he 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
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
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.