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Abstraction and Empathy at the Deutsche Guggenheim
Imi Knoebel at the Deutsche Guggenheim
Deutsche Bank Art Space Showing Artistic Perspectives from Iran
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Abstraction and Empathy at the Deutsche Guggenheim


Inspired by Wilhelm Worringer's influential book "Abstraction and Empathy", Carmen Giménez, a curator at Guggenheim Museum in New York, juxtaposed works on paper by Josef Albers, Michael Buthe, Blinky Palermo and Thomas Schütte from the Deutsche Bank Collection. Worringer's hypotheses shed new light on the work of these artists.


It is considered to be one of the most groundbreaking art-historical books of the 20th century: Wilhelm Worringer's dissertation Abstraction and Empathy published in 1907. Worringer's ideas not only changed academics' view of art history, but also had a strong impact on young modern artists such as Vasily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. Inspired by Worringer's theories, Carmen Giménez, Curator of Twentieth-Century Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, organized the exhibition Abstraction and Empathy. The show at the Deutsche Guggenheim engages with Worringer's aesthetic, philosophical, psychological theories in a dialogic way. At the core of the exhibition are some 100 drawings, watercolors, and prints from the Deutsche Bank Collection which, in terms of Worringer's dichotomy, have had a lasting influence on the reception of modern art up to the present day: works by Josef Albers, Michael Buthe, Blinky Palermo, and Thomas Schütte. They are augmented by a small selection of key loans - paintings by Philip Guston, Paul Klee, and Piet Mondrian.

The exhibition was inspired by two opposing tendencies which, according to Worringer, ran through the history of art from its origins through the 19th century. In his text, Worringer claims that in societies experiencing great anxiety and intense spirituality, such as those of ancient Egypt and medieval Europe, artistic production tends toward a flat, crystalline "abstraction," while cultures geared toward science and the physical realm, like ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy, are dominated by more naturalistic styles, which he subsumed under the term "empathy." Worringer's premise that a move towards abstraction is produced by "a great inner conflict between man and his surroundings" can be related to the zeitgeist of modern society. In the wake of its publication Abstraction and Empathy in 1907 came to be regarded as fundamental for understanding the rise of Expressionism and the role of abstraction in the early 20th century.

The exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim brings together works that reflect the polarities of Abstraction and Empathy defined by Worringer in the altered art landscape of the second half of the 20th century. In the first section of the show, prints by Blinky Palermo are juxtaposed with works by Josef Albers reduced to surface, color and geometry from his Homage to the Square series. In this group of works, which Albers began in 1950, the artist used a rigorous template of several overlapping squares and experimented with the innumerable variations created simply by changing their colors. As he demonstrated, some colors recede while others advance, and colors increase or decrease in intensity based on adjacent hues. Though mathematically precise, the works in Homage to the Square exude a bright and lively sensibility. In Blinky Palermo's works Minimal Art approaches are combined with Russian Constructivist influences. As a historical reference, the works by Albers and Palermo are supplemented by Mondrian's Composition No. 1: Lozenge with Four Lines. In this painting, executed in 1930, the artist refrains from using the primary colors, which are typically found in his work, restricting himself completely to black lines on black ground. The motif calls to mind one of Albers's squares, with only the structure remaining.

In the second section of the show, Carmen Giménez set collages by Michael Buthe against watercolors by Thomas Schütte. Both artists adopt more gestural, representational styles alluding to the presence of the human body and things, coming closer to Worringer's concept of empathy. His extensive travels to Morocco, Afghanistan and Iran - countries what Worringer associated with spirituality and abstraction - had a lasting impact on Buthe's work. A trip to Iran in 1974 familiarized him with Zoroastrianism, Rumi's love poetry, and A Thousand and One Nights, on which he based a series of numerous collages in 1977-80. Schütte's works are more representational. On view at the Deutsche Guggenheim are his subtle watercolors of fruits as well as studies on found memorials. The works in this section are also supplemented by reference paintings: Paul Klee's Night Feast (1921) as well as paintings by Philip Guston executed in the 1960s. The almost coarse-looking figurations are typical of the late work of the American artist, who began his career in the environment of Abstract Expressionism.

The artists featured in the exhibition embody singular positions in recent art history. Seen together through the lens of Worringer's theories, however, their works gain new significance. With its different perspectives, the exhibition enables visitors to embark on an aesthetic adventure through various historical connections and the complex relationship between abstraction and empathy.

Abstraction and Empathy
Albers, Buthe, Palermo, Schütte
Guston, Klee, Mondrian

August 15 to October 16, 2009
Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin




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