The art world is very big on spirituality, mysticism, and “the sacred” right now. But in the galleries and museums of the West, actual religion, with specific doctrines and the exclusion they imply, is only welcome when it can be quarantined as something from the distant past, or the product of some faraway culture. To be acceptable to modern audiences, spirituality in art must be expressed through abstraction — swirls of color, repetitive patterns, and symbols which can be adapted to the civilized viewer’s emotional needs.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York recently gathered a broad swath of work by the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), a spiritualist whose paintings, many of them quite large, sometimes feature symmetrical arrangements of geometric shapes in metaphorically significant colors. Other works are seemingly more unformed, though they often have symbols and phrases written on the canvas as though attempting to diagram or explain the meaning. The show, which was open from October 2018 till April 2019, was extremely popular, drawing large crowds for the length of its run. But what the viewers took away from it is hard to say. Nobody believes in spiritualism anymore, and if the impulses and beliefs that animated af Klint are not shared by those looking at her work, it is reduced to arrangements of line and color. It’s easy to find the patterns beguiling and the colors soothing, but spiritual transport is out of the question. It’s also somewhat dishonest in that it decontextualizes her work — she was a member of a group of female artists who called themselves “The Five,” but nothing by the other four was included, the better to position af Klint as unique and pathbreaking.

In a fascinating act of juxtaposition, the Guggenheim was also exhibiting a selection of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) at the same time. By ducking into a side room, it was possible to leave the world of af Klint and enter a very different spiritual realm. Mapplethorpe’s perfectly lit portraits of his human subjects turned them into statues. An erect penis, shot in perfect profile, was framed like a holy relic, and a famous image of the artist inserting a whip handle into himself looks like a portrait of a cackling demon. While af Klint’s beliefs were mysterious if not incomprehensible, Mapplethorpe’s Roman Catholicism was impossible to mistake.

London’s Serpentine Gallery recently exhibited drawings by Swiss artist Emma Kunz (1892-1963), from March to May 2019. Unlike af Klint, Kunz had no formal art training, but she self-published several books during her lifetime and produced highly complex, geometric drawings filled with Xs, crosses, circles, and patterns of arrows, all in multiple colors. Some are mandala-like, while others repeat small figures across a broad surface, like wallpaper. She was a naturopathic healer who claimed to have ESP and telepathic powers, and her drawings — made on graph paper with colored pencils, often using a pendulum to plot the arcs and symmetries — are superficially similar to af Klint’s, though the two women had radically different spiritual belief systems.

Another recent exhibition combined visuals, music, and performance art into an immersive spectacle that seemed clearly intended to create a “spiritual” state of mind in the viewer/listener/attendee, but the message was so muddled that it ended up meaning nothing at all. It was just a nice way to spend an hour.

Reich Richter Pärt was a collaborative show at The Shed, a new space in midtown Manhattan. It featured new works by German painter Gerhard Richter, accompanied by new music from American composer Steve Reich and a 2014 piece by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, in a roughly one-hour program that was intriguingly structured.

It took place in two large rooms on The Shed’s second floor. The first room was a vast gallery, in which three jacquard tapestries and eight long, wallpaper-like images adorned the walls. The tapestries were based on Richter’s abstract paintings, which he creates by smearing paint across the canvas, layer by layer, with squeegees. Unfortunately, the stunning effects he achieves with paint are lost in the medium of woven thread. The flat, wallpaper-like images are less successful than they could have been, too, for a different reason. They are scanned images of sections of paintings, which are then flipped horizontally and vertically to create symmetrical patterns. The patterns are striking, creating images within the larger whole like a cross between Buddhist sand mandalas and multicolored Rorschach blots, but their shiny flat smoothness makes one wish to touch the surfaces of the original paintings, which likely had the multilayered density of classic Abstract Expressionist works.

While looking at the art, though, something else happened. There was a brief dimming of the lights, and then voices began to sing softly from all around the room. The piece they performed, Pärt’s Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima, consisted of two overlapping chants, but the way it was sung was as striking as what the Choir of Trinity Wall Street sang. The singers were dressed like anyone else in the gallery, and had been silently mingling with the crowd. At the beginning, it was difficult to tell the singing was live; the music could have been coming from hidden speakers. Eventually, though, it was possible to pick out the men and women who were performing, as they walked in patient circles around the room and through the crowd, singing without showy facial expressions or hand gestures. Because of their impassiveness, it lacked the enforced-fun atmosphere of a flash mob. Afterward, it was easy to think that Pärt’s message might have been something to the effect of “the sacred is all around us, we just never notice it,” but in the moment it was a little bit unsettling — in a European horror movie, the singers would eventually have produced hidden daggers and begun stabbing the assembled art patrons.

When the singers ended their performance, the audience was permitted to enter the next room, where folding chairs were made available and long benches lined the walls. For the next 40 minutes, the Ensemble Signal performed a new Reich piece, arranged for flutes, oboes, clarinets, piano, vibes, and strings (violin, viola, cello). A film — a collaboration between Richter and Corinna Belz — played on the opposite wall from where the ensemble was seated, effectively placing the musicians behind the majority of the audience.

The film began with narrow bands of color, striping horizontally across the wall; these were then subdivided into small cells, which doubled again and again, shifting and changing color in regular if unpredictable patterns. Eventually the screen/canvas was strobing and pulsing, as what had originally been hundreds of densely packed stripes were now a constantly shifting mosaic, with abstract but symmetrical images not unlike the ones on the wallpaper in the first room emerged slowly, moving outward from the center of the screen to its edges in mirror images — two, then four, then six, then eight vertical designs gradually being replaced by others, or blended with a superimposed second layer. Again, the abstract patterns had a Rorschach-blot quality. Warriors and demons and castles and Buddhas all seemed to appear, then fade back into the ever-changing pool of colors. Meanwhile, the music pulsed in time with the visuals, repeating simple patterns — ostinati over drones — in a way that was more reminiscent of Philip Glass at his most pastoral than Reich.

The film’s structure was as symmetrical as the patterns; it ended as it had begun, with simple horizontal lines of color, and the music descended too. The whole thing ended, the audience applauded, and everyone made their way out.

Ultimately, Reich Richter Pärt was a very low-impact sort of “spiritual” art. The wallpaper and the film were pretty, but the tapestries were a failure, looking more like the product of a malfunctioning industrial loom than anything created on purpose. Reich’s music would likely work well on its own. If there’s a CD release, I might buy it, or at least stream it a time or two. But something more droning and rapturous might have worked as a better companion to the visuals — Alvin Lucier, perhaps, or Tangerine Dream. The choir weaving unobtrusively through the crowded gallery, singing Pärt, was by far the most affecting part of the event, though it did more to build tension than remove it. But the conflict between Pärt’s overt Christianity (the vocalists were literally singing hallelujahs) and the pseudo-Buddhism of Richter’s paintings and, by extension, Reich’s musical accompaniment, was left unresolved, turning it all into a pleasant but flavorless broth perfectly summed up by the oft-heard phrase, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.”

Phil Freeman

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