Post-Spiritual Abstraction

View of the exhibition “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future,” 2018, at the Guggenheim Museum, New York.PHOTO DAVID HEALD/©2018 THE SOLOMON R. GUGGENHEIM FOUNDATION

Being absorbed in visual abstraction has been, traditionally, a very good way to get some quiet. Whether besieged by a once again noisy culture, a relentlessly beckoning internet, or just our own yammering minds, there is plenty of reason to long for wordless, lumen-less art—for obstinately mute and immobile paintings and sculptures without namable content.

Alas, it is not to be. As is evident in a spate of recent exhibitions and publications, including modern and contemporary art scholar Pepe Karmel’s new book offering a global survey of the subject, abstraction has lately grown exceedingly jumpy. And voluble.

Conspicuous among its agitating energies is a revived spiritualism, headlined by the runaway fame of Hilma af Klint, whose 2018 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York shattered attendance records. According to many observers, it also smashed the long-established timeline for pure abstraction, pushing it back at least to 1907, when af Klint produced—under the guidance of otherworldly spirits, she said—whimsically majestic compositions that predated Malevich’s and Kandinsky’s abstract paintings of the following decade. Other early spirit-guided artists have been quickly dusted off, as in the well-received “Not Without My Ghosts: The Artist as Medium,” a 26-person exhibition that took place at the Drawing Room in London in 2020; notable among early, fully abstract contributions were Georgiana Houghton’s swirling effusions of the 1860s.

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