Glenstone, a private museum in Potomac, Maryland, has acquired an eight-work set of watercolors by Hilma af Klint, making it the first institution in the U.S. to own work by the Swedish artist, whose work has enjoyed a posthumous rise in recent years.
The museum, which was founded by collectors Emily and Mitchell Rales, acquired the work from a David Zwirner exhibition in New York centered around the works, collectively titled “Tree of Knowledge” (1913–15). The acquisition was announced by David Zwirner ahead of a London version of the show set to appear at its space in the British city in March. A representative for David Zwirner said the gallery could not comment on the price of the series.
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In an email, Emily Rales, who appears with her husband on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list, said “The addition of Hilma af Klint’s work to this group is especially exciting because it complicates the traditional narrative. Her innovation compels us to recognize that art history is neither monolithic nor linear. It’s a complex story that is always ripe for reinterpretation.”
Glenstone’s acquisition of the paintings is a landmark event, given that no other U.S. institution—not even the Guggenheim Museum, whose 2018–19 af Klint retrospective in New York drew vast crowds—owns works by the artist. If works by af Klint have been seen in the U.S., they have typically come there as loans. The Museum of Modern Art included an af Klint painting in its 2019 rehang, but that work had been loaned by a foundation dedicated to the artist.
Part of the reason for this gap in U.S. museums’ collections is strictures put in place by af Klint’s foundation. Af Klint, who died in 1944, said she did not want individual paintings to head to market—she instead preferred for them to be bought as series. Because of this, it has been extremely rare for af Klint works to hit the market. “The works acquired by Glenstone Museum are among the most significant works by af Klint ever to be sold,” curator Daniel Birnbaum, who is at work on an af Klint catalogue raisonné, said in a statement.
Af Klint has been an a figure of vast intrigue for many, given that she claimed that she could use her abstractions to communicate with otherworldly spirits. Her paintings have also held an unusual place in art history, given that she was the rare woman creating abstractions in Europe at a time when many of her colleagues were men, and indeed, the Guggenheim’s retrospective provocatively positioned her as the inventor of modernist abstraction. A 2013 retrospective at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm—which has a long-term agreement with the artist’s foundation, allowing it unusual access to her work—helped bring af Klint’s work to the attention of the larger public after decades of obscurity.
“Tree of Knowledge” stemmed from the spiritualist impulse that guided much of af Klint’s work after 1906, and features a central tree element that appears to evolve in form across the watercolors. At times, the tree is nearly unrecognizable as a plant, instead looking like an object resembling a cross between an orb and a machine. In these works, elements derived from Christianity, Hinduism, Norse mythology, and Rosicrucianism combine. Julia Voss, the art historian who has written most prolifically on af Klint, has said that the series represents a “development… As is often the case in af Klint’s works, there are two overlapping levels, one biographical and one that relates to the history of humanity.”
Until very recently, it was assumed that there was only one version of “Tree of Knowledge,” and that that one version was held by af Klint’s foundation. It turned out, however, that there were two, the second having been held at a foundation for the Theosophist poet Albert Steffen in Dornach, Switzerland. Historians realized that af Klint had given the watercolors as a gift to the theorist Rudolf Steiner, with whom she was close. Steffen obtained the “Tree of Knowledge” works in 1927, following the 1925 death of Steiner, who had led the Anthroposophical Society before Steffen.