Category Error: Hilma af Klint

This article was first published online by Apollo magazine on 15 March 2016

You could call it the ‘Van Gogh factor’ – the aura that clings to a distinctive artist who was unrecognised during their lifetime. There is romance in this, and a chance to feel we are setting the record straight. It is curatorial gold – something apparently confirmed by the praise heaped on the Serpentine’s new exhibition of work by Swedish painter Hilma af Klint (1862–1944), only the second in Britain to date.

Hilma af Klint was an impressionist landscape painter by profession, but is known today for creating a series of cosmically-inspired abstract works that predate the early experiments in non-representation by more famous ‘pioneers’ such as Wassily Kandinsky and Robert Delaunay. Unlike the long-suffering Van Gogh, af Klint kept these endeavours resolutely hidden. The artist extended a moratorium on exhibiting The Paintings for the Temple – her main body of abstract works – for 20 years after her death: the paintings were not actually shown until 1986.

It’s not hard to see why af Klint was reticent about her experimental side. Her works have a pagan intensity, symbolic and monumental, that can be simply baffling. This is the case with a series of paintings from 1907 known as The Ten Largest, which, as the title suggests, are enormous – three metres tall – and present crowded conflagrations of organic and geometric shapes against pastel backgrounds. Other works more explicitly reveal her background as an esoteric spiritualist, who conducted séances with other female artists and saw her work as a ‘commission’ from the ‘High Masters’ of another dimension. The 193 Paintings for the Temple, which come in series such as Primordial Chaos(1906–07) and Evolution (1908), were largely an attempt to outline her cosmology through an immense variety of symbols, from swans and doves to letters and colours.

The clandestine nature of af Klint’s work is a helpful get-out clause for a critic, since her eccentric style is more or less impossible to pin down with conventional vocabulary or value judgements. She strikes me as a wonderful colourist on occasion, although her paintings are often convoluted. But what is the point of saying even this? Like William Blake, af Klint was not answering to any worldly authority. All you can do is marvel at the energy.

There are pitfalls to bringing overlooked artists into the spotlight. They tend to be remade in the image of our present desires; appropriated for political ends, caricatured with phrases like ‘rebel par excellence’. The Serpentine has admirably avoided this with a measured collection of essays. Here we learn, for instance, that some of the more famous abstract painters were also interested in spiritualism, that af Klint herself was equally interested in science, and that Sweden was – comparatively speaking – accepting of female artists during her lifetime.

Ultimately, though, the greatest value of art-historical anomalies like af Klint does not stem from their elusiveness, nor from their canon-defying dates (already I see people claiming that Georgiana Houghton, whose work goes on show at the Courtauld later this year, predates af Klint in the abstraction stakes). It is that their work tends to make us abandon the generic lenses we habitually apply to art. To call af Klint abstract, for instance, is a category error, since she was independent of this discourse. Such perspective must be a good thing, even if it leaves us without much to say.

Larry Bell: Light Knots

This article was first published online by Wallpaper* Magazine on 13 Jul 2015

Larry Bell has been exploring the aesthetics of light and surface for over five decades. In that time, the New Mexico-based artist, who is now 75, has produced a masterful body work comprising sculpture, installations and collages that harness light with serene and haunting effect. A new exhibition, ‘2D-3D: Glass & Vapor’ at White Cube Mason’s Yard, shows several stages of this oeuvre as well as new works.

The distinctive shimmering texture of Bell’s work stems from his discovery in the 1960s of a process called ‘thin film deposition’, whereby surfaces are coated with metal alloys in a vacuum chamber. This method alters the way light is reflected or allowed to pass through sheets of glass or plastic, creating illusions of depth and colourful mists that expand into the gallery space.

Larry Bell: NVD#24 (left) and NVD#28 (right), both 2004, (Black Arches Paper coated with aluminum and silicon monoxide, 57 x 41 in.). Photography by White Cube (George Darrel)
Larry Bell: NVD#23 (left) and NVD#28 (right), 2004, (Black Arches Paper coated with aluminum and silicon monoxide, 57 x 41 in). Photography by White Cube (George Darrel)

Bell places experimentation and discovery at the center of his practice. ‘Control’, he says, ‘is a state of mind, not a physical reality. To me everything is experimental in the studio and that is how the work grows.’ Bell is drawn to the medium of light by its spontaneity, observing that ‘light is free… in one way or another it is like time, it is everywhere at once’.

At the White Cube show, one can see the evolution of Bell’s work from minimalist structures into arrangements of six-foot glass panels, whose exchanges of light occupy an entire room. There are also dazzling two-dimensional Vapor Drawings, as well as his new Light Knot sculptures – curving ribbons of polyester film, suspended like figures frozen mid-dance.

With many younger artists interested in the possibilities of light, Bell’s work currently seems more relevant than ever. He is inspired by Sasha Vom Dorp and Marc Fichou, artists who have, he says, ‘taken a serious step into the unknown, and brought out a sample of the unknown for me to see’.