Altman’s Nature
letter from Jeffrey Gray

1.
The pelicans and gulls and nameless forms (not to mention
the earlier “war dogs” and other creatures) that dream and wake following
the contours of Altman’s works are often configured in the bold
black lines of Rouault, Franz Kline, and especially the ink-brush painters of

China and Japan from early times to the present. Altman’s artwork
is not the mimesis of the given world but of its becoming, which is
to say also the world in us that he has always gone after. His
is not an imitation of forms—though that’s there, certainly, in

the sudden grasping of a bird out of potentiality—but of Nature in the moment of
apprehension. In this way
a defamiliarized Nature looks out of the layered worlds of these recent brilliant
collages reminding us where and how we stand amidst them.

2.
I remember someone saying that all
great movements forward are a form

of regression on the part of
the artist. That you can tell

the important work because it always
goes back, looking for the source,

i.e. the spring—the freshness deep
down things, as Hopkins said, that

one keeps trying to get at,
that’s never lost in us, in

fact that’s right here, but
laminated under how many strata of

routine, custom, dead habit? So one
has to be willing to take

the chance, how else to recover
it, not to repeat what one

knows will work. This is what
Altman’s work does and that makes

it new. It never settles.
It flies straight into, you know—

Au fond de l’ inconnu pour trouver du nouveau! *
We can’t help but do what

we do; Altman can’t help but
do this; it’s what his work

has always been about. A motif

might be (it is) repeated in
a series of frames—an acrobat,

a key, an animal—but that
figure was born there as a

question mark and what it achieves
through its mutations is to inch

toward new contexts, new understanding, always
momentary and always indispensable.

_________________

* To the bottom (or end) of the unknown, to find the new!
---- Charles Baudelaire, from "Invitation to the Voyage"

_________________

Jeffrey Gray September, 2007

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Professor, Department of English

Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ

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