Carmen Giménez on Abstraction and Empathy
On the occasion of the exhibition "Abstraction and Empathy", its organizer, Carmen Giménez, Curator of 20th-Century Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, spoke with her colleague, Associate Curator Nat Trotman, about the show’s conceptual underpinnings.
||Nat Trotman: You’ve taken the title of your exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim from Abstraction and Empathy, a book by Wilhelm Worringer, which he wrote more than 100 years ago. What inspired you to turn to him when you were conceiving the exhibition?
Carmen Giménez: Personally I am always drawn to abstract work, so when I initially looked at the Deutsche Bank Collection to choose the core works for this exhibition of mostly works on paper, I was at first attracted to their holdings of Josef Albers and Blinky Palermo. Then I thought, I always lean toward abstraction, so perhaps it would be interesting, within the context of such a rich and varied collection, to bring in another point of view. When I saw that Deutsche Bank owns a tremendous selection of the work of Michael Buthe, I thought, fantastic, he could provide an interesting counterpoint, and so could Thomas Schütte. Looking at these four artists, Worringer came to my mind immediately. His book had a lasting impact on the avant-garde that’s filtered down to artists working today.
Could you describe the distinction Worringer makes between empathy and abstraction?
For Worringer, empathy relates to three-dimensional space while abstraction is the flat, planar surface. Empathy is individual; abstraction is collective. Empathy is naturalism; abstraction is style. Empathy is organic; abstraction is inorganic. Where empathy loves curves, abstraction is the direct and straight line. Empathy is an optical operation, and abstraction is a tactile operation. And empathy is Greece, while abstraction is Egypt. For Worringer, Greek temples are about empathy, and the pyramids are the sum of abstraction.
Why do you think these concepts were so influential?
When Worringer wrote Abstraction and Empathy as his doctoral dissertation in 1906, he was drawing on the work of the great art historians of the 19th century—Theodor Lipps, Alois Riegl, Heinrich Wölfflin. But whereas their writings were very theoretical, Worringer gave concrete examples, as when he compares the rhythmic use of color in Byzantine mosaics to the use of chiaroscuro in High Renaissance painting or looks to the differences between Mycenean and Egyptian ornamental styles. More than anything, though, without ever mentioning contemporary art, Worringer clarified the position of abstraction, which until then had been taken seriously by artists but not by art historians, who were more interested in the more humanistic and classical idea of empathy.
How does Worringer’s thinking fit into the history of abstraction as a concept?
The idea of abstraction dates back to Socrates, who in Plato’s Philebus said, "I will try to speak of the beauty of shapes, and I do not mean, as most people would suppose, the shapes of living figures, or their imitations in painting, but I mean straight lines and curves and the shapes made from them, by the lathe, ruler or square." This idea of beauty as abstract form persists into the 19th century, from Baudelaire to Maurice Denis, from Turner to Courbet, from Cézanne to van Gogh, from Gauguin to Seurat. For them, abstraction had to do with line and color, two formal elements that would continue to be central to the language surrounding abstract art. But among artists it is really Kandinsky who first fully recognized the possibilities of abstraction. Between 1908 and 1910—the same years that Worringer’s book was beginning to circulate—he began to consciously develop an art that was purely abstract, working not from Cubism or any kind of representational style but from pure color. Just a few years later he wrote On the Spiritual in Art (1912) and edited, with Franz Marc, The Blaue Reiter Almanac (1912). We know that Kandinsky was familiar with Worringer’s work—their books were put out by the same publisher, Reinhard Piper, and in December 1911 Marc wrote to Kandinsky that he was reading Abstraction and Empathy. Worringer was a kindred spirit and had a very disciplined, concise, and extremely strong way of thinking. But Kandinsky wrote his own book as an artist, not a historian, so he never referred to him. And I think he had a strong personality, so perhaps he didn’t want to owe anything to Worringer, you know? This connection between Kandinsky and Worringer is fundamental to my thinking, because Kandinsky is really the patron saint of the Guggenheim. The institution was founded as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting by Hilla Rebay, a disciple of Kandinsky who supported the idea of abstraction with an almost religious insistence. In a way, I see this exhibition as a complement to the retrospective Kandinsky, on view at the Guggenheim in New York (September 18, 2009 – January 13, 2010).
How, then, do you think Worringer’s concept of abstraction changed as it was reinterpreted by Kandinsky and those like Rebay who came after him?
I think all avant-garde art in the 20th century deals on some level with abstraction. The first person to clearly understand this, I think, was Alfred Barr Jr., who in his phenomenal 1936 catalogue for the Cubism and Abstract Art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art describes two currents in abstract art: one is "intellectual, structural, architectonic, geometrical, rectilinear" while the other is "intuitional and emotional," "organic," "curvilinear rather than rectilinear," "decorative," and "romantic." To me, this second version of abstraction is indebted to Worringer’s idea of empathy, whereas the first variety is more about abstraction in Worringer’s sense of the word. But of course the situation is more complicated than that. Worringer admits that empathy and abstraction are two poles of a single sensibility, and that while one excludes the other, they are at the same time bound together.
How do these distinctions play out in the works you’ve chosen for the exhibition?
Well, the artist here who most clearly embodies pure, geometric abstraction is Albers. He steadily followed the dual paths of science and poetry, working through his obsession with color—the way one color references and impacts another in both light and paint—and he uses the direct line. Albers’s scientific bent is most evident in his book Interaction of Color, which came out in 1963 but was based on his training and teaching at the Bauhaus 30-odd years before. His famous series Homage to the Square, which he began around 1950, provided a controlled structure for his experiments. It also gave Albers an opportunity to work in many media, including not just painting but also lithography, engraving, silkscreen, and woodcut. As a series it is also greatly indebted to Monet’s Rouen Cathedral and Haystacks paintings, which also explore how forms can be modeled by light and altered by its changes.
Albers shares a gallery in your show with Palermo. What connection do you see between these two artists?
Whereas Albers had an extremely long life, Palermo died very young, at age 33. In this brief time, he was able to develop the idea of painting as object and to distill a visual language of pure form. Like the Minimalists, he worked in series, one of which could have as many as 15 parts and include 40 independent paintings. But while his work appears to be rigid, Palermo remains sensual. He was opposed from the beginning to aestheticism; instead, his work transmits a poetic essence and a deep vitality. And what fascinates me most about him is how carefully he worked within the context of a given space. For instance, one series of drawings included in the exhibition comprises sketches for huge murals he did in Heiner Friedrich’s gallery in Munich in 1968. They are extremely pure, simply straight, black lines against a white ground. His art is not minimal, nevertheless; it is, in a way, boisterous. With Palermo it is necessary to look and not only to see.
How, in turn, do you see Buthe relating to Palermo?
I knew Buthe in the 1970s in Madrid, which he visited frequently, and of course he was very often in Morocco, which is where I was born. We became close friends, and he too died quite young. In my exhibition, Buthe stands as a counterpoint to Palermo because there is so much empathy in his paintings and drawings. He worked with abstraction but in a completely empathetic way, concerning himself with intuition, sensitivity, the imagination. He projected himself into his work in a kind of expressionism that was inspired by his travels in Morocco, Afghanistan, and Iran—all places that Wilhelm Worringer connected with spirituality and abstraction.
In the same way that you have paired Albers and Palermo, you’ve given Buthe a partner in the person of Schütte. How do you think his work conveys empathy?
Schütte is an artist I have known since 1986. I’ve chosen his architectural drawings of invented monuments as well as his beautiful watercolors of fruits, vegetables, and other objects. As with Buthe, there is a mixture of both empathy and abstraction, but there is a great deal more representation in his oeuvre; and, like Buthe, Schütte is very poetic. Curator and theorist Denys Zacharopoulos described him as "neither architect nor painter nor sculptor. He is the engineer who confronts the architect with construction, the painter with the image and the sculptor with the public site." Schütte has developed his work systematically across sculpture, photography, and drawing, grounding himself in observation and in lived reality, and refusing to be heavily influenced by his immediate predecessors in Germany. His watercolors have a beautiful visuality and subtlety while his monument drawings are more an outgrowth of his sculpture. His interest in architecture relates him, in a way, to the Bauhaus and to geometrical abstraction, but what is important for the Schütte pieces in Abstraction and Empathy is exploring the representation of space. Josef Albers and Blinky Palermo, by contrast, create objects that exist in real space.
Could you tell me about the other artists you are featuring in the exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim?
When considering the historical precedents of the four main artists, it occurred to me that Paul Klee could be very interesting to include because, like Kandinsky, he was part of the Blaue Reiter group in Munich, and because he too goes into both abstraction and empathy. It shows how in practice the concepts were never so separate. I put Klee’s Night Feast (Nächtliches Fest, 1921) not in the abstraction section but with Buthe and Schütte. Like Buthe, Klee went to North Africa and was extremely influenced by his experiences there. And he used an almost subconscious, automatic method of composition, a spontaneous linear technique that’s very personal and subjective, achieving an inexhaustible variety of ingenious, abstract or nearly abstract fantasies along with more literary and representational work.
You have also placed a group of paintings by Philip Guston alongside the works of Buthe and Schütte. How does his work fit into the picture?
Guston is a fascinating example for this exhibition, because in the first part of his career he created Abstract Expressionist paintings, then the underlying empathy in these works took over in the second part, which yielded paintings that were more organic and showed bodies and objects in space. He believed in intuition and sensibility and saw that three-dimensional space was something very far from Renaissance perspective but was not geometric either. So in the same way that I saw Buthe’s work as informed by Klee, I thought that Schütte was very much influenced by Guston and that their work would look very striking together.
The final artist you’ve brought into the exhibition is Piet Mondrian, whom you’ve set alongside Albers and Palermo. Do you see Mondrian as the pinnacle of geometric abstraction?
It’s fascinating to look at Mondrian’s early career, because he started from Cubism and followed this seemingly inevitable evolution toward abstraction. The human figure became a vertical line, the ocean became a horizontal line, and by 1917 he had made his first purely abstract painting. In undertaking this progression he was deeply influenced by Kazimir Malevich, who is a figure of fundamental importance in the history of abstract art. As a pioneering theorist and artist he influenced not only a large following in Russia but, via El Lissitzky and László Moholy-Nagy, the course of abstract art throughout central Europe, and, mingling with the influence of De Stijl, European architecture as well. After he began developing the Black Square in 1913, Malevich radically affirmed a nonobjective approach, breaking with the imitation of nature so that the only external references are black, red, and white; surface and texture. This revolution in form fed Mondrian’s slow movement toward an extreme simplification of style, in which he steadily decreased the number of rectangles in his paintings and turned from a variety of grays and colors to just the primaries: red, blue, and yellow.
But the painting you’ve included in the exhibition, which is from the Guggenheim’s collection, has no color whatsoever.
Yes, in Composition No. 1: Lozenge with Four Lines (1930), Mondrian eliminated all color and simplified line almost to the point reached by Malevich in Moscow some 15 years before. You have the square à la Albers but just the structure. And because of the canvas’s diamond shape, the corners are cut off—they lie beyond the edges of the frame. In a way, I think Mondrian was essential for Albers, the same as Malevich had been essential for Mondrian. And really, all these artists, as well as Kandinsky, were as much thinkers as they were practitioners. I would even go so far as to call them prophets.
Do you think Worringer anticipated the relationship between what he was writing and the direction modern art would take during the 20th century?
In 1948, Worringer wrote a foreword for a new edition of Abstraction and Empathy. Looking back on his dissertation, he said, “Without knowing it, I was the medium of the necessities of the period. The compass of my instinct had pointed in a direction inexorably preordained by the dictate of the spirit of the age.” So yes, I think he had the artists of his day in mind when he wrote his book. He knew that artists do not copy from reality but rather go into themselves and bring their own vision into a work.