Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning
In 1953 Robert Rauschenberg, a young, little known artist, took a box of erasers and set to rubbing out a densely layered drawing by Willem de Kooning, the king of Abstract Expressionism, and he did it with the Master’s permission.
Rauschenberg has said that he was “trying to find a way to bring drawing into the all whites.” However, of the many things that the Erased de Kooning is, the two aesthetic components that the artist chose to emphasize are the least significant. Firstly, if we accept it as an act of drawing, then it is an act of drawing that need not be repeated, being the negation of drawing, or a counter-example of drawing: an act that serves only to clarify what drawing is by showing what it is not. Indeed the world is full of things that are not drawing. But this act of erasure forever reminds us by a contrary movement what drawing in essence is: the calling forth of form by delineation through manipulation of media. Taking that away reveals the ghost of what was.
Secondly, when we accept the Erased de Kooning as an example of the no-image white series, we quickly see that any erasure would have sufficed, and it need not have been a drawing by de Kooning.
Clearly the conceptual component is significant. As Rauschenberg obliquely acknowledged, the act of erasing a de Kooning (rather than merely erasure, or erasing any old drawing, or erasing as a method of drawing), is the main point.
De Kooning’s biographers focus on it as an act of symbolic parricide:
The young artist was engaged in a symbolic act of generational and Oedipal murder, at once comic and deadly serious. He was doing so in the joking language of Dada, a movement that did not respect the sanctity of the art object or celebrate the romantic passion of de Kooning’s generation. Rauschenberg would retain much of de Kooning for the future—his rude American vitality, his open-endedness, and his devotion to a process of permutation and change—but Rauschenberg had to escape from the air of Old World connoisseurship and private touch that was inevitably a part of a de Kooning drawing. Rauschenberg could not make conventional “drawings” or “paintings,” much as he loved them, because he did not believe they contained the contemporary truth. He had to erase that part of de Kooning.1
In erasing the de Kooning drawing, Rauschenberg drew on the strength of contemporary sources, principally the concepts of John Cage, who thought that a musical composition could be made completely out of silence, the precedent of established artists like Duchamp, who thought that concepts were more important to visual art than the visuals, and the tradition of Dada, which sought to upset the authority of the father. And, in performing this act of erasure, he borrowed something else from de Kooning, who looked upon art history as a bowl of alphabet soup, where the individual artist dips in and takes out the letters he wants.
There is a dialectical inevitability to Rauschenberg’s acts of the early 1950’s. The artist was looking for a place to move, based on the rules of the game available at the time. In Italy he made junk art then literally junked it, throwing it into the Arno after a critic suggested he do this rather than have it shipped back to the U.S. In doing this, as well as in making works out of organic materials, he made disposable art, pushing the concept of refuse as art to an extreme: art as refuse. With the black paintings he forced Reinhardt’s pure black silence into a paradoxical stalemate: the active surfaces he gave them produced a noise with no sound. He pushed color-field painting into a dead-end with the white paintings by removing one of the only two elements left: color. In each case Rauschenberg made a prescient and deft demonstration of the ends of these aesthetic lines of enquiry. He quickened the arrival of conceptual art and helped hasten the end of the American avant-garde movement which came some thirty years later.
The paint was barely dry on the whites and blacks when Rauschenberg began the reds. But with the red combine-paintings he took a stand and stayed put. Although he would sometimes participate in performance art, he had made a decision, dipped his spoon into the bowl of alphabet soup and taken out the letters that pleased him: collage and assemblage, sometimes embracing technology and often accompanied by gestural drawing and painting.
In retrospect Rauschenberg may have contributed something more significant to culture when he erased de Kooning’s drawing than simply performing a shocking act. In time succeeding generations of artists have pondered the idea, admiring de Kooning’s participation in it. It seems to me, in 2010, that the thing of lasting value in it is the statement: No more heros. To be sure it meant other things to the young Rauschenberg at the time, but we see things differently today. The young artist supplants the older one in the human chain, taking what he wants and leaving behind what no longer works, but the change does not comprise anything as vulgar as an advance or a progression. Instead it announces the New Day.
1de Kooning by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, pp 359-60
Mark Kerstetter writes poetry, fiction and essays on art and literature. He loves to draw and make art out of wood salvaged from demolition sites, and samples it all on The Bricoleur.