Abstraction From or Abstraction For

October 9, 2011

So I’ve been reading a book about Blinky Palermo and in the introductory essay Gloria Moure sets up a dual definition of abstraction that she then uses to as a lens for viewing Palermo’s work.  The duality goes like this (and I’m paraphrasing and simplifying): one kind of abstraction is the kind we all do every day in order to function normally in the world–we form chaos into recognizable shapes and systems that we can then use both as a common language and as a way to navigate the world.  Moure suggests this is the kind of abstraction Palermo works with.  The second kind of abstraction, implicitly negligible in the essay, is a tautological “it is what it is” rendering of abstract forms with no referent to the world, art that would be personified by someone like Frank Stella or (perhaps incorrectly) Ad Reinhardt.

Even given the value judgement I think this is a useful way to look at my own recent work, because you could make a case that it falls into either camp.  It’s an obvious “abstraction from” because it’s photographs of real objects and still uses the “pointing-at” function of photography to point at forms that happen to already be abstract.  Like I said in an earlier post, it’s fraudulent; it’s a copy of abstraction rather than the real thing–maybe.

On the other hand, there’s a tautology at work in the rendering of the pieces because they’re abstract forms imaged with the intent of making abstract forms.  The photos, even though they’re not what they seem, divorced from their production they simply are what they are and there’s no world-referent in place to guide why a certain work looks like it does or is the size it is etc.  The images are abstractions and erode the pointing-at inherent in traditional photography.  And anyway it would maybe be facile to use photos as a starting point for abstraction–you could easily digitally blur any image until it’s abstract, but what do you really get for your small labor?

Rather than being distraught about the ambiguity, though, I’m actually happy with it.  The uncertainty of the manner of abstraction rendered in the photos makes them flicker between representation and not representation, which I think is an interesting tension to try to explore.  I used to roll my eyes at a lot of my peers heading back into the darkroom to produce unique abstract photos as a way to reclaim the “essence” of photography but now I think I get what they’re driving at, and with space and some borrowed images I could point out  both abstraction from and abstraction for and demonstrate how they overlap, but I think it’s enough for now to just use this temporary tent pole as a means of coming to a fuller understanding of what exactly it is I’m doing and what I’m hoping to achieve.

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