Agnes Martin
Born on a farm in rural Saskatchewan, Canada, Agnes Martin immigrated to the United States in 1932 in the hopes of becoming a teacher. After earning a degree in art education, she moved to the desert plains of Taos, New Mexico, where she made abstract paintings with organic forms, which attracted the attention of renowned New York gallerist Betty Parsons, who convinced the artist to join her roster and move to New York in 1957. There, Martin lived and worked on Coenties Slip, a street in Lower Manhattan, alongside a community of artists—including Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, and Jack Youngerman—who were all drawn to the area’s cheap rents, expansive loft spaces and proximity to the East River. Harbor Number 1 (1957), one of Martin’s earliest New York paintings, combines the geometric abstraction of her earlier Taos work with the newfound inspiration of the harbor landscape, evident in her choice of blue-gray palette.

Over the course of the next decade, Martin developed her signature format: six by six foot painted canvases, covered from edge to edge with meticulously penciled grids and finished with a thin layer of gesso. Though she often showed with other New York abstractionists, Martin’s focused pursuit charted new terrain that lay outside of both the broad gestural vocabulary of Abstract Expressionism and the systematic repetitions of Minimalism. Rather, her practice was tethered to spirituality and drew from a mix of Zen Buddhist and American Transcendentalist ideas. For Martin, painting was “a world without objects, without interruption… or obstacle. It is to accept the necessity of … going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.”1

In 1967, at the height of her career, Martin faced the loss of her home to new development, the sudden death of her friend Ad Reinhardt, and the growing strain of mental illness; she left New York, and returned to Taos, where she abandoned painting, instead pursuing writing and meditation in isolation. Her return to painting in 1974 was marked by a subtle shift in style: no longer defined by the delicate graphite grid, compositions such as Untitled Number 5 (1975) display bolder geometric schemes—like distant relatives of her earliest works. In these late paintings, Martin evoked the warm palette of the arid desert landscape where she remained for the rest of her life.

1 Introduction by Jennifer Harris, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2016

Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the most significant and intriguing artists of the twentieth century, known internationally for her boldly innovative art. Her distinct flowers, dramatic cityscapes, glowing landscapes, and images of bones against the stark desert sky are iconic and original contributions to American Modernism.
Born on November 15, 1887, the second of seven children, Georgia Totto O’Keeffe grew up on a farm near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1905-1906 and the Art Students League in New York in 1907-1908. Under the direction of William Merritt Chase, F. Luis Mora, and Kenyon Cox she learned the techniques of traditional realist painting. The direction of her artistic practice shifted dramatically in 1912 when she studied the revolutionary ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow.

Dow’s emphasis on composition and design offered O’Keeffe an alternative to realism. She experimented for two years, while she taught art in South Carolina and west Texas. Seeking to find a personal visual language through which she could express her feelings and ideas, she began a series of abstract charcoal drawings in 1915 that represented a radical break with tradition and made O’Keeffe one of the very first American artists to practice pure abstraction.

O’Keeffe mailed some of these highly abstract drawings to a friend in New York City, who showed them to Alfred Stieglitz. An art dealer and internationally known photographer, he was the first to exhibit her work in 1916. He would eventually become O’Keeffe’s husband. By the mid-1920s, O’Keeffe was recognized as one of America’s most important and successful artists, known for her paintings of New York skyscrapers—an essentially American image of modernity—as well as flowers.

In the summer of 1929, O’Keeffe made the first of many trips to northern New Mexico. The stark landscape, distinct indigenous art, and unique regional style of adobe architecture inspired a new direction in O’Keeffe’s artwork. For the next two decades she spent part of most years living and working in New Mexico. She made the state her permanent home in 1949, three years after Stieglitz’s death. O’Keeffe’s New Mexico paintings coincided with a growing interest in regional scenes by American Modernists seeking a distinctive view of America. Her simplified and refined representations of this region express a deep personal response to the high desert terrain.

In the 1950s, O’Keeffe began to travel internationally. She created paintings that evoked a sense of the spectacular places she visited, including the mountain peaks of Peru and Japan’s Mount Fuji. At the age of seventy-three she embarked on a new series focused on the clouds in the sky and the rivers below.

Suffering from macular degeneration and discouraged by her failing eyesight, O’Keeffe painted her last unassisted oil painting in 1972. But O’Keeffe’s will to create did not diminish with her eyesight. In 1977, at age ninety, she observed, “I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.”

Late in life, and almost blind, she enlisted the help of several assistants to enable her to again create art.  In these works she returned to favorite visual motifs from her memory and vivid imagination.

Hilma af Klint 

Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) made her international debut with the exhibition The Spiritual in Art – Abstract Paintings 1890 – 1985, held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art during the winter of 1986. This travelling exhibition continued to Chicago and to Haag in the Netherlands, and marked the beginning of Hilma af Klint’s international recognition. The works of Hilma af Klint have since been displayed in many exhibitions in the Nordic countries, in Europe and in the Unites States. In 2013, the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm held the as of yet largest retrospective exhibition of the artist, featuring a collection of approximately 230 paintings. After Stockholm, the exhibition continued as a travelling exhibition throughout Europe, and was seen by more than a million visitors in total. It made a significant impact, not the least through the multidisciplinary research it initiated.

Hilma af Klint belonged to one of the first generations of women to receive a higher education at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (Kungl. Konstakademien) in Stockholm. She was accepted into the Royal Academy of Fine Arts at the age of twenty. During the years 1882-1887 she studied there, she was mainly drawing, and portrait- and landscape painting. Hilma af Klint graduated with honors, and was awarded a scholarship in the form of a studio in the so called “Atelier Building” (Ateljébyggnaden), owned by The Academy of Fine Arts, in the crossing between Hamngatan and Kungsträdgården in central Stockholm. This was the main cultural hub in the Swedish capital at that time. The same building also held Blanchs Café and Blanchs Art Gallery, where the conflict stood between the conventional art view of the Academy of Fine Arts, and the opposition movement of the Art Society (Konstnärsförbundet), inspired by the French En Plein Air painters.

Hilma af Klint worked in this studio until 1908, when she had to move in order to take care of her blind mother. She would dutifully restrain her freedom and independence during several years in order to assist her sick mother. In her youth, Hilma af Klint is said to have had an amorous affair with a certain Dr Helleday, but as this didn’t result in anything, she decided to remain unmarried all her life. In 1917 Hilma af Klint inaugurated her new studio at Munsö, close to Adelsö, an island in the lake Mälaren not far from Stockholm, where the family had a mansion. After her mother had passed away in 1920, she moved to Helsingborg in the South of Sweden. From 1935 she lived in Lund. Nine years later, when she was more than 80 years old, Hilma af Klint moved back up to Stockholm, where she stayed in the house of her cousin, Hedvig af Klint in Ösby, Djursholm.

Hilma af Klint died in the autumn of 1944, at nearly 82 years old, following a traffic accident.

Like many of her contemporaries at the turn of last century, Hilma af Klint was in search of spiritual insight. As a teenager she participated in spiritistic séances, but gave them up due to their lack of seriousness. In her thirties, Hilma af Klint was a member of the Edelweiss Society for a short while. The Rosicrucian Order also constituted a major source of inspiration for her. Above all, Hilma af Klint was heavily involved in the Theosophical Society, of which she was member from the  very start in Sweden in 1889. In her sixties, she also became interested in anthroposophy.

In 1896 Hilma af Klint and four other like-minded female artists left the Edelweiss Society and founded the “Friday Group”, also called “The Five”. They met every Friday for spiritual meetings, which started with prayers, studies of the New Testament and meditation, followed by spiritual séances. The medium exercised automatic writings and mediumistic drawings. They progressively made contact with spiritual beings, whom they called “The High Ones” (De Höga). In 1896, the five women started taking meticulous notes of the mediumistic messages that the spirits conveyed to them. With time, Hilma af Klint felt herself selected for the more important messages. After ten years of esoteric training within the frame of “The Five”, and at the age of 43, Hilma af Klint accepted to carry out a major assignment, the “Paintings for the Temple”. This commission, in which she would be engaged between 1906 and 1915, would change the course of her life.

The collection “Paintings for the Temple” encompasses 193 paintings, subdivided into several series and sub-groups. It is one of the very first pieces of abstract art in the Western world, as it predates with several years the first non-figurative compositions of her contemporaries in Europe.

Hilma af Klint shared an interest in the spiritual with the other contemporary pioneers in abstract art: Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, and František Kupka among others. They all wished to surpass the restrictions of the physical world. Not surprisingly, many were drawn to Theosophy, as its ideas proposed an attractive alternative to the very static principles of the academic art. The abstract, non-figurative art opened up a radically new means of expression. Rather than depicting a mere visual impression, they aimed at finding a new path, reaching for a spiritual reality. Each one of them found his, or her, own personal way into abstract painting.
There is no evidence that Hilma af Klint was involved in the abstract movement of her male contemporary colleagues, nor that she participated in the development of early Modernism in Central and Western Europe. Nevertheless, she invented a similar, non-representational aesthetics. The contact with spiritual guides, who both inspired her and communicated with her, were for Hilma af Klint as real as the impressions given by the five physical senses. By visualizing inner processes and experiences, and by describing these as concretely and precisely as possible, she proceeded to develop a very personal expression.

Hilma af Klint was convinced that reality is not confined to the mere physical world; she was convinced that in parallel with the material world lies an inner one, and that the contents of the inner dimensions are exactly as true and real as are those of the outer one. In order to convey this message, Hilma af Klint made use of symbols, letters and words. By means of employing dualistic symbols, Hilma af Klint expressed that “Everything is Unity”.

The ambition of Hilma af Klint was to develop an artistic relation to her esoteric material, by means of an inner, spiritual maturity, and to express this in her paintings. Hilma af Klint was balancing on the edge, having to regulate inner impulses and at the same expressing them in her artistic work. Her professional ability, developed during her studies, and after working more than 20 years as an established conventional painter, was a requirement for her to succeed. She had at hand the tools necessary for concretizing her ambition.

Hilma af Klint understood the uniqueness of her works. Working intensively with herself, and with her personal development, she wanted to understand the process in which she was taking part.

This aspect became the main quest all through her life: “What is the message that the paintings convey?”. She would actively seek the answer through philosophical studies, by taking part in various religious movements and by researching in their respective archives – all in vain.

Hilma af Klint had a vision that her work would contribute to influence not only the consciousness of people in general, but in its extension also society itself. However, she was convinced that her contemporaries were not ready to perceive them. She had received strict orders from the “High Ones”, her spiritual leaders, not to show the paintings to anyone. Not even Rudolf Steiner could interpret Hilma af Klint’s paintings. At their first meeting in 1908, Rudolf Steiner consequently advised her to wait fifty years before exhibiting them. This is one of the reasons why Hilma af Klint never aimed at exhibiting her esoteric and abstract works during her lifetime. The works of art belonged to the future and would only then be understood by the public.

When Hilma af Klint passed away in the autumn of 1944, she left behind around 1300 non-figurative paintings that had never been shown to outsiders, and more than 125 notebooks and sketchbooks. In her will, Hilma af Klint specified that her life’s work should be kept secret for at least 20 years after her death. Her last wish was also that the collection should never be split up.

The collection of abstract paintings and notebooks of Hilma af Klint is today owned and managed by the Hilma af Klint Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden.

Hilma af Klint painted for the future.  That future is now…