It has been a dark winter: my mother’s cancer has spread rapidly. I come across Hilma af Klint: The Paintings for the Future exhibit at the Guggenheim when I visit a friend after months of bad news. The Ten Largest burst at their canvases’ edges. Shapes bump against sides suggestive of mortality, the afterlife. Forms escape their boundaries, go on unseen outside the frame—a circle begins, breaks at a corner, returns elsewhere.
It is spring and the flowers have arrived—patches of wet color, scraps of grass bursting green in sidewalk boxes. The park is verdant and pregnant with bloom, already tipping or about to tip into violet, azure. In af Klint’s art, color also works as energy: circles are blue as robins’ eggs, white becomes yellow and then orange and then—a color I cannot name. Like the lines, they too pour over the edges as if they could be caught in cupped hands.
The question of color and lines plagues me—what is the difference really between yellow and orange, purple or blue? Where is the border where one becomes the other? I am terrified of how quickly things shift shape. Things are alive and then—they are not. We’ve stopped tracking the edges my mother’s cancer has crossed. Of the spaces it takes up.
She loves flowers and presses them between pages of photo albums. I’m noticing more, she says. She means sky and color. She means things there are not words for.
Af Klint (1862–1944) was a spiritualist curious about the unseen world and reincarnation before her sister died during childhood, but the event marked a deepening interest in the realms beyond life. Many of spirituality’s adherents were also searching for deceased loved ones. The advent of x-ray and other technologies cracked open new possibilities then: what had been before invisible, could now very suddenly be seen. Energy transmitted. Af Klint began pushing her boundaries, she began stretching off the page.
It was during a séance with “The Five”—a group of women she founded to channel and record dispatches from mystics referred to as “High Masters”—when a message came over the medium. She was to make paintings on a transcendent plane representing immortality—a project which would span nine years and 193 works. The Ten Largest is the fourth group in the Paintings for the Temple collection which represent the stages of life: childhood, youth, adulthood, old age. Inside the museum over one hundred years after she painted them, they are sequenced, a varicolored wall tapestry each over three meters in length.
My mother communes with spirits—she too believes in what cannot be seen. She has her aura read, seeks counsel from telepaths. I do not practice these same beliefs, but the fear of losing her has turned everything upside down, it has strangled me with uncertainty. All my colors have begun running. How will I find her in death? Where will the line be between me here, and her on the other side of it?
It is during oncology visits with her tumors projected fat and white on screens when I begin imagining them filled with flower petals instead of disease. Congratulations, I want the doctors to say about each new growth, their stems stretching into nearby organs. You are so full of exquisite life.
Adulthood, Number 7, the signature painting of The Ten Largest, is a bulb opened to blooming. Biomorphic play typical of af Klint surrounds the form—a beetle could be a bird; a stamen perhaps a vine. The shapes are alive and tensile, unworldly and concrete.
But it is Childhood, Number 1 that unfastens me. It vibrates with a blue as bold and dark as the sea. A mandala-like figure takes the center, two organic rings entwined like daisy chains hover above—the kind my mother showed me how to braid as a child using the rim of my thumbnail. It has a large message written in a conjured alphabet, at its center two ovum-like forms encased in a floral hoop reminiscent of lichen.
The painting is alive but it is also lifeless. Somber spheres in the shapes of coins line the bottom of the canvas surrounding a withered tree-like figure as if marking a grave. Is this meant to depict labor? A last gasp before the final push into life?
In birth, the thing a mother creates is put outside her, the burden and fear of death now everywhere: she understands the life she produced will now come to know of endings too. The other nine paintings extend across the gallery wall but I get stuck in this image. I think of my mother’s cells stretching the two of us into different dimensions, divided in half by a traverse-less sea. I am desperate to know how I will cross it.
When I tell my husband I’ve visited the exhibit I say “Paintings of the Future” by mistake. Perhaps that moment in the room with the canvases lined up, it comforted me to see it that way—not as an expectation of time, but as a certainty within it.
For my mother I want our future to be filled with af Klint’s colors, to burst with a different kind of life. I have imagined many times that the indecipherable script at the bottom of Childhood, Number 1 is a note written just for me.
You will find her again, it says. I tell myself it insists.
Kristin Keane lives in San Francisco where she is a doctoral fellow at Stanford University. Her fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Normal School, Electric Literature, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere.
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative nonfiction for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings. To submit an essay to our series, please read our guidelines.