Robert RauschenbergAmerican (Port Arthur, Texas, 1925 - 2008, Captiva, Florida)
Erased de Kooning Drawing
From 1951 to 1953, Robert Rauschenberg made a range of artworks that explored the limits and very definition of art. These works recall and effectively extend the notion of the artist as creator of ideas, a concept first broached by Marcel Duchamp with his iconic readymades of the early twentieth century. With Erased de Kooning Drawing, Rauschenberg set out to discover whether an artwork could be produced entirely through erasure — the removal of marks from a sheet of paper rather than the addition of them to it. Rauschenberg first tried erasing his own drawings but found that the results fell short of the threshold he believed an object must cross in order to be considered art. He then decided that the starting point for the project must be a drawing that was undeniably an artwork of significance.
He approached Willem de Kooning, an artist for whom he had tremendous respect, and asked him for a drawing that Rauschenberg would proceed to erase. De Kooning agreed, somewhat reluctantly, and deliberately chose a drawing that would be difficult to rub out. After Rauschenberg completed the laborious erasure, he and fellow artist Jasper Johns devised a scheme for labeling, matting, and framing the work, with Johns inscribing the following words below the now-obliterated de Kooning drawing:
ERASED DE KOONING DRAWING
The simple, gilded frame and understated inscription are integral parts of the finished artwork. Without the inscription, one would have no idea what is in the frame; the piece would be indecipherable. Together the erased page, inscription, and frame stand as evidence of the psychologically loaded deed of rendering another's artwork invisible, enacted in the privacy of the artist's studio.
|Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953; infrared digitally processed image of traces of drawing medium on sheet; photo: Ben Blackwell; digital processing by Robin D. Myers, 2010|
In 2010 SFMOMA used a range of digital capture and processing technologies to enhance the remaining traces of the original de Kooning drawing — a process intended to address our instinctive curiosity about what Rauschenberg erased and offer an opportunity to reflect upon what he grappled with, literally and figuratively, when he decided to erase the work of an artist he admittedly idolized. Because de Kooning used erasure heavily in his own drawings, it is possible that some traces made visible through this technology were actually erased by de Kooning as part of the original drawing, prior to his giving it to Rauschenberg. However, the resulting image reveals a drawing that seems to be very much a studio sketch; it contains multiple figures oriented in two directions. The female figure at lower left is likely related to the Woman series, with which de Kooning was deeply involved from 1950 to 1955. Far from a finished drawing or even a focused study, this sheet reflects de Kooning at work, in process, thinking with his pencil and charcoal.
Yet, the sight of this approximation of de Kooning's drawing does not markedly transform our understanding of Rauschenberg's finished artwork. Ultimately the power of Erased de Kooning Drawing derives from the mystery of the unseen and from the perplexity of Rauschenberg's decision to erase a de Kooning. Was it an act of homage, provocation, humor, patricide, destruction, or, as Rauschenberg once suggested, celebration? Erased de Kooning Drawing eludes easy answers and stands as a landmark of postwar art.
The use of advanced imaging technology and its implications for our understanding of Erased de Kooning Drawing will be explored fully through SFMOMA's Rauschenberg Research Project, a four-year in-depth research program that will result in an online catalogue, slated for launch in summer 2013.
conceptual, minimal, Willem de Kooning, erased, erasing, iconoclasm, destroy