Abstraction and Empathy

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Josef Albers, Study for Homage to the Square, n.d.

Josef Albers, Study for Homage to the Square, n.d. Oil over pencil on cardboard, 33.3 x 29.9 cm. Deutsche Bank Collection

Abstraction and Empathy

August 15–October 16, 2009

Drawn from Deutsche Bank’s extensive collection of works on paper, this exhibition takes its inspiration, and its title, from Wilhelm Worringer’s seminal 1908 book Abstraction and Empathy. In this text, Worringer identifies two opposing tendencies pervading the history of art from ancient times through the Enlightenment. He claims that in societies experiencing periods of anxiety and intense spirituality, such as those of ancient Egypt and the Middle Ages, artistic production tends toward a flat, crystalline “abstraction,” while cultures that are oriented toward science and the physical world, like ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy, are dominated by more naturalistic, embodied styles, which he grouped under the term “empathy.” As was traditional for art history at the time, Worringer’s book remained firmly engaged with the past, ignoring contemporaneous artistic production. Yet in the wake of its publication—just one year after Pablo Picasso painted his masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—Abstraction and Empathy came to be seen as fundamental for understanding the rise of Expressionism and the role of abstraction in the early twentieth century.

Organized by Carmen Giménez, Curator of Twentieth-Century Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, the exhibition Abstraction and Empathy brings together works that embody an aesthetic divide similar to the one described in Worringer’s book. At the show’s core are some one hundred drawings and prints by four artists: Joseph Albers, Michael Buthe, Blinky Palermo, and Thomas Schütte. Corresponding to Worringer’s notion of abstraction, Albers and Palermo concern themselves with the effects of color and geometry on the flat surface of the picture plane. Buthe and Schütte, on the other hand, adopt more gestural, representational styles that speak to the presence of the human body in lived space, falling closer to Worringer’s concept of empathy. Augmenting these artists’ works is a small selection of key loans that sketch the path of Worringer’s influence through paintings by Philip Guston, Paul Klee, and Piet Mondrian.

Naturally, the artists at the center of this exhibition must be understood as individuals, working in unique contexts and historical circumstances. Seen together through the lens of Worringer’s theories, however, their works gain new resonance and offer a renewed valuation of abstraction and empathy in contemporary art practice.

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