Abstraction and Empathy

Wilhelm Worringer was an original thinker, and he’s worth some time, even today. Like Ehrenzweig, I first heard of him because of Smithson’s interest, and likewise I didn’t read him until very recently. Geometry could be seen as pre-existing us, waiting, as it were, to be taken up. Then the use that abstract artists make of it adds some layers of feeling, association, memory, meaning, what you will. This Platonic description of geometry may not be the correct one, but Worringer is onto something about how we make use of the world in art. One picks up a pebble on the beach, an arbitrary pebble, indistinguishable from all the others, and, after carrying it for a while, and looking at it, and touching it, it becomes a specific pebble with its own identity. I hope that others know this experience. Our attention brings things to life, or, more modestly, separates them out from everything else and gives them a kind of glow or presence. Is this how “neutral” geometry becomes more than geometry, becomes art—through familiarity or use? I feel that geometry is too human already, and that every grid is the same grid, a social prison for art. But the way the “neutral” is absorbed is very interesting. I think I’ll take a turn through German aesthetics of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. Might learn something about nature.

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Donald Judd, Galvanized Iron 17 January 1973, 1973

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One Response to Abstraction and Empathy

  1. pete smith says:

    I love that old essay, although I’m more interested in his connection of abstraction with a larger social context (or a sort of geist maybe?). It relates, somewhat preemptively or even prophetically, to a particular reading of twentieth century abstraction that I happen to like quite a bit. It’s in the third year course reader I’ve given one of my classes.

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