Two U.S. art exhibitions exploring the paranormal

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Across the U.S., Museums Are Exploring Spiritualism and the Occult as Powerful, Unsung Forces in Art History

"Another World" and "Supernatural America" offer a chance to reconsider the politics of long-derided cultural movements.

Eleanor Heartney, February 21, 2022

In art circles, spirituality is coming out of closet as curators and critics reconsider the influence of religion on artists from Robert Smithson to Andy Warhol. But spirituality’s cousins, spiritualism and the occult, remain cloaked with suspicion. There is now, as there long has been, an aura of disrepute around these practices: they reek of charlatanism, crackpot science, and New Age gullibility. A few years ago, when I was writing an article on art and spirituality, I was warned by a prominent writer on the subject to avoid the word spiritualism. And indeed, when major art museums touch on the subject of spiritualism or the occult, it is generally to debunk or satirize. The 2018 Hilma af Klint exhibition at the Guggenheim was the rare exception, but even there the curators seemed discomfited by the artist’s insistence that her works should be seen as messages from her spirit guides.

Two exhibitions currently on view take spiritualism and the occult seriously, examining not only works made by artists in touch with other realities, but also the way that such explorations are woven into the fabric of American art and culture. Both exhibitions have extensive, well-researched catalogues that make their cases even to those of us unable or unwilling to travel in the time of Covid, and are well worth engaging with. (...)

While TPG’s rhetoric of inner Godhood and the archaic Unconscious may still raise eyebrows, the works fit comfortably in the art historical space currently being opened up by the huge public response to the Hilma af Klint show. “Supernatural America: the Paranormal in American Art” presents a thornier challenge.

This exhibition—opening at the Minneapolis Institute of Art after travels to Toledo and Louisville—has been curated by the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Robert Cozzolino, who reports that he personally has had other-worldly experiences. Rather than the easier-to-digest influence of occultism on abstraction, Cozzolino has chosen to emphasize its manifestations as they occur in figurative art. He follows these through the whole swath of American history employing a definition of the paranormal that encompasses everything from séances and spirit photography to mesmerism and UFOs.

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