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Cathy Carver
Hilma af Klint's "Mahatmas Present Standing Point, Series II, No. 2a."

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"3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing" remains at the Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, SoHo, (212) 219-2166, through May 21.

null Diagrammatic Works
A new exhibition at the Drawing Center invites us to ponder the relationship between abstraction and spirituality in modern art.



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The Modernist vs. the Mystics


Published: April 12, 2005

The new exhibition "3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing," at the Drawing Center, invites us to ponder the relationship between abstraction and spirituality in modern art. It's a beautiful and thought-provoking show, though one of the three artists presented is different enough from the others to create some philosophical confusion.


Two of the artists, the Swedish Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) and the Swiss Emma Kunz (1892-1963), were spiritualists whose abstract drawings look modern but were animated mainly by mystical beliefs. The third, Agnes Martin (1912-2004), was a much revered American Modernist painter of grid-based abstractions. The inclusion of her compact, finely drawn grids and simple shapes made of parallel lines creates a problem. Nevertheless, the show, organized by Catherine de Zegher, director of the center, and Hendel Teicher, an independent curator, proves intensely absorbing.

There are obvious affinities between the diagrammatic, symbolically suggestive works of af Klint and Kunz. For these artists, drawing had a quasi-religious purpose, which you can sense even without reading the explanatory wall labels. Af Klint's drawings, which vary from single-color squares painted in watercolors to more complex compositions of circles, boxes, dotted lines, words, numbers and occasionally representational elements, reflect an elaborate metaphysical system that she developed under the influence of theosophy, the educator and visionary Rudolf Steiner and studies in modern science.

Kunz was a professional healer. She made her large, visually dazzling mandala-like webs of straight lines or concentric circles in single sessions that could last 24 hours and used them in her therapeutic practice, placing them between herself and her patients as guides for meditation and diagnosis.

Neither af Klint nor Kunz were members of an artistic avant-garde. Af Klint was academically trained and had something of a career as a conventional landscape and portrait painter. She kept her mystical art to herself and a small group called the Five, which practiced automatic drawing and conducted séances. She ordered that her mystical work be withheld from the public for 20 years after her death; by then, she thought, the world would be ready for it.

Kunz, who had no formal art training, began making her diagrammatic drawings when, in her mid-40's, she set herself up as an independent artist, healer and researcher in alternative medicine. She thought highly enough of her drawings to publish them in two books, including "New Methods of Drawing," which provided part of the title for this show.

Martin was unequivocally a Modernist and part of the avant-garde. Born in Canada, she came of age as an artist in New York in the 1950's in the company of friends and colleagues like Ad Reinhardt, Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Youngerman. And she was consciously inspired by artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. She was interested in Eastern religions and philosophies, but so were many American intellectuals in the 50's and 60's.

If you did not know anything about Martin, you might initially suppose, on the basis of this show, that her drawings, like those of af Klint and Kunz, represented aspects of some esoteric system of belief. Extended study of the drawings and the wall labels will lead you to conclude that they don't. They do not invite you to look through them to another world, but to gaze at them in the here and now, as ends in themselves.

This exhibition wants us to see a kinship between the mystics and the Modernist, but what is more conspicuous, and more interesting to think about, is the yawning philosophical gulf that separates them.

The drift of European and American philosophy since Kant has been to favor empirical experience and knowledge over metaphysical speculation and fantasy. Af Klint and Kunz are relics of a time when intelligent people might still have believed in supernatural forces; by pursuing séances, automatic drawing and tarot card reading they believed they could penetrate the veil of nature and gain insight into the real workings of a divinely ordered universe. Making art could be a way to represent and communicate that knowledge, as it was for af Klint. Or it could be a magical process by which to conjure up enlightenment, as it was for Kunz.

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