A 2018 exhibition on the pioneering spiritual abstractionist Hilma af Klint’s (1862–1944) at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York essentially rewrote the art history books, recognizing the Swedish artist at long last as the inventor of abstraction in Western art. Now, her work is returning to the Upper East Side, where David Zwirner will unveil a recently discovered group of eight watercolors.
The exhibition features one of two copies of “The Tree of Knowledge,” a series of watercolors on paper the artist made between 1913 and 1915. Until recently, it was assumed that the Hilma af Klint Foundation owned the only copy of the works, but it turns out she made a second version for her friend Rudolf Steiner, founder of Anthroposophy, a spiritual and philosophical movement that inspired the artist.
When Steiner died in 1925, the artwork passed to Albert Steffen, his successor as president of the Anthroposophical Society, as well as a poet and painter. His foundation, the Albert Steffen Stiftung in Dornach, Switzerland, only recently realized it was sitting on a trove of af Klint’s work, which now belongs to a private collector.
“I am thrilled to be exhibiting ‘Tree of Knowledge’ by Hilma af Klint, which has such a fascinating history. This is the only major work that exists outside of the foundation’s collection,” Zwirner told Artnet News in an email. “The fact that she personally gave this set of watercolors to Rudolf Steiner, whose philosophical beliefs deeply influenced her, is remarkable.”
Af Klint began experimenting with abstract, symbolic paintings in 1906, years before similar innovations from more widely credited artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Kazimir Malevich. Her route to abstraction, of course, was not through the avant-garde art community, but through the spiritual and supernatural world.
Her work was forgotten for decades, in part due to specifications in her will that prevented it from being exhibited, as she believed society was not ready to understand her otherworldly vision.
That view may have been prescient, since af Klint’s work has only become wildly popular in recent years. Her show at the Guggenheim proved an unlikely blockbuster, attracting a record of over 600,000 visitors during its run in 2018 and 2019, and she inspired a 2020 documentary film, Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint.
The first part of a seven-volume catalogue raisonné for the artist came out in February, and af Klint is currently featured in “Women in Abstraction” at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (through February 27, 2022).
At Zwirner, the works will be available for sale to institutional buyers, price on request. Despite the artist’s growing fame, only 51 works have ever been offered at auction, with a top price of just 1,600,000 SEK ($165,825) set in 2019, according to the Artnet Price Database. The previous record of 220,000 SEK ($35,871) had stood since 1990, and only nine other works have topped four figures.
“Hilma af Klint: Tree of Knowledge” will be on view at David Zwirner, 34 East 69th Street, New York, November 3–December 18, 2021.
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