"When we go to museums we do not just look, we make a definite response to the work. As we look at it we are happier or more sad, more at peace or more depressed. A work may stimulate yearning, helplessness, belligerence or remorse."
So wrote artist Agnes Martin, reflecting on the dynamic between viewer and artwork. The artist is removed from the equation at this point, having already followed inspiration and conceived the work. Artists can't and don't prepare for a certain response, Martin said. "The response depends upon the condition of the observer."
Consider this, then, an elbow in the ribs. Get yourself in proper mental shape before going to see "3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz, and Agnes Martin" at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Depending on your state of mind, the show could either slide you into a drowsy trance or jolt you into all-points wakefulness. Once past the brief introductory panel in the foyer, you're on your own. Just you and the art. No intermediaries, no textual hand-holding to guide your attention.
What makes the show such a challenge -- and potentially such a gift -- is its interiority. It's less about external form than about internal processes and invisible forces -- emotional, physical, spiritual, cosmic. All three artists adopted a vocabulary of basic geometric shapes and muted or primary colors. For all three, visual abstraction corresponded naturally to the abstract ideas they pursued, ideas about transcendence (Af Klint), spiritual evolution (Kunz), perfection and stillness (Martin).
Belonging to three different generations and hailing from three different spots on the globe, the artists represent points on a long continuum of creative minds who've engaged visual forms as catalysts for higher awareness. Co-curators Catherine de Zegher, director of the Drawing Center in New York (where the show originated) and independent scholar Hendel Teicher offer ample representation of each artist's approach. The elegantly conceived catalog considers their efforts from diverse perspectives -- art historical, personal, religious, feminist, theoretical. Though some of the texts make daunting reads, the catalog is an indispensable resource for navigating the work.
The art of Af Klint (1862-1944), the earliest in the show, proves trickiest to access without such outside help. Af Klint, born in Karlberg, Sweden, was, sequentially and in some cases simultaneously, a Lutheran theosophist anthroposophist who served as medium at a long-standing seance group she founded. A selection of notebook drawings from her seance sessions are appealing in their raw, improvisational intensity. The rest of Af Klint's work is more schematic, diagrammatic. The drawings and paintings bring to mind her contemporary, Wassily Kandinsky, who also relied on elemental shapes (circle, square and triangle) and primary colors to symbolically convey movement toward transcendence.
One series of canvases emblematically portrays the major world religions, using variants on a divided circle to express the duality between seen and unseen realms. Another series, this time in watercolor, traces the life of the atom, ascribing to it potential, purpose, perhaps even a will. Af Klint's convictions were of a piece with late 19th and early 20th century explorations of the occult, but her art, she felt, was not yet ready for prime time. She stipulated that it be withheld from public view for 20 years after her death, presumably to allow culture to catch up.
The drawings of Kunz (1892-1963) have more autonomous visual presence, though they too are diagrammatic, illustrations of her conception of spiritual unfolding. Drawn on graph paper with pencil, colored pencil and oil pastel, they refer to energy fields through linear patterns and measured rhythms. Kunz, born in Switzerland into a family of weavers, transposed an innate sense of line-centered design onto her practice of using imagery for therapeutic purposes.
Like Af Klint, Kunz subscribed to the theosophical notion that all humans naturally possess the powers of telepathy, prophecy and healing, but their potential typically lies dormant, suppressed by greater fluency in the practice of reason and intellectual learning. Kunz never read. It was said that she could extract the meaning of even the most complex text by simply laying her hand atop it. She practiced divination with a pendulum, its movement becoming the source for the patterns in her drawings, which are similar in some cases to spirograph designs. Kunz was primarily a healer. The drawings proved useful as maps of energy fields in diagnosing patients and, like geometrical mandalas, as aids to meditation.
Martin's work too is meant as a door to another level of awareness. The Canadian-born artist (1912-2004) settled in New Mexico and was famously reclusive, her work an echo of her pared-down, reflective lifestyle. Repetition, rhythm and stability are the foundation of her drawings and paintings, whether based on grids or other simple geometric forms. Martin's drawn lines, often as fine as hairs, seem to whisper, requiring you to attend closely and block out all else. Color is subdued, nearly gone.
The work issues a gentle invitation to focus. The images themselves are vehicles more than objects of contemplation. They part a curtain, as Martin herself put it. What happens next happens privately, internally and is our responsibility.
"3 x Abstraction" (like many fine Drawing Center projects) is an intriguing, hybrid creation. It synthesizes familiar and unfamiliar material across time and disciplines in a scholarly, original, provocative way. It's an art historically solid show of esoteric content and only sporadic visual appeal. It's full of nourishment, none of it spoon-fed. The less optically generous the work, the more our own internal resources have to kick in.
The show can be dull and revelatory, in turn, depending on the moment, the mood. More explicitly than most exhibitions, this one gives in proportion to what you give. "It takes so much time; that is the difficulty," Martin wisely acknowledged. "It is so hard to slow down to the pace where it is possible to explore one's mind."
Multi-taskers, take heed.
3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz, and Agnes Martin
Where: Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; closed Sundays and Mondays
Ends: Aug. 13
Price: $3 to $5
Contact: (310) 586-6488, www.smmoa.org