A Schematic and Spiritual Early Abstraction: Hilma af Klimt


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.


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.


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.

Soviet Photography at The Jewish Museum


The “The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography and Early Soviet Film” exhibition at the Jewish Museum offer insight into a period of rapid change in Russia in both politics and art during the 1920s and 30s through fantastic photography–masterpieces of innovative formal development. They also tell an alternate story of early photography that differs from the traditional one of Modernism. In the politically charged climate of Russia, artistic innovation was initially bound to utopian ideals of Communism. This exhibition shows how the codification of visual style from avant-garde Constructivism to a brutal Social Realism parallels a changing society: one that went from revolution and idealism to totalitarian state control over the course of some-twenty years.

IMG_7711In its beginnings, photography was both an art form and documentary tool. Formal and technical developments, such as photograms and photomontage, fascinated artists as walls like the one pictured above testify. The portable, late-1920s model Leica cameras freed photographers from the bulky equipment previously required. The Jewish Museum quotes Lenin as declaring that the camera, as much as the gun, was an important weapon in “class struggle.” Dying in 1924, Lenin would not see how photography came to be used by Stalin and other leaders of the Communist party to assert ideological control.

Arkady Shaikhet, Assembling the Globe at Moscow Telegraph Central Station, 1928, gelatin silver print.

Stunning compositions from 1930s, like Shaikhet’s Assembling the Globe, demonstrate growing state control over the images produced as well as strong formal composition. It depicts the installation of a decorative globe at the new telegraph building in Moscow, but also signifies the building of a new world by faceless workers who could be any man. Divided into thematic sections, one long gallery focuses on images of the “Metropolis” (cityscapes) and “Constructing Socialism” (trains, electricity, and factories). They form a portrait–largely unpeopled–of agrarian village society being drug into a progressive future of large urban areas and technical innovation. Images like Shaiket’s were frequently reproduced in newspapers and on posters.


Military images including portrait of Stalin, far left.

Stalin, pictured above on far left, consolidated power by 1932 and experimental styles began to be frowned upon. Photography was still used for political purpose, just with tighter control. Final sections of photographs are organized around the themes of the Military, Soviets, Staging Happiness, and Physical Culture. The Military photographs emphasize might, and Soviets portray individuals in a manner that espouse the values of loyal, productive citizens. By the time one reaches Staging Happiness with its impressive fake parades that give the illusion of popular support and Physical Culture with its muscular ideal beauty, the point is clear: experimentation and artistic license gave way to strict state directives that hid the true Socialist experience. Despite this, the photographs on view are often compelling and dynamic works of art, and sometimes one can read against the grain to the shadow side of Soviet life.


Graphic design at this time was making fantastic leaps and bounds, and fortunately there are display cases of publications throughout the exhibition. The state supported elaborate photo books, such as the one above with its inventive parachute foldout. This 1935 issue of USSR in Construction was designed by Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova with extravagant paper foldouts. The journal functioned both a propaganda tool and creative publication that influenced design worldwide. Such design-heavy books featuring positive images of the new Soviet state were also sent abroad.


In addition to photography, there is a focus on film in a final room of fantastic movie posters and small auditorium. The auditorium regularly screens important Soviet films such as Battleship Potemkin and lesser known gems such as Aelita: Queen of Mars. The rare film posters were printed on the cheapest paper and not considered worth preserving at the time, but their dynamic, geometric designs–instep with the aesthetic of the photographs–suggest their innovation and allure. This emphasis on film makes the point that these posters and films disseminated Communist ideology just as the photographs did, heralding new mediums for propaganda.


“The Power of Pictures: Soviet Photography and Soviet Film” traces a fascinating history of avant-garde abstraction for radical political purpose that became codified into simplified, heroic forms of Socialist Realism as a totalitarian government took tighter control over its public message. A rare chance to see many of these works together (some 180 works in all, featuring Sergei Eisenstein, El Lissitzky, and Alexander Rodchenko among others), make sure to see this exhibition before it closes February 7, 2016.

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.