Wilhelm Worringer

Recently I put up a post on Wilhelm Worringer’s classic book, Abstraction and Empathy. It worked off an earlier post about Michel Serres, but I didn’t give it much importance; it was something of a placeholder. But as Mr. Waller said: one just never knows, does one? The post attracted a lot of interest and reactions. I had reread the book maybe a year before, and remember being impressed, but didn’t have the specifics at my fingertips exactly. Going back to it I find that Worringer believed that sculpture had to tend toward the silhouette, because a full in-the-round experience causes unbearable anxiety. This seems to me like an anticipation of Greenberg’s notion of the opticality of sculpture, one of the most notorious and influential claims in modern art. I don’t know if it influenced practice, but critics have been citing it for a long time; Greenberg himself was responding to what he found in the work of David Smith. Worringer confirms Greenberg’s claim that modern sculpture has become optical, dematerialized, and finds a psychological cause. But Worringer is not a critic of the sixties, his contemporaries are the artists discussed by Margit Rowell in her catalog The Planar Dimension, so he actually confirms the pictorialism of early abstract sculpture and relief, or rather the tendency to the optical embodied in the new experiments with relief—Picasso’s Guitar for example. But if sculpture is optical why does Stella have an uphill battle to claim his reliefs as painting? Because of the deep conservatism of painters. A plague on them!


Frank Stella, K.43 (lattice variation) protogen RPT (full-size), 2008

This recent piece is explicitly modeled on Kandinsky’s early work, and also has a musical origin—the title refers to the catalog of the works of Scarlatti. Perhaps Stella is picking up on the musical way of thinking about form common in early abstraction.

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2 Responses to Wilhelm Worringer

  1. Toby Lloyd-Jones says:

    Very interesting, I’d not seen Stella’s more recent work before. I think early Stella paintings were, amongst other things, about attempting to represent ‘things-in-themselves’ – creating objects that were somehow autonomous from the individual. Similar to Judd (and indeed to some of my cohort, including myself in a third-rate way, at art school in the UK in the late 1970’s). Now, this later work appears to have moved to the binary opposite of that, and become highly psychological, reflecting the inner ‘psyche’ of the individual. Although I have not seen them, perhaps they can be understood best within a framework of psychoanalysis for instance as proposed by Hal Foster, rather than in relation to some of the early and more recently repeated ideas of Fried (e.g., ‘Why photography matters as art as never before’). Just a thought from an occasional amateur artist/critic.

    • Toby, thanks for your comment. I’m glad that someone’s reading this stuff. You might be right, but I think that the later works are as objective as the early ones, just formally more complex – which in itself seems to demand some level of illusionism, and figuration, which according to theory at least compromise “thingness.” Nowadays It seems that Stella is trying to learn from the old masters, and from the old masters of abstraction, Kandinsky and artists of that period. Which leads me to the thought that minimalism might have been less pure phenomenon and more style than we usually think.

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