea that a painting should be an artifact of a series of battles the artist plays out on canvas. For me the culmination of grad school involved getting rid of the figure and making the painting the figure, oftentimes resorting to abstraction or pattern or stripe, things that in some way offered a field. The embodied field allowed – temporarily – to get past this idea of a figure-ground dichotomy. Those paintings present a clear pictorial landscape but ideally they could also subvert a presumed way of looking at a painting. The idea that you could hold two subject positions of being still and in movement…of coming and going…has some political possibilities. An identity position in which you were able to be both still and moving. I’ve been thinking about what the implications might be, however slight.

The second body of work paired the 3D work with these Delacroix sketches I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Delacroix’s sketches show Christ on the Sea of Galilee. He’s asleep and the disciples are crowded on the raft and reeling in terror at the storm. Christ wakes up and scolds them. Van Gogh and others seemed particularly struck by these sketches. There’s one at the Met that’s quite striking. I’ve been looking at this painting for a long time and thinking about this idea that a painting could be both a source of comfort and but also a source of exposure or risk. I was thinking about the analogy of raft, as an analogy for painting, for the studio, for larger political positions. The paintings that came out of this long process alternate between stains and images so that they move between abstraction and figuration.

Now that those are done, I’m excited to try to push further. I’m curious to see what’s next.

Still in the Tempest II, Ezra Tessler

Still in the Tempest II, Ezra Tessler

LW: You mention Delacroix and Cézanne. Are those influences? Are your influences mostly painterly?

ET: They’re artists whose work I’ve spent a lot of time looking at and thinking about. They come up a lot in my own teaching with students as well.

But I would answer your question in two ways. One influence is the teachers and mentors whose work and lives I respect. A lot of the teachers I most respect offer examples for how to live a good life that engages a community–people like Nancy Shaver, Amy Sillman, Monika Baer, A.L. Steiner. People who offer models for life as an artist.

But also a lot of the work I think about and look at now is work that is very different from the work I do. For example, Sondra Perry, who you’ve interviewed. Or, I just saw a talk at MACO by Jenn Rosenblit, who gave an amazing panel talk. So much of my own work comes out of questions of social justice. Why make art of a particular kind and for whom? What is ethical work, what do qualities of generosity and empathy mean? The artists I respect most are artists who think about that and who force me to think about that further. Painting is a medium that perhaps doesn’t allow for such an opening up. I’m definitely a studio rat, but I find that challenges brought by non-painters to be ones that I want to engage in, the ones I think about most. People like Adrian Piper and Andrea Fraser, for example—even though a connection to a painting practice is tenuous, largely because painting so starkly embodies the problems or contradictions they challenge. I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about painters who work in three dimensions like Moira Dryer and Ralph Humphrey, for example, who really pushed parity between structure and surface.

LW: You mentioned being a studio rat, and maybe that is typical of a painter. So what’s an ideal day in this studio?

ET: A typical day involves getting to the studio early with my dog, Zalea, and spending all day there. I spend as much time as possible in the studio. I usually get right to work. My studio has always been very chaotic but it’s important to me to have a lot of work going at one time. I wake up excited to get to the studio and when I get there I’m equally excited to work, whether that means putting down a new layer of paint, sanding away an old layer, or riffling through books and images.

LW: If you have that many projects going, is it helpful for you to be able to jump from one to another?

ET: This has been the challenge. Deadlines often bring about an editing process. For example, there were two bodies of work that went to this show in Mexico but I had been working on a number of bodies of work leading up to it. As the deadline got closer, work got winnowed out. In the end, I make a lot of decisions in the editing process outside of the studio. Especially because paintings get dealt with in the studio in such dumb and absurd material ways.

Installation, Zona Maco

Installation, Zona Maco

LW: When did you first start thinking of yourself as an artist?

ET: This is a challenging question. After college, I worked in human rights for several years, I did doctoral work, and only after that did I do an MFA. But the entire time I was doing that other stuff, I was painting and seeing work and reading about work. But it was always a balancing act. There came a certain point when I thought: “When am I going to make the jump?”—as if it required a large decision to change my life to enable it. But I looked up one day and was spending all my free time in the studio making work, so it sort of happened naturally that I started to think of myself as an artist. Simply because I was making work.

I had been working in these other worlds that in my mind were connected to the studio but for other people weren’t connected. For me, it was very clear why I was involved in human rights but also keeping up a studio practice, or doing a doctoral program and painting, but for other people it wasn’t so clear. I had probably been worrying too much about that category of an official artist.

LW: I ask the question because for me it took a long time to call myself a writer. When did you start painting? As a child? Always?

ET: Always, always. When I was in the womb, my mother—who was not a professional artist—was going to the Barnes museum on the weekends and taking classes with Violette de Mazia. My earliest memories are of going to the Barnes Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or looking at books of the Ashcan school with my grandfather.

Heather and Lore, Ezra Tessler

Heather and Lore, Ezra Tessler

LW: You live in Brooklyn now, and I take it you’ve been in the New York City area for a while. My final question is whether it’s better to be in a big city like New York where it’s tough and expensive but there’s a major art scene, or to be in a smaller, quieter place where you can maybe focus on making?

ET: Several friends have brought their graduate student classes from outside of New York for studio visits and I always get the question ‘Should I move to New York City?’ It’s such a personal question though. A number of friends have moved upstate or out of NYC so they can live cheaply and have a bigger studio, and that makes a lot of sense. But the answer seems clear to me right now–it’s where I have a community of people. For me, that’s most important—to be talking about and looking at art and fighting things out in the studio with friends and studio visits. Right now almost everyone I know is in New York… people who offer a source of comfort and challenge in the larger project of making work. For me, the most important thing is to have the ability to make the work as much as possible and to have a community.

It’s also such a personal decision how one participates in the art world and which art world you participate in, because obviously there are many art worlds inside and outside of New York City. Sometimes when NYC gets to be a bit much I think about people like Nancy Shaver, Martin Puryear, Dana Hoey, and other artists who I respect a lot and who have moved upstate and built a life that seems conducive to making work and community. But I’m still building my life here and it’s hard to want to give that up.

LW: Yeah, absolutely. This has been great. Thank you for participating.

ET: Thank you.