The Brooklyn Rail talked recently with Catherine de Zegher, the Director of The Drawing Center, and Hendel Teicher, curator and art historian, about their show, 3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing, seen at the Drawing Center this spring. The show is traveling to the Santa Monica Museum of Art this summer, and then to the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin in the winter of 2006. The show presents the work of Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz, and Agnes Martin.
Chris Martin (Rail): I wanted to congratulate both of you on creating a magnificent show and for highlighting two artists: Emma Kunz and Hilma af Klint who are quite unknown here in New York City. Just how did this show come about?
Hendel Teicher: Hilma af Klint’s work was actually proposed here at the Drawing Center by the artist Adam Fuss to Elizabeth Finch, who was then a Curator at the Center, and was also interested in her work. I knew Emma Kunz through shows that I had seen in Europe. And of course, Agnes Martin is very well known. I was principally interested in Emma Kunz’s work and called Catherine and said I have somebody I’d like to show you—an artist whose work is unknown here and who believed her work would not be understood until the 21st century. She said, come over—so that’s how the whole thing started.
Catherine de Zegher: Yes, Hendel came to show me the work of Emma Kunz, and I had long wanted to do a show of Hilma af Klint, and then thinking of combining these wonderful artists, we went on a trip and we were discovering that these women actually had more in common in their lives than we originally had been thinking.
Rail: What were some of things that they had in common?
de Zegher: For example, they lived in a very ascetic way and solitary way, and they apparently dedicated a lot of time just to thinking, to the development of the mind, and to the accumulation of knowledge—knowledge that is not immediately recognizable or visible—meaning they all three had a sense for research and for going further then what is visible.
Rail: A very solitary quest.
de Zegher: Agnes Martin writes about that in several texts. Hilma af Klint did some work with friends but she lived alone. And she took care of her mother her whole life.
Rail: None of them had children or were married?
de Zegher: No.
Teicher: An important common point is not only the modest and acetic life they lead, but that they actually made objects—actual artwork. They made art in this solitary fashion. And the three of them did write in different ways. Hilma af Klint wrote extensively. When we went to Sweden together, we discovered thousands of pages which were sitting there unedited and unpublished. Emma Kunz was a little more pragmatic in her approach—I mean, she wrote and published three books at her own expense. And Agnes Martin’s writing is also, as you know, very important and has been available fortunately. So these women felt the necessity or the urge to write. We decided to exhibit these three artists—but of course there were many more. This is Three Times Abstraction, but it could be Six Times Abstraction or Nine Times Abstraction…
de Zegher: When The Drawing Center is four times as big we can do “Twelve Times Abstraction”… (laughter)
Rail: You mentioned the tremendous amount of Hilma af Klint’s writing that is yet to be translated. Because her work is diagrammatic and presents a kind of spiritual system of belief, I wonder if her writing would unlock some key to her work?
de Zegher: Well, according to Gustav af Klint, her grand nephew, he doesn’t think that it is that important to have all the manuscripts to understand the work. I mean, there are other ways of course to understand visual work than having something descriptive next to it, but I think it would probably shed light on certain works. I’m sure of that. She probably had her own cosmology.
Teicher: Yes, and in some of the drawings there is writing—so that’s already a hint towards that…I do think it would be very interesting see what she wrote—you don’t write thousands of pages just for the fun of it.
de Zegher: Yes, the material is there. I wish someone—students in Sweden or wherever—would take on her manuscripts and do something with them. There’s a whole treasure sitting there.
Rail: Can you talk about the writings of Emma Kunz?
Teicher: Two of the three books Emma Kunz published had “New Methods of Drawing” as the subtitle, and it became the title of this show. She must have felt the urge to write down what she saw and experienced in her “New Methods of Drawing.” But, unfortunately, Anton Meier, the Director of the Emma Kunz Center, doesn’t allow easy access to these books.
Rail: That’s a shame. These artists aren’t getting the respect they deserve. You know among a small group of artists, Hilma af Klint is almost a legendary figure—I mean, we admire her tremendously and yet she’s almost entirely unknown in America. Why is that? I mean why isn’t she in MoMA with Mondrian and Kupka?
Teicher: Well someone should organize a retrospective of Hilma af Klint. I think we all would like to create an American Fan Club for Hilma. She actually has been seen in America on two occasions: one in 1985 in The Spiritual in Art show that Maurice Tuchman organized in Los Angeles, and then there was a show which I didn’t see here in New York at P.S. 1. In Europe, there was a retrospective in Sweden. There have been many thematic shows where Hilma af Klint has been included. She’s not such an unknown artist—it’s just important to see more.
Rail: In the catalogue, 3 x Abstraction, Richard Tuttle writes, and he’s quoting Agnes Martin saying, “If you want to understand abstraction, go to the Women.” Is there is a fundamental difference between what women create in painting verses what men create?
de Zegher: Well, I would understand what Agnes Martin is saying in the sense that art has been defined by a masculine canon for a long time, and so for women, it’s either adapt to that canon or try to find their own language. And when they use their own language, it’s very hard for them to get any recognition. As long as they can kind of integrate themselves, or “use” the canon, it works. So the challenge is how you use it to subvert it. I think there is a difference in every culture. But I wouldn’t make an essentialist statement that the work of women is different from the work of men. Some men work in a very feminine way, and some women work in a very masculine way. It doesn’t have to do with gender that much, but with an attitude to a life. Sometimes the feminine attitude is described as more constructive and inclusive and the more masculine view is about individualism and exclusion and separation…You can see, a lot of young male artists have picked up the work of feminists artists from the seventies, picked up some notions which deal with the body, which were not part of the canon before.
Rail: The other night I was at dinner with Dorothea Rockburne. She was quite vehement in saying that there is a difference between men’s and women’s art—that there’s actually a genetic, bodily difference.
Teicher: I find the whole subject very complicated, but I believe that we deal with good art and bad art, and that’s maybe more difficult to define. I think nowadays we can access many more things. You know, like men who can do feminine work, or women who can do masculine work—all this is much more possible. I find it much more interesting to look at it as an opening not as a restriction. As soon as one says, this kind of art or that kind of art, we are making labels. I am more for opening things up rather than giving new labels.
de Zegher: That’s a feminine attitude.
Teicher: Is it just a feminine attitude?
Rail: I wonder if you could talk about the meditative aspect of this show. I mean I don’t know if I’ve ever seen The Drawing Center look so quiet and beautiful…
de Zegher: Well, at the panel someone came up to me and he said, “I’ve never been in a show where suddenly I hear sounds,” and I said, “Oh…interesting, what do you mean?” He said, “I hear sounds and even see a musical score.” He said, “I see a melody going around the room.” That was kind of nice…
Teicher: Well, when I look at Emma Kunz, it is meditation, but it depends on what one means by meditation. It is a very active engagement with the art and so it’s an action. Emma Kunz did each of her drawings in a single session, and that is quite amazing to me when I look at her artwork. Sometimes she spent a whole night doing a drawing—it’s amazing how that was possible…Emma developed her healing practice because her sister was involved with medicine and she realized that she had some gift. She did draw as a very young person—there are little booklets of her earliest drawings—even before she started doing her healing. She realized that she had the gift to heal in a larger way and her drawings were her support system. When you look at the picture of her in her studio, though it’s her living room, she is totally surrounded by her drawings hung up like charts, like medical charts in a way. When people would come and ask advice she would use her drawings as a diagnostic tool. She would read them.
Rail: Does the work of all three artists come from a healing impulse?
de Zegher: I think all three had it, but with Emma it became a profession. Hilma af Klint was also interested in healing. Richard Tuttle always said that Agnes was very concerned with anything that had to do with healing. Some may think healing is maybe surgery (laughter), but healing is also something else.
Rail: Is there some healing going on here at The Drawing Center?
de Zegher: Well, you know we have had visitors who stand in front of the work for an hour…I would say that with Emma, you cannot separate the drawings from the healing. For her it was one axis. I find it always very difficult that you take these drawings and you say, this is art or this is not art, this is healing. I think that these are all elements which form parts of a whole practice; we don’t need to compartmentalize.
Teicher: Yes, we don’t need to say feminine or masculine, it’s all one thing.
de Zegher: That would be really difficult. [Laughs.] At some point that’s really the goal.
Teicher: Just human beings who do different things.
de Zegher: In the show, we are also trying to prove that these things are interconnected. This is not art for art’s sake: these artists are trying to bring something into the world that connects to the other and that improves relationships among people.
Rail: I feel this work is not based on formal, art for art’s sake ideas and that’s why it carries this tremendous power and conviction. It seems that forms enter this work through some necessity. Hilma is revealing a vast theosophical system; and Emma is almost transcribing some force field. Agnes Martin seems to present the bare bones of perception itself. I guess Agnes is more formal, but I feel she has this process that is very pure and follows its own inner logic.
Teicher: They all talk about beauty in a formal way. I think beauty is part of their power.
Rail: In The New York Times review of this show, Ken Johnson used the word supernatural to talk about forces or interests that these women shared. I don’t know exactly what he meant by using the word supernatural. I think the New York art world has for a long time had problems acknowledging a spiritual aspect in things. So the use of the word supernatural is almost saying this is like ghosts or something. He seems to be saying it’s not the “real world.” But these artists are trying to make forces and ideas visible that they understood as completely real. Can you talk about that?
de Zegher: It’s strange because they all three were very much interested in nature, in the natural, not that much in the supernatural.
Teicher: I would say that’s a big common aspect—they are all incredibly grounded artists. They are all creating very concrete objects. I don’t feel at all supernatural things in those objects I see out there. I would like to come back to the title, 3 x Abstraction. Let’s be inclusive, not exclusive. I can never exclude the idea that parts of abstraction deal with the natural, with the laws of nature. That is one of the beauties of abstraction.
de Zegher: In every century people have tried to explain the world and their passage in the world. In the period when Hilma and Emma were living, they were still into cosmologies. Every generation develops an explanatory model. These cosmologies to us may look mystic, but to them were very rational systems by which they were trying to explain the world and their passage in this world. And of course, the twentieth century has other cosmologies like structuralism, trying to explain the world through linguistics. With Agnes Martin, we’re into structuralism. I’m sure now, when we look around, we have new models. We have come to discover more vibrations and force fields that indeed exist. You have all kind of theories, like string theory, which will reveal more in the future. Maybe that’s why Emma Kunz said her drawings were for the 21st century.
Teicher: Like many modernists, Emma Kunz was trying to visualize “the experience of our age”—that’s Pollock’s description. The works are not an illustration, but an object that is a product of is own time.
de Zegher: Of course some people say we like Agnes Martin the best, but I don’t think it’s about liking someone the best. We know her the best, because we are most familiar with that system. Like Hendel just said, we have lived the time that Agnes lived through, so we are more acquainted with that kind of explanatory model.
Teicher: Yet when I first saw Emma Kunz years ago, what was very striking was how contemporary her images felt. The drawings so clearly relate to computer imagery.
de Zegher: Yes, and a lot of people who see these monochromes of Hilma af Klint, they think they look like they were made yesterday.
Rail: It’s sort of strange to realize that abstraction in the west is only a hundred years old. We are at the beginning of something…Agnes Martin is obviously one of the most celebrated artists in the world today. You can’t think of her as an outsider. But the other two artists are seen as outsiders. Is this a cultural prejudice? Does this have to do with the fact that they were women in a man’s culture?
de Zegher: Well I think in the case of the first two women, definitely also because they were women. You cannot ignore that. By the time Agnes Martin came to work there was the start of recognition of women artists. Before then—definitely not.
Teicher: I don’t know. Why are you bringing this up? Because they were treated as outsider artists?
Rail: Yes. I believe you mentioned in your essay that Emma’s first show was presented as The Case of Emma Kunz. She’s seen not as a serious artist, but as something else.
Teicher: A case study. Well you have to place that in the historical context. Ten years after she had died, Anton Meier, who was healed by Emma Kunz as a young man, saved her drawings and asked a few museum directors to come by and look at them. One of the directors immediately gave her a show in Aarau, Switzerland. She had never had a show while she was alive and the director had a hard time distinguishing between the beauty of the drawings he was taken with and the fact that she was a healer. At that time people were still alive whom she had healed. So he didn’t know exactly how to present it. If you look in the Maurice Tuchman book, Hilma af Klint is also presented as The Case of Hilma Klint in 1985. But I would call it more of a case study.
Rail: I guess I’m just chafing at the fact that these women are not given more recognition.
Teicher: Oh yes, but that’s true for many artists…I try to see it in a positive way. Eventually people will get discovered if they have to get discovered. Maybe they didn’t want to get discovered at that time. I don’t know. I didn’t meet Emma Kunz. I don’t know if she would have wanted to have a show in her lifetime. Emma was busy doing her research in plants and medicine and doing her drawings, so I imagine she was perfectly content in her life. Hilma af Klint was busy also doing academic art, doing her writing, and doing her personal research. She was perfectly happy with that too. And they all lived very modestly, these three artists.
Rail: There are stories of Emma Kunz doing healings of people which seem quite miraculous. And there is a photograph of flowers that she had apparently directed in some way to produce auxiliary blooms. What do you think of that?
Teicher: Well, I wasn’t there to check on it, but I did put in my text that she, herself did not believe in miracles. She thought there was a law out there in nature that one should understand, and that once one understands that, everything would be explained. I don’t really believe in miracles either. I believe in very concrete things. There are lots of things which can’t be explained yet.
Rail: Very true.
Teicher: Like people working on invisible wave vibrations. They are unknown at a certain point until we get the instruments to measure them, to see them. Somehow we discover miraculous things.
Rail: Well, it’s true we accept the idea of x-rays and radio waves moving through the air—all these different things that we can’t see. But the culture still has a hard time believing that someone can see auras or heal people through vibrations.
de Zegher: It’s actually strange. We’ve never been as visual as we are now. The imagery, which influences our life, is just immense. So, it’s true, while we discover that a lot is possible, we are overwhelmed by the visual.
Rail: This show calls the viewer away from all of that visual overload. It calls one to a quiet, contemplative space, where perhaps other energies can be felt.
de Zegher: Well, contemplation is an action. So that’s good. And Emma Kunz said that why she doesn’t believe in miracles is that everything happens in accordance with a specific system of laws. So she thinks that everybody in themselves can find those laws and understand what surrounds them, and they can also find healing forces…And again, you can distinguish good art and bad art, where you feel the total necessity and urgency of certain artists involved in their work. They give you back something. And so it’s true for these three artists and many other artists that I can think of. I get a lot of energy and a lot of hope when I look at a good art. And also, I think it’s important to have a show like this because the world seems particularly sick right now.
Teicher: I also think that the work has a lot to do with the “response,” and the notion of reciprocity. There are a lot of diseases coming out of a lack of response. Agnes Martin’s work is all about that. The reactions from the people were incredible. I mean, its not like they’re walking through just any other show. Just this morning, there was someone here who told me she had worked in the Philadelphia Museum, where they have Shaker drawings in the collection, and two new Shakers came to visit the collection, to see the drawings that they knew were there, and they said, “Can we see the drawings?” And they were meditating or contemplating for one hour on a drawing.
Rail: That’s wonderful. I find that when I try to explain abstract art to people that have no knowledge of it, they assume that it has to do with some abstract message they are supposed to receive. They assume that it’s some kind of complicated thinking. But this kind of abstract art is about what is known in the body. And that it has to do with a deeper knowledge, a sensation, and it’s very concrete.
de Zegher: Absolutely, I’m so happy you’re bringing that up. And I think you see that in the drawings. I highly recommend people to look very closely, because the hands of these artists are really there in those drawings. They’re really there, you feel them there. And once again, that’s how it is contemplative. It’s not something that is not there. It’s really there in the now.
CHRIS MARTIN is an artist based in Brooklyn.