Humanities Visits The Guggenheim

On March 21, the Humanities Seminar class, led by their teacher, Mr. Siedler, took a field trip to New York City to observe and study art in multiple forms. This particular trip, the third such endeavor to the city that the so-called “Humanites” – a nickname derived from years long past – have undertaken this year. Excitement is always quite high for these trips, and the spring visit to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum did not disappoint.

The Humanities Seminar is a senior elective course that serves as a combination of disciplines of Seton Hall Prep’s English and Fine and Performing Arts Departments. The course is open to a select few juniors who are recommended by their junior year English teachers and subsequently invited by Mr. Siedler. This process develops a roster that can sometimes be small – the current incarnation numbers only seven – but is composed solely of those students with a genuine interest in its various subject areas. Throughout the year, the students have analyzed painting, sculpture, literature, and film (even trying their hand at the latter) while challenging themselves to explore art in the context in which it was created.

In understanding Hilma af Klint, context is important. Before the Humanites could explore her massive exhibition at the Guggenheim, which concludes on April 23, they needed to gain insight into af Klint’s work and its importance in the art world.

Born in 1862 in Sweden, af Klint is best known for the abstract works that she painted during the second half of her life. Although the art world previously failed to recognize the importance of her highly spiritual paintings, she is now being presented as one of the pioneers of the abstract movement and perhaps the first major artist to engage in abstraction. During the Humanities classes leading up to the trip, the students explored abstract art in general and discussed why af Klint has not gained the recognition that she deserves. Although societal factors certainly played a role as she faded into obscurity, af Klint herself felt that her artwork, which she believed was not art at all, must not be displayed until the public was ready to receive it.

At this time, the public is ready, and so were the seven members of the Humanities Seminar as they approached the famous curved edifice of the Guggenheim. After a frantic bus ride to the train station and a much more muted experience using public transportation, the class walked amid weather that left a bit to be desired to the museum. For some, the paintings of af Klint lived up to the rain, which is to say that they were drab and boring. For others, the works were striking, with bold use of varied colors and forms. The discussions that emerged following their viewing proved to be insightful. The lack of uniform consensus even produced debate regarding the validity of af Klint’s work as art. The artist herself believed these works to be representations of the purely spiritual communications from beings of another dimension, but it is left to the individual viewer to discern whether or not this belief is accurate.

The Humanites were given time to observe as many of these works as they pleased as the group dispersed itself around the museum. Each student gravitated to a work or works that were particularly interesting, whether it was The Ten Largest, a collection of massive works representing the stages of life in af Klint’s eyes, or her series featuring large and contorted swans, which particularly interested Dhrumin Shah. Believing the birds to represent af Klint’s psychological struggle with the fact that she never had children, he commented that her work may have been driven as much by madness as any connection with the spiritual realm. Whether truly inspired by spiritual beings or her own demons, the works of af Klint drew the eyes of the class for hours.

After experiencing abstraction on canvas, the Humanites briefly browsed the Guggenheim collection of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși. His work was on display in a greater capacity during a prior trip to the Museum of Modern Art, and the students recognized his minimalist pieces with satisfaction. They also toured the museum’s permanent collection, with many other abstract works on display. These works received a much more universally positive reception, although the view of the gift shop from this area of the museum may have contributed to the collective reaction.

As afternoon turned to evening, the Humanites returned to New Jersey, their minds buzzing with the experiences of the day. As each student had observed the works on display in New York, he had kept in mind both the principles of analysis discussed in class and the ways in which his artistic ideas could be communicated in the future.

The education offered by the city experience certainly did not cease upon the Humanites’ return. The future sessions of the seminar were filled with further discussions of the art and the trip in general. Each student was given the task of composing two essays related to their experience and was given the freedom to select from a list of several topics. However, the Humanites will not find difficulty in this assignment, as President Kevin Wong expressed. “The trip has prepared me with a lot of memorable experiences and knowledge that I’ll be able to take and insert into my essays without too much struggle,” he said. “I believe the essays will be fun and easy to write.”

For any student interested in a deep experience studying and working with art in many forms, the Humanities Seminar represents an opportunity unlike any other course offered at the Prep. Their three field trips have given this year’s class a series of insights into the art with which they have been working in class, and none will soon forget the memories created by viewing these works in person.