Perhaps the most surprising of the many surprising things about Hilma af Klint's retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum is how rational it feels. Her interests—an idiosyncratic blend of beliefs drawn from turn-of-the-century occultist movements including spiritualism, theosophy, and anthroposophy and from emergent scientific concepts of the cosmological and the microbial—are hardly straightforward. But for all their esoteric coding, her compulsively beautiful abstractions, vivid celestial curves, and logarithmic geometries shock anew, revealing her spiritualist art as a means of not just describing, but also learning about the world.
When she died after a streetcar accident in 1944, at the age of 81, the Swedish artist and mystic left behind hundreds of monumental abstract paintings and symbolically suggestive works on paper, which, produced as early as 1907, would predate the non-figurative breakthroughs of canonical male artists Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Frantiek Kupka by several years. Further amplifying the astonishing volume of her life's work are the contents of her archive: over 20,000 pages of writings, 126 annotated notebooks, automatic writings, numerous sketchpads, a book manuscript, and a dictionary describing her own arcane linguistic systems. Tucked away in the galleries at the Guggenheim exhibition, Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, visitors can find a small sampling of such archival treasures. But the jam-packed show only glosses over these documents as a key to understanding af Klint's engagement with abstraction—which is to say, all the ways in which her rigorous methods of studying, gathering, comparing, and visualizing knowledge seem to be a point of commonality in her process. Hilma af Klint: Notes and Methods, published this fall in an elegant and gorgeously illustrated tome by Christine Burgin and the University of Chicago Press, with short texts by Iris Müller-Westermann, gives these documents space, reproducing a group of af Klint's unique and rarely circulated notebooks and writings, some alluringly titled by the artist herself, others posthumously titled by art historians. Here, af Klint's attendant methodologies are framed as a point of departure, elucidating what, exactly, feels so surprisingly rational about work that addresses the ineffable.
In 1896, af Klint founded a spiritualist group known as "De Fem," or The Five, with four female friends, thus beginning what can be described as a lifelong research project on embodiments of the abstract. Together, The Five dedicated themselves to mediumship: they held regular séances in order to communicate with spiritual guides inhabiting a realm beyond the physical world, and extensively documented the instructions they received during these supernatural encounters in automatic writings—and eventually in drawings, too. It was during one of these séances, in 1905, that af Klint would receive a "commission" from a spirit to create the 193-painting series intended for a spiraling temple, "Paintings for the Temple" (1906 – 1915), which today graces the circling galleries of the Guggenheim as if by premonition. But it was also during these mediumistic events that she would begin to develop an abstract visual grammar and a way of working—one that is notational, diagrammatic, lexicographical, and altogether systematic.
A selection of af Klint's jittery "received drawings," originally included in a 1904 notebook authored by The Five, are featured in Notes and Methods, comprising a log of the open circuit between what she believed and what she could make visible. Containing looping florets and snail shell spirals, the drawings anticipate the concise geometries of "Paintings for the Temple," but they also feel consequential beyond their formal innovations. In the context of Notes and Methods the 1904 received drawings evidence process as a defining counterpart to aesthetics—a testament to the book's central focus on method as an organizing concept. Functioning as a type of workbook, the drawings speak to the role of documentation in her practice as a means of studying and reconciling with the unknown. They also propose the principal methodological question that pervades af Klint's work: what is the significance of cataloging that which is not seen?
Her notebooks meticulously diagram systems and ideas both supernatural and earthbound. "The Atoms Series" (1917) schematizes invisible phenomena of the subatomic world via checkered watercolors and crisscrossing triangles. Drawing again upon intangible properties of nature, "Flowers, Mosses, and Lichens" (1919 – 20) constitutes a type of directory of the spiritual trademarks of plant specimens. In an entry from May 19, 1919, af Klint represents an aspen as a blue and white grid, cut diagonally by a pastel pink line. It is a tree defined by the artist as "Obedience. Humility," just as the common juniper is a marker of "Tenacity, persistence" and the orchid "Self-will."
For af Klint, language too was a field to be categorized and refined: "Letters and Words Pertaining to works by Hilma af Klint" (c. 1930s), the first English translation of the artist's madcap self-compiled dictionary, is intended to explain the cryptic systems of words, symbols, colors, and letter combinations used throughout her work. Readers learn that:
Ostronskal [Oyster shell] = an image of power, holiness, love, humility
Ros, röd [Rose, red] = selfishness
Templet [The temple] = individuality
Yet, the dictionary does little as a true clarification tool. What it reveals instead says more about the impulse to see and know everything, to the point in which this desire becomes defined by obsession.
Müller-Westermann writes that "language and abstraction were … only tools to be used in her search for meaning." Burgin, too, states in the Guggenheim's exhibition catalog that, "I think she really felt that she'd been given a special knowledge of the universe … She learned through looking at her own work." Accordingly, it is in the notebooks themselves, filled with af Klint's exhaustive diagrams of a disorderly world, that the use of abstraction as an analytical tool and documentation as a way of thinking materializes. An art practice based on methods of shaping what is ultimately unknowable and unsolvable in the universe into orderly systems, such as those embraced by af Klint, are bound to obfuscate as much as they reveal. Yet, the personal cosmologies contained in Notes and Methods challenge any kind of binary between the chaotic and the methodical. In fact, they advocate for their effectiveness.