Where Does Art Belong?

Where Does Art Belong?

A trio of recent shows—from Hilma af Klint, Warhol, and Bruce Nauman—propose radically different answers to that question. 


Whom is an artwork for, and where does it belong? Every modern or contemporary artist has either had to answer these questions, or else accept the ready-made answer that our culture offers: Just do your work and let the invisible hand of the market sort out its fate.

Hilma af Klint was among the few who rejected that idea. She thought her work was for people who didn’t exist yet, and that it belonged in a temple—where, as we all know, money changers have no place. It’s hard to think of any artist more determined to take the eventual fate of her art into her own hands than this Swedish painter, whose work is now on view at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through April 23. Curated by Tracey Bashkoff with David Horowitz, the exhibition, “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future,” is the first comprehensive presentation of the artist’s work in the United States.

Af Klint’s response to the lack of an adequate social or institutional place for her art, and to the chimerical nature of its potential public, was a nearly complete renunciation of the public sphere. Born in 1862, she graduated with honors from Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1887 as a highly competent realist painter, according to the conventional standards of her day, as several early works on view at the Guggenheim demonstrate. Looking at her landscape paintings and portraits of the 1880s and ’90s, it’s easy to imagine af Klint achieving success as the practitioner of a solid and sensitive naturalism enlivened by some hints from the Impressionists—certainly not the kind of renown enjoyed by her flashier Swedish contemporary Anders Zorn, whose flattering portraits and delectable nudes were coveted around the world; but a solid career nonetheless.

That’s not how it went. The late 19th century was the heyday of spiritualism; like so many others, af Klint was hungry for a word from the beyond. In 1896, she started a series of weekly séances with four friends, all women artists, where she began receiving messages in the form of writing and images. Such was af Klint’s talent at this occult task that the “higher ones” commissioned her to produce a series of “Paintings for the Temple” that would become her most important project—nearly 200 works whose production occupied her from 1906 to 1915. The temple that the paintings were meant to adorn was never built, needless to say, and the artist, convinced that her work would not soon be understood, left instructions that it was not to be exhibited for at least 20 years after her death. That happened after a streetcar accident in 1944. If her works had emerged on schedule, they would have been an ideal match for the work of the American painter Alfred Jensen, who in the late 1950s began producing diagrammatic paintings based on esoteric systems like the Mayan calendar, Goethe’s color theory, and the I Ching. But no such luck: Her paintings went almost unseen until 1986, five years after Jensen’s death, when they finally emerged in the important revisionist exhibition “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985,” curated by Maurice Tuchman for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The works that af Klint began producing under the tutelage of the spirits in 1906 bear no resemblance to anything accepted as art in Europe up to that time. It’s commonly said that she anticipated the wave of abstraction that suddenly welled up across Europe and the United States around 1912—much of it by artists who had also been influenced to some degree by Theosophy and spiritualism. And it’s easy to understand why one would think so: The flatness of her paintings, their eschewal of illusionistic three-dimensional space, recalls the works that Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich would soon be making, and the simple geometrical figures she often used—circles, spirals, stylized botanical forms, and other curvilinear shapes—are also compatible with those used by the more famous abstractionists, who were mostly about a decade younger than she. But I can’t quite think of af Klint’s art as being abstract in the same sense. It’s more like an expanded form of writing or, as she believed, “a language of symbols that has already existed forever and that has now been given to humanity by the creative spirits.” Her works share as much with Goethe’s color-theory diagrams, and more generally the kinds of diagrams that often illustrate esoteric and occult texts, as they do with modernist abstraction.

What exactly her diagrams illustrate is at once obvious and elusive. They are all about the union of opposites—dark and light, up and down, material and spiritual, etc.—and the soul’s winding path toward enlightenment. But the details are obscure. Helen Molesworth puts it well in the catalog for the Guggenheim exhibition: “Her pictures are like a set of instructions that then need other instructions.” But I’m not sure I want that second user’s manual. Sometimes the works’ specific meanings were better known to the higher powers than to the artist herself, who at first considered herself little more than their amanuensis, only eventually taking a more conscious control of their production. In any case I can better appreciate her work apart from the belief system that generated it, which is not an unusual situation: When I admire a Madonna and child by Bellini, I’m not concerned with ideas about the Trinity or the virgin birth, notions as alien to me as anything in Theosophy.

The beauty of af Klint’s paintings comes from the delicacy and concentration with which they’ve been realized. One thing her belief system gave her was an ability to keep her ego out of the way of her art; there’s a kind of blunt, unfussy anonymity to her touch that carries conviction. Still, as fascinating and radical as af Klint’s paintings are, they are also limited by her conception of them as essentially illustrational. They lack body. Color, for her, was less a corporeal entity than an idea. And yet af Klint’s diagrams were more than just that; they were paintings conceived for permanent display in a temple, where the wisdom they embody would presumably be given ritual form. In the three “altarpieces” meant as a kind of culmination, to be seen at the center of the temple’s highest level, it’s undeniable that she achieved an appropriate grandeur. Their physical expansiveness lets the color spread and vibrate. The works are inspiring—and the moment you let yourself be inspired, even the Guggenheim can become a provisional temple.

Af Klint may not have succeeded in building her temple, but she did manage to keep her art out of the clutches of the market. Her works all belong to a foundation that has said they will never be sold. Nothing sounds more unlike Andy Warhol, the guy who once mused that “being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.” By now, Warhol’s image and style are so ubiquitous that it’s easy to wonder whether we need another exhibition of his work; it’s like hearing a song you’ve heard a hundred times before. But still, there it is, at the Whitney Museum of American Art through March 31: “Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again,” curated by Donna De Salvo, whose knowledge of Warhol’s oeuvre is second to none. And it’s a good reminder that there’s always more to see: more of Warhol, and more in him too. (The exhibition will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 18 to September 2, and the Art Institute of Chicago, October 20 to January 26, 2020.)

As with af Klint, Warhol’s early efforts give little clue of his mature art. After graduating from what was then the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh in 1949, Warhol moved to New York and pursued a highly successful career as a commercial illustrator. With a charmingly whimsical drawing style—an unlikely cross between Jean Cocteau and Ben Shahn—he became the king of shoe advertising. He also did more personal work and occasionally showed it in galleries, under titles like “Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote.” None of it had anything to do with the big, blustery abstract paintings that were the going thing in the 1950s, or with the cooler, more enigmatic kind of art that began cropping up later in the decade with the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. In fact, Warhol hardly painted at all in those days. Drawing was his forte, and he knew it.

What made him realize, apparently quite suddenly, that if he really wanted to be an artist and not an illustrator, he had to do everything differently? Who knows, but at the start of the ’60s, he suddenly began painting on a big scale, using imagery taken from mass culture. Pop art was born. Warhol wasn’t the only one doing it, but he was among the first. It was his use of a technique then more associated with commercial art—silk-screen printing—that gave his work its true impetus, allowing for a greater directness in the use of found imagery and lending itself to the repetition of images, both within a work (e.g., Green Coca-Cola Bottles, 1962) and from piece to piece (the innumerable Marilyns, Last Suppers, flowers, and electric chairs). Sometimes the distinction between a single work and a series becomes almost arbitrary, as in the 32 canvases of Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962).

First downplaying his exquisite draftsmanship, Warhol then turned painting inside out by his innovative method of printing on canvas. The critics hated it, but collectors like the taxi mogul Robert Scull were hooked. Yet painting alone, however technically innovative, could not satisfy Warhol, who was soon making films—and later television—as well as sculptures like the famous Brillo boxes; in 1968, he also published a: A Novel, transcribed from taped conversations. It was once he’d found success as a painter that he discovered “I don’t really believe in painting anymore.” 

But Warhol didn’t really need belief (unlike af Klint), and most of his best paintings date from the period after he’d supposedly lost the faith—that is, the 1970s. And yet, after having “retired” from painting for several years, he articulated his return to it in 1971 precisely in terms of belief: His new subject, thanks to the announcement of Nixon’s trip to China, would be the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party—not, of course, as an ideological construct, but as a sort of fashion icon—and even “Mao would be really nutty not to believe in it.” (Meanwhile, the American president’s own unlovely face appears in Warhol’s art only in a screen-printed campaign poster reading Vote McGovern).The gigantic Mao at the Whitney, borrowed from the Art Institute of Chicago, shows Warhol using his silk-screened photographic imagery in a different way than he had in the ’60s: The familiar portrait from the Little Red Book becomes the armature for bravura brushwork (not in the mold of the Abstract Expressionists, but rather evoking society portraitists like John Singer Sargent or, for that matter, Anders Zorn) and brilliant color. The 1970s were a great period for Warhol; his “Skull” series (1976) and the quasi-abstract “Shadow” paintings (1978–79) are probably the pinnacle of his work as a painter, surpassing the more famous works of 1962 to ’66, the ones that made history as the quintessence of Pop. 

But to the extent that there’s a single takeaway from the Whitney’s survey—which, with more than 350 works, is massive, yet still inevitably partial—it’s not the self-evident superiority of certain series—and within any series, certain pieces—over others. There’s plenty of work that would simply be dull if it weren’t recognizably “Warhol.” The portraits filling the museum’s ground floor don’t look that much better than what you might do at home with your own photos and an online “Andy Warhol Pop-art effect filter”; among the few that stand out are precisely those that eschew the random-color Warhol-studio effect, for instance, a 1986 Peter Halley, not colorized, in which the young painter’s face is doubled to lend him a line of four staring eyes. A more beautiful and less tiring show could have been put together with a more stringent exercise of connoisseurship, however subjective. But such an exhibition would have left out what might be the most important thing about Warhol’s approach to art making: his sheer will to productivity.

When Warhol named his studio the Factory, he wasn’t kidding. No ordinary studio could have produced, as Warhol’s did, 199 Mao paintings in five different sizes in less than two years. But since there’s just one such painting on view here, what’s more striking is not how many variations Warhol could spin out of the same idea, but how many different ideas he was willing to try out—how many different media he used, how many different kinds of imagery he cycled through. In 1982, the artist and critic Thomas Lawson noted “an awful desperation in [Warhol’s] search for new images, and in his reuse of old ones.” In any case, this productivity could not have been based on any great economic rationale; during Warhol’s lifetime, the sheer profusion of his work must have depressed the potential price of any individual piece. Only later did his prices skyrocket. The Factory was less a real place than a guiding myth, the embodiment of an obsession with producing relentlessly, and to hell with where it would end up afterward.

This could well be the great either/or of modern art: Warhol’s determined plunge into the glare of publicity and his total identification with the time, versus af Klint’s withdrawal of her art from the uncomprehending eyes of her contemporaries, her resolve to hold out for the future. One of the most interesting things about Bruce Nauman, whose intransigence emerges in work that at times seems to methodically frustrate the viewer’s interest, is that he appears to simultaneously accept and reject Warhol’s and af Klint’s positions. From his studio in the desert—in 1979, after working in California for more than a decade, the Indiana native moved to Pecos, New Mexico—he keeps his distance but exhibits regularly, withdrawing and participating at the same time. Right now, a comprehensive selection of his work from circa 1964 to the present can be seen in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art (through February 18) and at MoMA PS1 (through February 25). Titled “Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts,” the show, curated by a team led by Kathy Halbreich, was previously mounted at the Schaulager in Basel, Switzerland.

Nauman’s harsh and desolate worldview, often compared to Samuel Beckett’s for its bleak humor, places hope in no future and imagines no temple. Like Warhol, Nauman seems to have tried almost every medium (the show includes sculptures, drawings, photographs, films, videos, sound works, neon signs, and architectural installations), and his mythic place is the point of production, the studio. But unlike Warhol’s Factory, which was as much a social milieu as it was a site of positively Stakhanovite productivity, a place where everyone and everything of interest would eventually turn up to be incorporated into the artist’s work, Nauman’s idea of the studio has little room for other people. His essential relation is to the studio itself: Being alone there, he once reflected, “raised the fundamental question of what an artist does when left alone in the studio.” (It’s important to note that the artist is not simply alone but “left alone”; the phrase is an ambiguous one, implying that Nauman is both unbothered and abandoned.) His conclusion: “Whatever I was doing in the studio must be art,” including just drinking coffee and pacing the floor wondering what to do.

But perhaps his most revelatory intuition about the studio is that once it has been established, the artist becomes optional; it’s like a machine that keeps operating even in his absence. Mapping the Studio II (Fat Chance John Cage) is a seven-channel video installation from 2001, which Nauman made by setting up cameras to surveil the studio overnight. Not much more happens than the occasional mouse scurrying by. The grainy, blown-up footage has been colorized, giving the whole thing an eerily dreamlike, watery atmosphere; it’s as if the image of the studio has come to stand in for the artist’s unconscious, where something is always stirring even in an apparent vacancy. I think the work’s subtitle refers to something that Cage is supposed to have once told the painter Philip Guston: “When you start working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas—all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.” Yet still, the mice will keep scurrying around. Nauman found a way to put the critters to work.

At five hours and 45 minutes in length, Mapping the Studio would be quite an endurance test for anyone willing to take it on. A lot of Nauman’s films and videos are like that. They seem to keep asking how much you’re willing to take—how much inaction, as in this case, or how much headache-inducing agitation, as in the 1987 video installation Clown Torture. A sound piece from 1968 has Nauman’s voice repeatedly commanding: “Get out of my mind, get out of this room.” And chances are you’ll get out of that room pretty quick; but what’s the likelihood that the idea of someone experiencing his art is ever going to escape the artist’s attention? In philosophy, what’s called the problem of other minds has to do with justifying the belief that other people possess consciousness. Nauman seems to have a different kind of problem: Other minds are too much on his own. It’s as though he’d prefer to be a solipsist but can’t, because he needs to demonstrate his solipsism to others in order to believe in it. What a peculiar strain of artistic individualism—one that needs a public in order to tell them to get lost. Whether art’s place is in a temple, a factory, or a studio, it’s all in someone’s mind.

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