At the risk of hauling out the "I" once again (and here I go already) I'm thinking about personal writing, and how filtering the past through the present—whether it's my past or his—inevitably leads to abstracting that past. Even a photograph grows recondite in the sense that, like the proverbial stream, it's impossible to put your eyes on the same spot twice: there's too much shape-shifting going on from last week to yesterday to now. When I write about the past I abstract that past as a painter abstracts her subject. Modern and contemporary visual artists have really nailed down the value, power, and necessity of abstraction as a key value in representing the world in the ways in which we perceive, remember, and name it.
The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real. Lucian Freud
Even an abstract form has to have a likeness. Willem de Kooning
I like Freud's idea that abstraction results in something more real—though I don't think it's ironic, I think it's obvious. Kandinsky: yep. And de Kooning says what all writers, too, know: that our subject begin with its likeness and moves inevitably toward abstraction, but that likeness—the incidents, the people, the stubborn facts—remain crucially tethered to that abstraction. Elsewhere, Paul Gauguin sounds skeptical but open to persuasion when he says, "Do not copy nature too much. Art is an abstraction." What is too much? What can that mean? I assume the painter is urging us to avoid slavish imitation of the external world, but an imitation is, of course, subjective. A Xerox of a Xerox where he have to rub our eyes because what we're seeing can't possibly be there.
There's something melancholy about all of this: we lose the tactile world as we remember it. Yet that loss returns a more pungent reality, after Freud, and after Kandinsky, a more appealing one. What interests me is the movement between event (of mine, of his) and telling, and how somewhere along the line a necessary abstraction of that event occurs, shaped by, what, an innate desire for an artful rendering? By memory's rack focusing? By my demand that that event play out as a chapter in a story I'm creating (the characters in character, the event thematically useful)? When David Hockney says "All painting, no matter what you are painting, is abstract in that it's got to be organized," I hear: though we cannot re-order our life as lived, we can re-order its telling. We can organize our materials, as it were, in conscious and unconscious ways, each rearrangement abstracting the past more and more. I've written before about the time one of my siblings waggishly wedged my foot between train tracks as a (far away) train was approaching. I disengaged myself and all was well, but not before setting into motion the dramatization of that moment in my memory. Over the decades, a trivial and unimportant scene has been abstracted to the level of High Art. That is, Something Of Value. I visit the gallery often, usually struck by what I missed the last time around, how that image evokes so much more than its likeness, how a blurring of a line, a thickening of impasto, a smear of the representational to the mysterious, re-presents that past so urgently.