Witches of Abstraction

In 1942, the financial adviser to the royal family of Lichtenstein asked the artist Emma Kunz if she would attempt to “repolarize” Adolf Hitler from a distance. Citing excessive negative energies, she at first declined. When she later relented, the 63-centimeter metal spring Kunz used as a “transmitter” flew up and began to slash at her body, before wresting itself from her grip and flying across the room. As is often the case, art had failed to make an impact on worldly events. Kunz, who lived from 1892 to 1963, is one of three artists included in “3X Abstraction,” a show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art by way of NYC’s Drawing Center. The fact that I am able to include the preceding anecdote in a discussion of this work is indicative of how far from the beaten definition of art these three wandered; to various degrees, each saw her abstract paintings and drawings as the minor physical manifestations of much larger cosmic forces. You wouldn’t know it from the exhibit itself. Consisting of nicely framed and austerely installed works on paper (and the occasional oil on canvas), “3X Abstraction” could easily pass for a survey of little-known art-for-art’s-sake formalist abstractions. Agnes Martin — the most famous of the three — was in fact widely misinterpreted along these and related conceptualist lines throughout her career, her meditative linear geometries usually finding themselves lumped in with crabby ’70s post-minimal permutations by the likes of Sol LeWitt and Mel Bochner.

Kunz, Work No. 014 (no date)

This was never a problem for Kunz, or the third artist in the show, Hilma af Klint, as neither of them was really famous during her lifetime. Klint, an avid theosophist who supported herself with conventional landscape and portrait commissions, forbade the public display of most of her work until 20 years after her death in 1944. Kunz didn’t even consider herself an artist, except insomuch as drawing was a tool for her practice as a healer in the Swiss villages in which she spent most of her life. Each of these women, in fact, was participating in what can be considered the secret history of abstract painting — the use of abstraction to visualize normally unseeable realities that underlie the tangible everyday world. In Martin’s case, her familiar rows of lines, boxes, dots, triangles, etc., rendered in a muted — to the point of almost not being there — palette of gray-blues and beiges. Possessing an undeniable serenity (über-crab Hilton Kramer famously described them as “almost a form of prayer”) and certainly informed by Martin’s Beat-era dabblings in Buddhism and Taoism, her softly oscillating optical fields are finally more grounded in the phenomenology of looking — a central concern of the formalist late-Modernist milieu in which she came to prominence — than in the kind of esoteric cosmologies detailed by the other two. And perhaps not uncoincidentally, her work is the least compelling in the show. The Swedish af Klint always had one foot in the art world and one foot beyond the grave. Already committed to both a conventional fine-art career and spiritualist practice by the age of 17, she eventually combined the two during séances performed with a group of like-minded women known as “The Five.” By 1907 they had filled 121 sketchbooks with automatist drawings generated by contact with the spirit realm. The year before, af Klint had started working on her own, producing a plethora of strikingly designed geometric abstractions illustrating such concepts as The Jews’ Standpoint at the Birth of Jesus and The Atom has found its first quality — Orderliness and Cleanliness, which releases it from the forces that pull it down. One of the most arresting works in the show is the enormous canvas Series SUW, Group 4, No. 14, Swan, a white disc floating in a black void, with a central triangle shooting off faint beams of primary colors, which would probably have become an iconic milestone of modern art — if it were by a dude and had been exhibited in Paris in 1914 when it was painted. Seen only by a handful of fellow Blavatsky and Steiner acolytes during the artist’s lifetime, af Klint’s abstract work was finally unveiled in LACMA’s 1986 exhibit “The Spiritual in Art,” where it was afforded a retroactive art-historical context alongside the spiritually grounded early abstract paintings of Malevich, Kandinsky and Mondrian. This landmark show did a great service in undermining the monolithic perception of abstract art as formalist Minimalism that had been promulgated by the New York School and their critical and curatorial advocates led by Clement Greenberg and MoMA czar Alfred Barr. As a result, “3X Abstraction” seems both a better fit and less heretical in SMMOA than it would have back in Manhattan. Throughout the 20th century, California was a breeding ground for theosophist and other occult and non-Western spiritual traditions, and our own strain of abstraction has always displayed a defiant streak of mysticism. Hilma af Klint, The Christian Religion, Series II, No. 3d (1920) Which just goes to show how underrated provincialism is. A case in point is Swiss hermit Kunz — the great revelation in this show. Although she reproduced her drawings in self-published books in the early 1950s, her originals have only occasionally been included in European art exhibits, and usually with a bit of the “crackpot” stigma attached. Kind of surprising when you consider she was the only one of the three artists here with no art-world ambitions, yet she produced what is easily the strongest body of work — and one that could stand up to the crabbiest formal criteria. Fifteen of her large drawings on graph paper, composed with the aid of a divining pendulum, are included here. Each comprises intricate webs of line — sometimes resembling the finest string art, or spirograph patterns, or a transverse schematic for a suspension bridge, or X-rays of some kind of crystalline organism — but always mandala-like in their symmetry and complex color symbolism. At once formally arresting and chock-full of meaning, these mostly 40-by-40-inch colored pencil drawings brim with a mysterious sense of purpose. In fact, they were never meant to be displayed on a museum wall, but to lie on the floor between Kunz and one of her patients. For most of her life, Kunz remained in her hometown of Brittnau, serving as a telepathic healer as well as preparing various non-pharmaceutical medicines, including herbs and the healing stone from the Roman quarry at Würenlos, which she discovered and named “AION A.” The drawings operated both as documentation of research into and as conduits for patterns of vibrational energy that could be used to realign the psychic imbalances underlying her patients’ medical conditions and cure them. Functional Art. Apart from the fact that they look so great, what kicks ass about this work is this: In a time when most art aspires to be good decoration, adequate entertainment, or inoffensive fodder for grant applications or tenure reviews, it is inspiring to consider the example of a woman who couldn’t be bothered to promote her work as “art” because that category was just too small. By the ’60s, when her drawings finally meshed with the times, Kunz had moved beyond the use of such intermediary tools as art, her link to the spirit world having grown so direct and powerful. But even though she ultimately abandoned object making, she understood art objects as powerful portals to deep transformational human energies, as tools that might be able to make an impact on worldly events. Now that the art world has accepted Kunz as one of its own, what it sorely needs is a dose of its own medicine.3X ABSTRACTION: New Methods of Drawing | Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica | Through August 13 | On Thursday, July 14, from 6 to 10 p.m., artist Christian Cummings, assisted by Michael Decker, will demonstrate (with audience participation encouraged) “Automatic Drawing Brought Forth Through the Ouija Board.”

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