See This Record-Breaking Guggenheim Exhibit Before It’s Gone

This blockbuster show of Hilma af Klint’s mesmerizing paintings closes April 23.

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David Heald. © 2018 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

It topped the 2018 year-end “best of” lists. Its run was already extended once past its initial closing date. It has drawn throngs of visitors—more, in fact, than any exhibition in the six-decade history of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, officials announced today. And if you haven’t seen it, now is your last chance.

I am talking about the Guggenheim’s exhibition of the evocative abstract work of this heretofore little-known Swedish artist. My family and I enjoyed a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic spiral on the Upper East Side of Manhattan a few weeks ago, but with the now-final end date of April 23 looming—this time, they mean it!—it’s time to take a look at what exactly makes this show so special.

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Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 7, Adulthood, 1907.
Albin Dahlström, the Moderna Museet, Stockholm

When you visit, be sure to start at the bottom and wend your way up the museum’s ramps; my kids, daunted by the climb, chose to start up top (more on that later). At the usual entry point you’ll learn how af Klint, born in Stockholm in 1862, emerged at the forefront of the Abstraction movement of the early 20th century—even if she received no recognition for it until decades later (indeed, she stipulated that her work not be shown for 20 years after her death).

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A view of “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
David Heald. © 2018 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Her artistic career, such as it was at the time, took off following a series of seances she held with four other women; the group came to be known as “The Five.” Af Klint received a “commission” from one of the spirits she summoned for a cycle of paintings, which led to The Ten Largest (1907), monumental, aptly named non-representational depictions of the human lifespan that are displayed in their full glory. The unusual scale and color palette of these works—awash with vivid oranges and yellows, pastel pinks and purples—draw you in like a beacon, leaving you absorbed in your very own trance-like state as you ponder the human condition.

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Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece, 1915.
The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm. Photo: Albin Dahlström, the Moderna Museet, Stockholm

The next major series you won’t want to miss is the Altarpieces, part of af Klint’s Paintings for the Temple—she had envisioned the construction of a spiral temple specially designed to display her work (the fact that she basically prophesized their current home in the Guggenheim has not gone ignored). The one we loved the most was the rainbow-hued pyramid heading into a blazing sun, all set against an obsidian field—it’s the house of worship for a religion that existed purely in the artist’s imagination.

 
A view of The Ten Largest at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
David Heald. © 2018 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

There are some detours into more traditional figural studies, including a series of swans that can be seen as a kind of precursor to M.C. Escher’s tessellations. But the true impact of this exhibition lies in the fact that af Klint was a female artist producing abstract work years ahead of her better-known male contemporaries like Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. The art history books will now have to be rewritten.

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A view of the Altarpieces series from across the Guggenheim.
Jeffrey Bauman

At the end of the show, the visitor learns that in 1944, af Klint died tragically in a tram accident. In many ways, this was a fitting start for my family’s sojourn. As we meandered down the gleaming white ramps of the Guggenheim, we felt a certain melancholy; our foreknowledge of the artist’s death imbued many of these works with a distinct sadness. For we—just like Hilma af Klint—had already seen the future.

“Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future,” through April 23, 2019. .

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