Now Reading: Tokenism at the Guggenheim: Hilma af Klint


Tokenism at the Guggenheim: Hilma af Klint

November 15, 20185 min read

Most art critics would say that the title of this article should be corrected to Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, the name of the Guggenheim’s newest exhibit.

When the Guggenheim is referring to “the future,” however, it’s talking about abstract art. For many viewers, looking at abstract art can be as confusing as doing a calculus problem or hypothesizing where the large statues on Easter Island came from. In that sense, work from the abstract art period seems too advanced for most to understand.

Hilma af Klint’s The Ten Largest, No. 7, Adulthood, Group IV, 1907. (Source: The Guggenheim)

When the field of art history first started developing, many believed Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich started the abstract art movement in the early twentieth century. They were the first to paint things not seen in reality. Most artists based their work off of models or photos of different subjects, such as sweeping landscapes or various animals. That being said, Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich’s work changed the art world forever. Some might even say they were the fathers of modern art. 

You recognize this, don’t you? It’s Mondrian’s signature style. (Source: Tate Modern)

However, more art historians and museums are declaring themselves as revisionists, or re-interpreters of art history.

I have nothing against revisionist art historians. In fact, I think that their change in the art world has been a positive one. In particular, looking at art through a feminist revisionist perspective has revolutionized the art world. Female artists have long been excluded from the narrative. For most of history, a woman’s place was not in the studio. Now, more female artists are rightfully being recognized for their contributions in the art world: Jo Hopper, Clara Peeters, Rose Beuret, etc.

However, I don’t think Hilma af Klint should be one of them.

The Guggenheim is claiming that af Klint should be deemed the founder of abstraction. Her collection of spiritual paintings, beautiful and unique in style, were created before Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich’s abstract pieces. Despite that, she kept her abstract art private. During af Klint’s lifetime, she opted to show her works that followed the style at the time: large, naturalistic landscapes.

While af Klint was hiding her work, Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich started showing their abstract art to the public. At first, their pieces attracted harsh criticism. What they were doing was completely original but against the naturalistic pieces being created at the time. Upon further inspection, the critics’ hatred and skepticism turned into fascination and admiration.

The reason why af Klint did not choose to show her spiritual work does not matter. At the end of the day, the fact is that af Klint never choose to show her work to the public, even if she created it first. Founders of new art movements are supposed to change the course of art history. How could have af Klint have done that if she kept her work a secret?

Now, upon reading this over, some art critics would accuse me of being sexist. They’d say that the only reason why I can’t acknowledge af Klint as the founder of abstraction is that she is a woman. In actuality, the reason why I can’t acknowledge af Klint is that doing so would only encourage tokenism, a practice that is mistakenly used under the guise of feminism.

Picking a woman to hold a title just because she is female is tokenism, not feminism. Just like we have token employees in most professional fields, we also have token artists in the art sector. Claiming that af Klint is the founder of abstraction because she was a female artist is taking away from her achievements as an artist. She may have not started abstraction, but she recorded thousands of pages of notes that give insight into the connection between creators and their spirituality. Sometimes you don’t have to start a movement to make a lasting impact.

“Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” is on view at the Guggenheim through April 23, 2019.

(Feature image courtesy of: Åsa Lundén / Museum of Modern Art Stockholm 2013)

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Lauren Cho

Lauren Cho is a high school student based outside of New York City. She is passionate about current events, social justice, young people's role in government, and CJ Cregg from the West Wing. When she is not writing, she can be found teaching herself the ukulele or listening to Button Poetry.