by Christopher Laursen
Pam Grossman, New York-based associate
editor for Abraxas and curator of the website
Phantasmaphile journeys through five
esoteric art pieces that defy assumptions
made about occultism.
interview | imaginative works
Exteriorizing the Inner Realms:
Occult revelations in the art of Abraxas
May 13, 2014
Abraxas, The International Journal of Esoteric Studies, is a high-quality,
limited print run publication that recently released its fifth issue, edited by
Christina Oakley Harrington and Robert Ansell. The journal and its
Facebook and Pinterest pages feature an array of striking art and
essays that speak to inner realms of esotericism intersecting with
outwardly visual expression, ranging from artists of long ago as well as
those living today. In the description of the journal, Abraxas is noted as
providing “sensory sorcery,” which indeed it does. I spoke with
Abraxas’s New York-based associate editor Pam Grossman about her
connection to esoteric art through the journal as well as her independent
curation work, her website Phantasmaphile, and the arts and lecture
space she co-founded in Brooklyn, Observatory.
Christopher: Pam, thank you for taking some time with Extraordinarium
to discuss some artwork, Abraxas and your own ventures. Before we
dive into some of the visuals, I’m curious as to how you became
interested in magic and esotericism, and how that led to the variety of
projects you are working on.
Pam: It’s my pleasure,
Christopher. And thank you, in
turn, for your enthusiasm.
Regarding my own “origin story”
so to speak, the simplest answer
is that I can’t recall a time when I
wasn’t interested in magic. Like
most children, I was attracted to
fairy tales and mythology, and
luckily grew up in a home where
those things were very much
embraced. I was also a child of
the 80s, a time when Saturday
morning cartoon culture was
fecund with with magical tropes
(e.g. She-Ra, Star Fairies, My
Little Pony, Rose Petal Place,
Strawberry Shortcake), so I’m
sure that played no small part in
my predilections as well. I was also a voracious reader, and as I got a
bit older, found myself devouring everything by writers like Monica
Furlong, Michael Ende, Roald Dahl, George MacDonald – authors who
wrote about magic with a sense of reverence, but also with a twinkle in
We also had a small patch of woods behind our house, and that became
sacred ground to me: a place where I engaged in deep play, did rituals,
and dug in the dirt. This was all very intuitive, mind you, and it wasn’t
until I was older that I realized it was an essentially Pagan relationship
between myself and nature that I was involved in.
My parents are both artists – my mother a painter, and my father a
musician – and so it was a very creative household, where making
things and using one’s imagination was highly encouraged. We often
went to museums as a family, and these became my temples. They
were places that somehow felt holy to me, even more so than the
synagogue we sometimes attended. To me, art was a conduit for
transcendent experiences. I loved that the works themselves could
literally make me feel differently, and I also loved that there were spaces
that were built for the sole purpose of contemplation of these works. I
fell head over heels for the Surrealists – in particular Remedios Varo
and René Magritte – and through them the idea of art as a vehicle for
exploring the imaginal, occult realm became revealed to me.
Anyhow, I often say that while some people grow out of magic, I, for
whatever reason, grew “into” it. From starting to do spells as teen to
getting into Jung and Campbell as a young adult, to studying the
anthropology of magic and visual culture at NYU, my interests evolved
Once I graduated college, and I got my first job (at Getty Images, where
I still work now, albeit in a much different capacity than when I started), I
was hungry for more information about that space where imagery and
consciousness rub up against each other. Blogs were just starting to
gain traction, and I found that there were some that specialized in art,
and some that specialized in magic, but none that explored their overlap.
So I decided to start my own in 2005, and that’s how Phantasmaphile
was born. I saw it simply as a place of celebration: my little corner of the
web where I could showcase the type of work that made my pulse
quicken. I was delighted to discover that the blog got a bit of a following,
and that there were others who shared my own weird wonderings. My
first ever art show in 2009, “Fata Morgana: The New Female
Fantasists” sprung out of relationships I made through the blog.
That same year, I was also invited to
the founding group of members who
started Observatory, a small art and
cultural center in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
We hosted art shows, lectures, and
classes all on offbeat or undersung
topics: death, science fiction,
alternative history, and, in my case, the
occult, mysticism, and art. I curated
several esoterica-themed art shows
there, and brought in speakers and
teachers I long admired. These
included Jesse Bransford, Mitch
Horowitz, Erik Davis, Christina
Oakley Harrington, Robert Ansell…
some of the greatest artists and
esoteric thinkers of our time, many of
whom have since become dear friends
and frequent collaborators. My
involvement with Abraxas came out of
this – through Christina and Robert, who seemed to feel a kinship with
me and with the community of occultic enthusiasts and practitioners who
gravitated to Observatory. And my repeat partnerships and friendship
with Jesse eventually led us to start the bi-annual Occult Humanities
Conference at NYU, where he oversees the undergraduate fine art
department. Our inaugural conference was in October of last year, and
we’re already excitedly planning the next one in 2015. In the meantime,
I’m doing lots of writing, teaching, and presenting at various places
about esoteric art and ritual, and am always on the lookout for new
spaces to curate exhibitions and presentations.
Christopher: I was immediately struck by
geometric form and color of this artpiece.
Both are common features in much esoteric
art, and I’m wondering if you could provide
Extraordinarium’s readers with a brief
primer on why geometry and vibrant color
are so common, using the Swedish mystic
Hilma af Klint who created this piece in
1915 as a launching point.
Pam: Well, first I think it’s important to
understand how impactful the spiritual
movement of Theosophy was upon art at
the turn of the nineteenth century and
throughout the first half of the twentieth.
HP Blavatsky was its founder, and she
believed that if you peeled back “the veil” of
the material world, including the superficial
differences between all religions, one would
find that there was an ultimate, unified
spiritual truth behind it all. This idea
sparked the entire Abstract art movement.
Kandinsky in particular was hugely
influenced by Blavatsky’s ideas, and says
as much in his slender yet highly
concentrated treatise, “Concerning the
Spiritual in Art.” He, and artists like
Malevich, Mondrian, Kupka (and later the
AbEx gang including Pollack, Rothko,
Newman) were attempting to not only
depict this immaterial realm, but also
believed that art could help the viewer more
immediately interface with it. That art could
bring about a transcendent experience in
In addition to Blavatsky, the Theosophical
movement brought about other spiritual
thinkers including Annie Besant and
Rudolf Steiner – the latter of whom broke
away from Theosophy to start his own
spiritual school of thought,
Anthroposophy. We know that Hilma af
Klint was influenced by many of the names
But it’s important to note that she was a medium for most of her life, and
that she came to her geometric art style very intuitively: building up her
own visual language that she believed was communicated to her directly
via spirit guides through the duration of her life. She engaged in
séances at a young age, and as a medium, channeled these visual
messages into her work.
I think the clearest lens through which to view Hilma af Klint’s work – as
well as the other abstractionists working in parallel to her – is that it is
the attempt of an artist to render the invisible visible. Geometrics, color,
line, pattern, and so on are the fundamental tools we as humans have to
express our ancient, right-brained selves. And in the case of spiritual
artists, these elements are crucial for them to rely upon, because the
work must be inherently non-figurative. It’s a paradox, really: abstract
art was attempting to show a world that can rarely, if ever, be seen with
the human eye. It tries to leave the viewer with sensation, with spiritual
information, with an experience of having touched a subtler – or more
immanent – plane. It is beyond concrete forms, and it is certainly
This piece in particular is part of a series of Altar Paintings that Hilma af
Klint produced, including one that is an inverse of this piece. The one I
selected here is quite masculine. The triangle points upwards toward
the sun itself, while also being its prismatic emanation. It feels
Apollonian. Its counterpart painting points downward, and is black with
curly-cued linework: much more chthonic, internal, underworldly.
Christopher: Again here we see geometric
form in a contemporary installation and
painting piece, that was thereafter destroyed.
What does Bransford’s work evoke for you?
Pam: To me, Jesse Bransford’s work is
actually not very abstract at all. While he
certainly utilizes shape and color, in his case
it’s a very deliberate, meticulously calculated
system that he’s created and pulling from.
That’s not to say there isn’t a high level of
intuition and emotion that goes into the making
of the work as well. But things like the time of
day, planetary positions, the orientation of the
pieces, and so on, are incorporated, and are
crucial to each piece’s efficacy. He is creating
spells, essentially. His work is unapologetically
action-oriented and results-oriented. While I
think what he shares with the Abstractionists is
the overall urge to work with immaterial realm,
to honor the divine, and to lead the the viewer
toward a magical experience, to me Bransford
takes it a step further by infusing his work with
specificity and solid intention. The work he did
for each planet as part of his epic 7 Planets
series took into account the colors, numbers,
deities, and energies associated with each
celestial body in question. And if you are open
to it (and sometimes even if you are not!)
spending time with these can conjure into
existence a corresponding feeling or outcome
related to the planet in question.
Bransford’s most recent work really
synthesizes what he’s learned via his
preceding planetary magnum opus. He’s been
creating these intricate mixed-media installations that are meant to
manifest something – usually healing of some sort. And when the spell
is done, he ritualistically dismantles them and washes them away. He
puts an incredible amount of effort into constructing this impressive,
totally sacralized space, knowing the whole time it won’t last. There are
obvious connections to Tibetan sand mandalas to be sure. But I think
there’s meaning happening in his work which is even richer for me, in
that it’s not only about connecting to the infinite, but also about creating
something to help someone here on the material plane. It’s this precise,
magnificent work that exists primarily for the benefit of others, and then it
disappears forever once the spell is complete. There’s a generosity to
that which I find intensely moving.
This piece in particular was
a spell created in October
of 2013 in the front room at
Feature, Inc. Gallery to
help Bransford’s artist
friend, David Shaw, heal
from some water-related
trauma in his life. Shaw’s
own show of glassworks
was in the gallery’s main
room at the same time, and
his pieces were also very
aquatic, shaped like water
droplets and translucent
installation consisted of
magic circles, or what I’ve
come to think of as magick
gears, oriented in perfect
alignment per his own
esoteric symbol system.
There was also a bowl of salt water, which evaporated during the
exhibition, leaving behind salt crystals for Shaw to keep (or dispose of)
in a ritualized context. Important to note also that it’s Shaw’s handprint
that’s in the center of Bransford’s installation, activating it so to speak.
The way in which “Aqua/Sal” included not only another artist’s life story,
but his actual physical imprint, struck me as the ultimate in egolessness
on Bransford’s part. The two shows in dialog became one grander
spiritual machine of a sort. And the fact that Bransford’s piece only
existed in that moment of time, that it was ephemeral, is a profound
statement about gifting vs. selling that left a big impression on me.
Christopher: Do you find that esoteric art disrupts public notions of what
the occult is? Is there something about the visuals that perhaps make it
more accessible? And related to this, I’m curious as to what some of the
initial reactions are that you’ve received when introducing people to the
occult and art.
Pam: Undoubtedly. I think the average person still associates the occult
with diabolatry, which is a shame. The word itself simply means
“hidden,” and it relates to things that are interior, subtle, or immaterial.
But when people see actual occult or esoteric artwork, as opposed to art
that simply apes tired old clichés, they are often struck by its grace and
deep wisdom. Esoteric art strives to illuminate, and more often than not
to get at some ultimate, higher truth. Its main purpose is to connect us
to something greater than ourselves.
More often than not, people are surprised to know that names that are in
the canon of art history are actually esoteric artists. And understanding
those artists’ intent becomes a real key to unlock work that many folks
are initially confounded by. When people are told that they should “feel”
or “be with” a Jackson Pollack instead of analyzing or deconstructing it,
something shifts, and this wash of relief comes across their faces. One
of my favorite things to do is bring people to stand in front of Barnett
Newman’s enormous red canvas “Vir Heroicus Sublimis” at MoMA.
To get them to stand up close to it, so that it fills their entire field of
vision, as Newman intended. And just allow themselves to become one
with it, rather than viewing it as an separate object. To freefall for a
moment within a liminal zone, and sense the painting’s current. I think
people are often surprised – and thrilled – by the fact that occult artwork
is more often than not to be felt, experienced, visited, communed with.
You don’t have to “understand” it. You can engage with it the way you
do any other sacred object or place. You exit the space of logic, and
enter the space of intuition, sensuality, and heightened sensitivity. You
link with it, rather than looking at it.
Christopher: This painting here is deeply fascinating, very dreamlike.
The artist Remedios Varo is described as a “para-surrealist.” What does
that term denote in terms of her brand of surrealist art, and what is going
on in this particular painting?
Pam: Well, I think it simply denotes that she wasn’t quite part of the
French “in-crowd” of Breton-ized surrealists – largely due to the fact that
she did most of her work as a Spanish ex-pat living in Mexico City. And
she continued to work in her surrealist style consistently, and well
beyond the time period we tend to think of as Surrealism’s heyday. You
can see that this piece was done in 1960, which is relatively “late” for
this movement. I also think a lot of Surrealism is marked by acts of
chance, free-association, and the unconscious. While Varo definitely
wades in those pools at times with both her technique (e.g.
decalcomania) and her oneiric subject matter, I find her work to have a
level of control and deliberation that could perhaps be just as deftly
described as “magicial realism” or “visionary art” as anything else.
It’s so difficult to choose a favorite work of art, but this has been mine
since I was teenager, so I’m sticking to it. And for the same reason, I
would say that Varo is my all-time favorite painter - so much so that one
of our cats is named after her. This painting is just exquisite and
unabashedly feminine. It is rife with witchly female symbols: the moon,
the chalice, the vaginal/floral folds of the wall, the six-sided table which
is inherently apian and crystalline at once. This is a painting about
regeneration, resurrection, metamorphosis. The woman emerges from a
“rebirth” canal, pulled forth by lunar energy, about to replenish herself
further by drinking moon water from a holy cup. Even her breasts are
crescents. I find it to be an extremely powerful work and a near-perfect
depiction of female magic. It’s an homage to transformation.
Christopher: Elijah Burgher’s painting below says much about process,
mysticism, and the modern. I’m curious as to what you have to say
about it, and the relationship between ritual and art.
Pam: We were lucky enough to have Elijah Burgher come speak at the
Occult Humanities Conference this past October, and his talk was one
of the highlights of the weekend. He is one of those creators, like Jesse
Bransford, who blurs the line between “artist” and “practitioner,” and
shows that creating art is in fact its own sort of spellcraft.
And you’re right, this drawing operates on several levels. First, I think
it’s helpful to know that many of Burgher’s other pieces are made up of
sigils – those charged, magical emblems you see in the center of this
drawing. His work is often non-figurative, in other words, and operates
with a symbol system reminiscent of Austin Osman Spare’s. In this
drawing, however, Burgher inserts a figure (presumably himself) into the
frame, so it becomes as much a narrative piece about the process of
art-/magic-making as it is a spell in itself.
And I love the dichotomy he sets up here. To me, this is powerful
depiction of the “as above, so below” principal that’s so crucial to occult
thought. On the one hand, it is about ritual, magic, creation: all of these
divine, immaterial ideas. On the other, it’s a very grounded picture. It
shows the actual physical labor, day-to-day minutia, and quiet sacrifice
that are involved in the process of creativity. The subject is naked,
earthly, squatting, making something with his hands. We see coffee
cans and a wine bottle and boombox: items that are mundane and of the
modern age. I think it’s a truly tender moment, vulnerable and rare,
wherein we see the magician/artist attempting to build something
meaningful, and utilizing methods that are equal parts sacred and banal.
Christopher: I’m really pleased
that you’ve chosen this piece here
because it speaks to intercultural
relations, symbolism, and nature
all in one – all vital aspects to the
history of mysticism. The colors
and composition are divine!
Could you give us a brief tour of
this painting, its figures and
Pam: Adela Leibowitz is a true
virtuoso: her style and color
palette have morphed and
mutated over the years, but the
outcome never fails to take my
This piece is from a recent body
of work she did which weaves
together Mesopotamian and
Egyptian mythology with her own
personally symbolic visual
language. She draws from these
wells so thoughtfully, and swirls
the imagery together so
seamlessly, that she manages to
create a pantheon that feels
timeless and true, while
Here, we see allusions to the sun in various forms including the lion, the
Egyptian solar discs, and of course Ra himself: the yellow sun in the sky.
We see Thoth, the god of wisdom, in two guises: the ibis and the
baboon. Then there’s the Magritte-esque Sumerian Apkallu with his
human head and fish body, present to bring about art and culture. We
also see one of Leibowitz’s cats, sitting on a mushroom, Carroll-
caterpillar style. All of this takes place in Dilmun, a holy land that belies
the artist’s Persian roots. This piece is lush and fortifying
compositionally as well, teeming with flora and fluorescence.
It also feels like a potent solar counterpoint to the Varo piece above. It
radiates warm, yang energy, that’s revivifying, energizing, and
thoroughly bright. There’s an unbridled joy to it that I find irresistible.
Christopher: Thank you so much for taking the time to share these
pieces and talk about your work and esoteric studies, Pam. Beyond
reading Phantasmaphile and Abraxas, if there were three books, films,
or galleries you would recommend for people to further delve into art and
mysticism, what would you recommend?
Pam: My pleasure, Christopher, very happy to do it. To answer your
question, I’m going to assume that this hypothetical student is just at the
beginnings of their exploration into the topic.
Re: books, there’s a staggering amount fantastic material out there, so
for the sake of being succinct, I’ll pick just one: The Spiritual in Art:
Abstract Painting 1890-1985 which was the accompanying catalog to
Maurice Tuchmann’s curated exhibition of the same name that was up at
LACMA in the 80s. It’s chock full of imagery and essays by myriad
scholars on the topic, and is a real primer on the history of the depiction
of the divine in modern art. A good launching pad for deeper research
down the road.
For films, you can’t go wrong with anything by Kenneth Anger,
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, Ira Cohen’s Invasion of the
Thunderbolt Pagoda, or anything by Maya Deren. I’ll add The
Mindscape of Alan Moore here as well, because I think Moore has one
of the finest occult-artist minds of all time. Plus, he cracks me up.
For galleries or museums, I’ll stick to my city of residence for now.
Though the Rubin Museum here in NYC is mainly known for Himalayan
art, they’ve done a nice job of exploring mysticism more broadly,
including a showing of Jung’s Red Book a few years back. James
Cohan Gallery, Feature, Inc., PPOW, Cavin-Morris, and Invisible-
Exports seem to put their divine sympathies on display as well from
time to time. And of course, it doesn’t get better than the Met. Talk
about museum as temple! But there isn’t currently one institution here
that’s solely dedicated to esoteric artwork, which is why I’ve resorted to
curating shows myself. There is such a rich vein of history to be mined,
and it’s one I think that we’re only just beginning to acknowledge and
give proper attention to. I’m honored I get to be one of the stewards of
this movement, and shine my small spotlight on it as often as possible.
This work has enriched my life in countless ways. I think it ultimately
reminds us that this universe is a mysterious and marvelous place to call
Hilma af Klint, Untitled #1,1915. [Moderna Museet]
STUDIES & EXPERIENCES
OF THE EXTRAORDINARY
Abraxas associate editor Pam Grossman.
Jesse Bransford, Aqua/Sal for David Shaw, 2013 [Photo: Jesse Bransford]
Detail from Jesse Bransford’s Aqua/Sal for David Shaw, 2013
[Photo: Jesse Bransford]
Hilma af Klint
a young age,
and as a medium,
into her work.”
- Pam Grossman
“Esoteric art strives
to illuminate, and
more often than not
to get at some
truth. Its main
purpose is to
connect us to
- Pam Grossman
Remedios Varo, Nacer de Nuevo (To Be Reborn), 1960
Elijah Burgher, “Six organs” ritual, 2013. [Western Exhitions/Elijah Burgher]
Adela Leibowitz, Fertility, strength, knowledge (Apis Bull, Thoth and Apkallu in Dilmun), 2013. [Adela Leibowitz]
IF YOU ENJOYED READING THIS,
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“This work has
enriched my life in
I think it ultimately
reminds us that this
universe is a
marvelous place to
- Pam Grossman
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