Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953
Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953; traces of drawing media on paper with label and gilded frame, 25 1/4 in. x 21 3/4 in. x 1/2 in. (64.14 cm x 55.25 cm x 1.27 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis; © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Overview

From 1951 to 1953, Robert Rauschenberg made a number of artworks that explore 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 (1887–1968) with his iconic readymades of the early twentieth century. With Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), Rauschenberg set out to discover whether an artwork could be produced entirely through erasure—an act focused on the removal of marks rather than their accumulation.

Rauschenberg first tried erasing his own drawings but ultimately decided that in order for the experiment to succeed he had to begin with an artwork that was undeniably significant in its own right. He approached Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), an artist for whom he had tremendous respect, and asked him for a drawing to erase. Somewhat reluctantly, de Kooning agreed. After Rauschenberg completed the laborious erasure, he and fellow artist Jasper Johns (b. 1930) 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
ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG
1953

The simple, gilded frame and understated inscription are integral parts of the finished artwork, offering the sole indication of the psychologically loaded act central to its creation. Without the inscription, we would have no idea what is in the frame; the piece would be indecipherable.

In 2010 SFMOMA used a range of digital capture and processing technologies to enhance the remaining traces of the original de Kooning drawing. This effort was intended not only to address our instinctive curiosity about what Rauschenberg erased but also to enable us to better understand 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 him as part of the original drawing, before it entered Rauschenberg’s hands. However, the resulting image reveals a field of marks that is far from a finished drawing or even a focused study. Instead we see de Kooning at work, in process, thinking with his pencil and charcoal. Multiple figures fill the sheet, 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.

The sight of this approximation of de Kooning’s drawing ultimately does not transform our understanding of Rauschenberg’s finished artwork. The power of Erased de Kooning Drawing derives from the allure of the unseen and from the enigmatic nature 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, its mysterious beginnings leaving it open to a range of present and future interpretations.

Artwork Info

Artwork title
Erased de Kooning Drawing
Artist name
Robert Rauschenberg
Date created
1953
Classification
drawing
Medium
traces of drawing media on paper with label and gilded frame
Dimensions
25 1/4 in. x 21 3/4 in. x 1/2 in. (64.14 cm x 55.25 cm x 1.27 cm)
Date acquired
1998
Credit
Collection SFMOMA
Purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis
Copyright
© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Permanent URL
https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.298
Artwork status
Not on view at this time.

Essay

Erased de Kooning Drawing

By Sarah Roberts, July 2013
Part of the Rauschenberg Research Project

A simple composition comprising a single sheet of smudged paper, a thin gold frame with a plain window mat, and a machine-precise inscription, Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing blankly addresses the viewer. At first inspection, its meaning and import are utterly opaque, impossible even to speculate upon.

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