"A Lively Fight of Images"
The Press on Abstraction and Empathy at the Deutsche Guggenheim
Inspired by Wilhelm Worringer's influential art historical dissertation "Abstraction and Empathy," which was published in 1908, Carmen Gimenez, curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, juxtaposed works on paper by Josef Albers, Michael Buthe, Blinky Palermo, and Thomas Schütte from the Deutsche Bank Collection. Despite doubts about the project's theoretical basis, the press reacted enthusiastically.
The fact that curator Carmen Gimenez of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, in explaining her selection for the show, so dearly likes to refer to Wilhelm Worringer, whose 1907 dissertation Abstraction and Empathy left an indelible mark on 20th-century art, is "understandable and legitimate," says Christiane Meixner of the Tagesspiegel. After all, Worringer divided painting's development into two main avenues, one of which strives for objective criteria, while the other tends towards an individual narrative style. Titled "Square, yellow, good," her article reveals her own particular fascination with the abstract works of Bauhaus teacher Josef Albers: "Despite their unwavering geometric structure, their effect varies immensely—some works have spatial depth, while in others the forms seem to float on the surface. Deutsche Bank, whose collection for the most part provided the works in the exhibition Abstraction and Empathy, purchased Albers's series as one of their earliest acquisitions. These pieces demonstrate the enormous breadth of possibility of color alone." Despite this, to Meixner's mind the juxtaposition of the various different works shown only partially corresponds to the exhibition's theoretical agenda: "Due to the temporal distance, the fact that Albers, Paul Klee, and Piet Mondrian developed in a direction different than Michael Buthe, Blinky Palermo, Thomas Schütte, and Philip Guston is self-evident." Even if the title and hypothesis of the exhibition remain essentially retrospective for Meixner, she still finds the exhibition well worth it—as a "rare opportunity to see these artists' works."
For Deutschlandradio Kultur, the exhibition is a "lively fight of images." As an experiment, however, the juxtaposition of "abstract" and "empathetic" works is deemed ambivalent at best: "In the final analysis, when he brought the theme to the attention of modernist thought in 1908, art historian Wilhelm Worringer did not regard 'abstraction and empathy' as mutually exclusive opposites […] Carmen Gimenez seems to imagine a continuation of the never-ending struggle between two kinds of thinking, with Josef Albers and Beuys student Blinky Palermo on the one side, and Thomas Schütte and Michael Buthe, who died prematurely in 1994, on the other. But even an initial assessment reveals that the matter is not quite so simple, and that there are no clear front lines in this battle of images." Yet despite this, in the commentator's view the show offers visitors new and inspiring perspectives: "And so, just as there are incongruous correspondences and interesting color connections between Josef Albers and Thomas Schütte, proceeding from Blinky Palermo's geometric exercises to Michael Buthe's fantasy world reveals astonishing metamorphoses in form."
The same goes for art critic Ingeborg Ruthe of the Berliner Zeitung, who finds that Carmen Gimenez has set herself a difficult task with her reference to Worringer's famous work: "The brilliant universality of Worringer's theory, which acts like a kind of theoretical prism through which modern art can be viewed, can hardly be used to prop up such a sparse exhibition gleaned from a single collection." But this does not in any way diminish her enthusiasm for the exhibition itself, which "succeeds in delivering impulses for sensual and intellectual thought." For Ruthe, it is precisely in their juxtaposition that the power of the individual artists unfolds: "The Guggenheim space at Unter den Linden was divided into three parts for this show: with the walls a brilliant white, the cool, beautiful paper works of the Bauhaus painter Josef Albers are luminous in their pure and often spectral color. These correspond lucidly with the austere, playful geometry and colored marks of the former Beuys student Blinky Palermo, who died at a young age. The same goes for the visual-diary-like, enigmatic forms of Michael Büthe, who also died young. Buthe's work recalls both Schwitters and Rauschenberg, and it amounts to an electrifying rediscovery in Berlin." In her opinion, the winner of the fight over images at the Deutsche Guggenheim is clear: "Above all, it is Bauhaus artist Albers's struggle with the principle of repetition over content that is superb: blue, red, green, and yellow emerge victorious."