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. The inscription, “ERASED DE KOONING DRAWING BY ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG 1953,” is the only toehold offered to those unfamiliar with this enigmatic artwork. The story of how Erased de Kooning Drawing came into being is central to its reception and reputation, and cannot be separated from the work itself. As Walter Hopps noted, a basic understanding of Erased de Kooning Drawing “is inextricably embedded in the viewer’s explicit knowledge of the process of making.”1 This essay offers a perspective on the interrelatedness of the work’s creation story and its material conditions, and it reflects on the roles both factors played in establishing the drawing as a progenitor of Conceptualism. Though it is often discussed as a bombshell that detonated in the art world in 1953, the drawing in fact gained its reputation much more slowly, as critics and artists considered and reconsidered the implications of the odd, nearly unfathomable artistic choice central to its making.
Rauschenberg’s usual account of Erased de Kooning Drawing’s origins begins with a simple challenge: he wanted to discover a way to make a drawing with an eraser. He had tried erasing one of his own drawings but found the results lacking. He became convinced that the only way to create a work of art through erasure would be to start with a drawing by an artist of universally recognized significance. His first and only choice was Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), a painter at the apex of his powers who had recently reached the highest echelons of the New York art world. With great respect and trepidation, Rauschenberg approached de Kooning to ask for a drawing to erase; with some reluctance and consternation, de Kooning consented. According to Rauschenberg, de Kooning agreed to participate because he understood the concept behind the request and did not want to impede another artist’s work. Back in his studio, Rauschenberg set to work reversing de Kooning’s masterful draftsmanship, a process that took considerable time and numerous erasers. Rauschenberg had a penchant for storytelling, and some of the finer details of his account were embellished over the decades (de Kooning’s demeanor grew more intimidating, the number of erasers increased). However, the central plot points, present in the first major public airing of the tale in Calvin Tomkins’s February 1964 New Yorker profile of Rauschenberg, remained remarkably stable in the artist’s many retellings of the story and in the published accounts that appeared throughout the last four decades of his life.2
For Rauschenberg, the story always ended with the laborious erasure process and his satisfaction with the result; he made no mention of the inscription or the work’s gold frame. In the early literature on Erased de Kooning Drawing, the inscription rarely draws more than a passing mention. It is not treated as an integral or significant aspect of the piece, and when it is referred to, Rauschenberg or his chroniclers simply state the wording and sometimes note that it was hand-lettered. Late in his life, Rauschenberg began to relate that it was fellow artist Jasper Johns (b. 1930) who executed the inscription, a fact later confirmed by Johns.3 In research conducted in preparation for exhibitions presented in 1991 and 1997, Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson dated the erasure of de Kooning’s drawing to fall 1953 and established that Rauschenberg and Johns first met during the 1953–54 holiday season, a chronology that begs the question of when the inscription and frame were added. Rauschenberg never addressed the timing directly, but Johns states that the catalyst was an exhibition opportunity late in 1955. Both artists had been invited to participate in a group drawings show at Elinor Poindexter Gallery, New York,4 but Rauschenberg, who rarely produced finished drawings, had nothing he considered suitable to present. Johns suggested that he show the erased drawing, and they began to prepare the inscription. Because the two had been producing displays for department store windows and a women’s garment distribution warehouse around that time, they had access to a device akin to a pantograph, a mechanical instrument used for duplication. Once they had decided on the details of the inscription and arranged the letters in a metal template, Johns ran a stylus through the guides and an attached pen precisely reproduced the inscription on an adjacent sheet of paper. The drawing was then sent to a framer to be mounted with a mat that included a small window revealing the inscription5 (fig. 2).