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.

Warped Histories: Goshka Macuga at the New Museum

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Detail, Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not

What do a snake, curators of an international art biennial in Germany, and a destroyed Afgan palace have in common? Historically, very little. Goshka Macuga is known for weaving such disparate motifs together into photo-realistic tapestries that present semi-fictitious, complex narratives. “Goshka Macuga: Time as Fabric” at the New Museum presents several tapestry works, as well as the stage set from a video work, that highlight the performative and archival threads that undergird Macuga’s body of work.

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Installation view of theatrical environment of Preparatory Notes

The first thing the viewer sees stepping off the elevator at the New Museum is a quirky stage set featuring over-sized elements of pastiche, riffing on art history and politics (not unlike Jim Shaw’s Labyrinth... installed on the 5th Floor of the New Museum not so long ago). Like the tapestries, these backgrounds and props are largely black and white. Retaining this somber grey-scale palette from its photographic source makes an implicit claim to verisimilitude yet the objects and characters are blown up to absurd life-size proportions. Branches carefully prop up faces from a cast of characters ranging from Angela Merkela to the artist. Macuga has reinstalled this theatrical environment from a performance at the 8th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, Preparatory Notes (2014). Video documentation of it is screened in the basement theater every Wednesday.

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Tapestry based on Tadeuz Kantor’s The Letter (1967)

Around the rest of the space, tapestries line the walls. They bring together intensely complicated visual–and thereby historical–manipulations onto a large scale. The tapestries, made in Brussels from large composite digital files manipulated in Photoshop, invoke a rich history. For example, Macuga, who was born in Warsaw, recreated Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor’s 1967 performance in Warsaw, then documented it, and made it into an enormous tapestry. As a medium, tapestries are outmoded wall coverings that once acted as important symbols of prestige and power, often used by rulers to tell stories about themselves. Here, Macuga uses the antiquated form to her own ends, shaping a story from the documentation of the recreation of a performance. This implicates her, and us of the contemporary moment, in the original performance. For the viewer, there is the additional pull of the fine weave and how artfully the collage registers as verisimilitude, almost seeming to be a large print rather than a woven textile until seen up-close.

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Detail, Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not

Macuga’s Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not is one of two tapestries that the artist created in 2012 for dOCUMENTA. She showed one in Kassel, Germany and one in Kabul, Afganistan for the duration of the exhibition. The composition reflects these two strange dueling contexts. The destroyed Darul Aman palace in the background resembles a building in Kassel. Standing people in Western clothes (the dOCUMENTA curators) look at the sitting or reclining Afgan people in front of them. The Afgans seem to look toward the center, where an enormous snake, out-of-scale but convincing, raises its head and looks out a the viewer. If tapestry has a history of filling an political function, here the series of gazes points accusingly at the viewer. This vast panorama and impossible history laid out for the viewer suggests the warping of time and historical currents created through art to bring Afganistan and Germany, past and present, art and conflict into uneasy, unsustainable relation. Only through art can you attain that suspension of disbelief, or collapse of distinction, and I would say that the tapestry argues to questionable end.

Detail, The Lost Forty

Detail, The Lost Forty

Macuga creates thoughtfully warped views of history. For more information, a great article about the making of The Lost Forty on the Walker Art Center blog details the complex production of the composite image used as the basis for the tapestry. The Walker invited the artist to spent time in their archives, which led her to the position figures from throughout its history from its founder to herself in 40 acres of pristine forest nearby, the lost forty acres of the work’s title. The article gives a sense of how carefully Macuga creates these fictional scenes with such verisimilitude and historical perversity.

“Goska Macuga: Time as Fabric” is on view through June 26, 2016.

Jim Shaw’s Americana melange at the New Museum

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The New Museum’s “Jim Shaw: The End is Here” presents a retrospective of the 63-year-old West Coast artist who frames his exploration of fringe movements and pop Zeitgeist in inquisitive, art historical terms. My main takeaway from the Shaw exhibition: more is more. Especially when you hang it salon style across big galleries and fill vitrine after vitrine with esoterica. The survey of work from the 1970s onward, on view until January 10, fills three floors.

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Seven Deadly Sins

The second floor opens with a wide range of small works from the 90s–drawings of dreams and painted reimaginings of pulpy book covers. Both tend toward the erotic and the surreal. These works lay the ground for recurring subject matter in Shaw’s oeuvre: pop rendered vivid and uncanny. However, the next room of relatively stripped down recent paintings dispelled any suggestion that Shaw’s interests could be so neatly contained.  In these paintings, the difference between loose background and tightly rendered foreground gives the dense art historical and political allusion room to breathe (as in the excellent Seven Deadly Sins pictured above and below).

Detail, Seven Deadly Sins

Detail, Seven Deadly Sins

On the fourth floor, Shaw’s collections of thrift store paintings and of religious paraphernalia are on display, allowing the visitor to see the source material for much of the artist’s subject matter and share his fascination in lowbrow and weird Americana. The bad, enigmatic thrift store paintings are an odd prism with which to view American culture and the painters’ psyche; Shaw puts himself in their category by repeatedly displaying this collection in galleries.

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Installation of Thrift Store Paintings at the New Museum

Perhaps most impressive is Shaw’s dizzying collection of “didactic art,” featuring tent revival banners and tarot cards, medical texts and masonic heads. The material is probably vaguely familiar to most Americans, but I certainly never examined such cultural artifacts first hand. Even here, it is difficult to do so, simply because there is so much material to take in.

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Installation of Shaw’s Collection of Didactic Art at the New Museum

It is nuts–both the remnants of these fringe movements themselves and the attempt to collect and classify them into some kind of sensible order. Rather than succeeding, Shaw’s collection breaks down the border between what seems crazy and what seems reasonable. It makes you question the line in the sand between lunacy, belief, and fact–although personally I will continue to draw that line at the theory of aliens living among us.

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The pièce de résistance is on the fifth and last floor. Labarynth: I dreamt I was taller than Jonathon Borosky is a show-stopping stage-set of art and culture references blurred into a surreal suggestion of narrative that one can’t pin down. Instead, one wanders among the painted backdrops, raw wood supports, and sandbags examining the imagery. Details, like the one pictured below, surprise you as you spot Colonel Sanders of KFC fame below a large eagle. Characters, seemingly derived from the tarot card set you viewed in the didactic art collection on the floor below, make an appearance as well.

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The phrase “the sleep of reason produces monsters” came to my mind while viewing the show. The artist copied winged monsters from Goya’s famous etching earlier in the show, just as he refers to Dali, Picasso, and figures in the style of the game Monopoly in his final, ambitious work. It seemed fitting for this uncanny melange of found objects and paintings and drawings, in which oddball aspects of American culture start to feel strangely familiar.

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