Hidden gems are getting more difficult to find as the world is overloading with information. One of the biggest gems, who made art lovers thrill when she was discovered, is finally in the spotlight—the Guggenheim features a Swedish abstract painter Hilma af Klint’s works from October 12, 2018 to April 23, 2019. The rediscovery of her work is a valuable change from its past neglect. Like Van Gogh, who knew his paintings were too far ahead of his time to be appreciated, af Klint was aware that her revolutionary paintings would bloom under the right audience only in the future. Her foresight contributed to the title of the show, “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future.” The female innovator created abstract paintings years before Kandinsky, who is known as one of the fathers of contemporary abstract art. The fact that this pioneer of abstraction was discovered much later than other male abstractionists from the same era shows the failure of male-dominated historical researches. Compared to other painters during her time, she was a unique artist in using colors, forms, and lines as ways to represent her spirituality and divine feminine energy.

Af Klint was born on October 26, 1862, in Solna, Sweden. Her parents, Mathilda and Victor, were both mathematicians and a great influence on their daughter, Hilma. As a young student, she showed deep interests in mathematics, botany, as well as visual art. She attended the Academy of Fine Arts of Stockholm among mostly male artists and only a few females. With her extraordinary art skills, she was able to make a living by doing portrait commissions and working as an illustrator for science and design publications. In the mid-1910s she stopped all other works and mainly focused on her abstract paintings. She died in 1944 at the age of 81 by the aftermath of a tram accident, after numbers of explorations on death and spirits.

The exhibition takes visitors through the meditational world of af Klint. The resemblance between her curlicues and the Guggenheim’s iconic spiral form combine as if Frank Lloyd Wright anticipated her show from the beginning. A series, The Ten Largest (1907), first welcomes the viewers in the atrium with bold colors, an integration of typography, and geometric shapes that are carefully curated by this pioneer. A critic Nana Asfour describes each element on paintings “masterfully executed despite of their childlike colors” (Asfour). It is also a project that people are talking about the most; there are experts, families, and students under the bright lighting trying to figure out what the brilliant artist says through her brushwork.

The curator of this show, Tracey Bashkoff, displayed af Klint’s works by timeline; her school works, including portraits and a landscape, are at the beginning of the show right next to the atrium. The Guggenheim’s architectural structure makes the show easy to follow. The viewers walk along the curved path and enjoy af Klint’s extraordinary works. The lighting gets darker towards the end of the spiral, where The Swan (1915) and The Dove (1914) are exhibited, and the atmosphere becomes the dimmest at Group X (1915) and the Altarpieces—Paintings for the Temple (1915). This transition in light creates serenity in response to her ethereal pieces, and offers the viewers a deeply therapeutic experience.

Af Klint was one of the first females to graduate from the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts—the school had just begun to accept female students in her time. She started her spiritual journey at the age of 18, after her sister died. Despite Sweden being one of the most secular countries in the world, af Klint formed “The Five,” in which she explored spiritualism through séances. The Five was interested in Theosophy, which is based on a belief that spiritual ecstasy and intuition can lead to an understanding of god.

The Five’s religious practices, as well as the compositional experiments of af Klint, can be found in her notebooks, which are one of the best parts of the show; these well-preserved demonstrations help the visitors understand the process of her abstraction. There is a transition of her work towards the middle of her career, from curvy strokes only to combination of geometric diagrams, including Fibonacci’s Golden Spiral. Her spiritual side was consistent with an interest in science and mathematics. Moreover, af Klint is very detailed and articulate regarding negative spaces— she uses every space on canvas as a platform to express herself.

Besides her distinct painting style, af Klint has a good variety of styles in her works. The Dove is a less direct series that consists of horoscopic symbols and cosmic images. The Swan, on the other hand, is much more abstract and geometric. Each painting looks like a mathematic diagram. Altarpiece, known as Paintings for the Temple, is a psychic piece that looks like it is calling for the spirits. The Ten Large (1907) is the most decorative and whimsical out of all. Jerry Saltz describes this experience with simple diagrams and the taste of the endless universe in her paintings in an interesting manner— “You might think you’re looking at a molecular world, then an instant later into celestial infinity” (Saltz). Af Klint’s variety in her works gives much joy to the viewers and gives them a different sense of what this revolutionary painter had in mind a century ago.

Not only was af Klint one of the pioneers of abstract art, but she also made a distinction between spiritual and religious art. Her genuine approach to the metaphysics—spirits, souls, and many others beyond — appears in her works, but there is no reflection of god(s) in any of them. That is the beauty of af Klint. None of her paintings flame hostile debates on religions nor god(s); they merely talk about the spirits of human beings, which is why they appear meditative.

The aesthetics of af Klint are one of the most astounding elements of her career. She was a talented diagrammer and a master in showing the progress through transparency, as art historian Briony Fer describes—“in the discrepancy between the sheer exposure . . .  showing us a system of marks that feels to be in the making as we are looking at it” (Fer). Af Klint was greatly influenced by cosmic diagrams, which were as popular as the scientific diagrams from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. Her works show many graphic design aspects: line compositions, geometric shapes, typography, sequence development (in the Parsifal Series), and the application of color theories. These elements are beautifully executed on canvases, all rendered by hand.

Af Klint’s garden of spirituality on canvas is a gift for contemporary audiences. Only the artist herself knows the real intention behind her visionary paintings. But one thing I took from this exhibition is the acceptance of her existence as one of many souls in the world and beyond, which is a great approach to one’s life. The viewers become mesmerized by the sheer beauty of her drawings—the perfectly subtle pencil lines and voids filled with smooth paintwork make some people stop and take off their glasses. Af Klint is certainly one of the best discoveries in the art world. She affects our emotion by touching our spirits with a mathematical and scientific approach, which is odd, considering that people don’t easily associate math with mystery and spirituality.

Jeewoon Lee’s critical essay “The Divine Pioneer of Abstraction” won first prize in the Seventh Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. She is a freshman Design student at SVA. For Jeewoon, “building strong connections is essential to me, whether they are people, works of art, or flowers on the sidewalk. Life comes together when I have the combination of good food and music. Lately, sustainability is my passion. I carry my own stainless steel straw and a wooden fork. You can find me at local thrift stores in Astoria.”

Judges Regina Weinreich & Billy Altman have this to say about Jeewoon’s writing: “This review of an exhibition of an unjustly overlooked artist is well-written, sophisticated, and communicates large doses of enthusiasm. Jeewoon focuses a great deal of her attention upon the works themselves, crafting vivid yet succinct descriptions of af Klint’s powerful paintings. It is a pleasure to read a critical essay that, in the ‘classic’ sense, combines detail-rich history and scholarship with fresh insights and perspectives.”