The language of the birds is a mythical, magical language by which birds communicate in various mythologies. This and other supernatural beliefs are the subject of the art exhibition “Language of the Birds: Occult and Art,” which is currently on display in the 80 Washington Square East Steinhardt gallery. Its curator, Pam Grossman, graduated from NYU in 2003. Her childhood fascination with magic led to her curatorial role at
“I often say that most people grow out of that phase, but I have just grown into it,” Grossman said. “As I got older, that led me to people like Jung and Joseph Campbell. It led me to studying art history and falling in love with the surrealists, and the journey kept going from there.” Though she has curated numerous shows about the occult, this is the first that explores the history and lineage of the magical art.
The gallery is split into five rooms, each with a different theme. The first room, “Cosmos: Portals, Systems, Maps,” features works of art that look at the concept of space. The second gallery, “Spirits: Forces, Entities, Deities,” uses the creatures represented to explore systems and ideologies of belief.
This is a unique collection of artwork, and its austere subject matter has captured the attention of students. This second room, in particular, was captivating for its unusual artwork. “It’s really cool to see these kinds of pieces because a lot of other art museums don’t feature this kind of work, at least not that I’ve seen,” Gallatin student Melissa Ley said.
The third gallery delves into the magicians of the occult. “Practitioners: Magicians, Witches, Seers” represents the images of the witch archetype and of other types of magic-makers, but it also features work by artists who believed themselves to be magicians. Aleister Crowley, one of the artists featured here, founded his own religion, Thelema, after he claimed that a supernatural being presented him with the sacred text “The Book of the Law” in Egypt in 1904. The polytheistic religion emphasizes devotion to the self and to love. Crowley’s self-portrait represents his magical self, a mystic named Master Kwaw.
The final two rooms represent physical connections to the occult. “Altar: Seligmann, Donati, Bransford, Salmon,” the fourth gallery, is an active altar space designed as an homage to Kurt Seligmann and Enrico Donati, two surrealists whose artworks focused on magic. The central piece, created by Jesse Bransford, is a recreation of a magic circle Seligmann and Donati once used for a ritual. The room is filled with a spooky vibe, as viewers are forced to face a physical, large-scale altar, a shrine to a culture that is frequently both feared and ridiculed. The final room, “Spells: Conjuration, Divination, Transformation,” showcases artworks created as spells intended to cause change or manifestation and are meant to work not just on the artist, but on the viewer as well.
Though the idea of the occult may be unfamiliar or even uncomfortable to many, the gallery aims to illuminate the unrevealed spiritual connections people have with the occult. “The word occult just means hidden,” said Grossman. “This is art that tries to explore realms that you can’t see with the naked eye, so my hope for the show is that it inspires people to connect to art in a spiritual way, to really trust their emotion and their instinct around art, in addition to also trying to think about it and analyze it.”
The exhibition coincides with The Occult Humanities Conference, a weekend-long event held Feb. 5-7 at the NYU Steinhardt Department of Art and Art Professions. The sold out conference was co-founded by Grossman and includes lectures and performances that delve into the lasting effects of the occult on history, the arts and culture. The exhibition runs until Feb. 13, and a lecture featuring several of the artists showcased will be held at Steinhardt on
A version of this story appeared in the Feb. 1 print issue. Email Riley Stenehjem at [email protected]