Origins

I’ve been looking at a recent catalog of Rothko’s works of the forties, the so-called “multiforms.” My friend Andreas Neufert is a big admirer of these works, but personally I find it hard to get interested. Yet Harry Cooper’s essay in the catalog goes in a good direction. He points out that the pictures represent a kind of primordial ooze, the site of the origin of life. Great abstraction is always an origin, and often finds ways to figure origins. I find this kind of thought very attractive. It’s hardly new, but it’s possible to see it freshly. One might say that metaphors of origin (as they appear in art) locate the origins of metaphor (meaning the impossibility of a purely factual abstraction). As Rothko

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Mark Rothko, Untitled 1948

understood, the important thing was to get past images of things one might see in a microscope to a more primordial level, the place where forms emerge. That possibility was always present in early abstraction, as any work by Kandinsky proves. I might be

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Wassily Kandinsky, Fragment 2 for Composition VII 1913

coming round to Andreas’s view, only more radical. Rothko should have stayed there. Abstraction is better as a beginning. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t change.

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