In 1999, Menil Collection curator Walter Hopps and SFMOMA Director David A. Ross interviewed Rauschenberg in the SFMOMA galleries during an exhibition featuring fourteen major works by the artist that the museum had recently acquired. Hopps had organized the 1976 and 1998 retrospectives of Rauschenberg’s work. In this excerpt from the video footage Rauschenberg describes Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) as one of his “icons of eccentricities,” and identifies it as an important touchstone for his later works. He also tells the story of approaching Willem de Kooning (with a bottle of Jack Daniels) to ask for a drawing to erase. Rauschenberg repeated this story frequently throughout his life. Gary Garrels, then SFMOMA’s chief curator, and Peter Samis, then associate curator of education, also participate in the interview. A transcript of the full interview is available on the Related Information page. A transcript of this excerpt is available below.
Robert Rauschenberg discusses Erased de Kooning Drawing at SFMOMA, May 6, 1999
Excerpt from Robert Rauschenberg, video interview by David A. Ross, Walter Hopps, Gary Garrels, and Peter Samis, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 6, 1999. Unpublished transcript at the SFMOMA Research Library and Archives, N 6537 .R27 A35 1999a.
RAUSCHENBERG: Well, these—this particular group of works were somehow sort of the icons of—of—of eccentricities and—and— and— and— and exceptional, in the sense of— of—that they didn’t fit into the art world at that time. And— I just knew that they were unique. And they— they— they couldn’t be done again, and— and there was no reason to. And they were dear to me.
ROSS: Did you keep them stored away and locked up or were they works that you referred to?
RAUSCHENBERG: They were sold—they—they were sold. I mean—I mean, not for sale.
RAUSCHENBERG: Even though they were shown.
ROSS: Right. But did you keep—when—when you had them in the studio all these years, did you look at them often? Did you often look at the Erased de Kooning Drawing and just, you know, use that as a touchstone? Or was it something that was literally stored away in the back of your mind, as well as physically stored away?
RAUSCHENBERG: Most of—most of these—these works were on view in my various studios all the time. I have my sort of muse wall. And they were personal to me, and celebrated, but not available. And it wasn’t ’til the retrospective that—that— that— that Walter and I put them out publicly together.
ROSS: But when I looked at the back of the Erased de Kooning Drawing, it has more exhibition labels than just about any other object I’ve ever seen. It—it tells the veritable story of your career, in a way. Because that piece has been in so many important exhibitions over the years. So I know that that object, as well as so many other works in this group, are very hard for you to part with. Why did you decide to part with this group now? What led to that decision? I’m sure it wasn’t anything you—you approached lightly.
RAUSCHENBERG: It had to be done sometime. Because the reason that—that—that I hadn’t sold any of the pieces individually was because I wanted to somehow keep them together. It seemed like, I don’t know, that they—they—they seemed like a—sort of a core of an attitude that—[mic noise] that—that only was responsible by me. I mean, it wasn’t—Most of this work [mic noise] could not have been done by any other personality. And— And I was protecting it. Because I—you know, I’ve done other works that—that— that—that I—I would have in series. And not to criticize the series or evaluate ’em, but these—this seemed sorta special, in—in—in—in the sense of not fitting into what was going on in the art world.
ROSS: I think not fitting in is a good way of putting it; but also creating a very new approach to art making in American art, from the very first time these works were shown, is—is more like the reality of the trajectory that your career has taken. So “not fitting” is a nice way of putting it.
RAUSCHENBERG: [over Ross] Well—
ROSS: It’s very—it’s very—it’s very gracious of you to say that about yourself. But you were also inventing at a very furious pace.
RAUSCHENBERG: Well, most of the—the—the—the works in—in this—in this collection scared the shit outta me, too. And they didn’t stop frightening me. And so—There was—there was a kind of courage that was—that was built into them, in their uniqueness, that—in the individ— individuality [mic noise] that [mic noise] I didn’t wanna forget about, either.
ROSS: Well, this is obviously an object that you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about in your life, having made this in 1953, in a situation that I—that I think is one of the most fascinating situations out of which a work evolved. And then at every level, it’s remained extraordinary, since that generative moment. Could we go back to the point at which this work, the idea for this work, evolved and—
ROSS: —and talk about that?
RAUSCHENBERG: Well, we just left the White Painting. And so, I was working with no image. And so—I love drawing. And so I—I was trying to figure out a way to do drawings for this series and—the all white. And—so I— I—I thought, The only way to do it is like—like with an erasure. And—When—when—when I just erased my own drawings, it wasn’t art yet. And so I thought, Aha, it has to be art. And Bill de Kooning was the—was the best-known acceptable American artist, well known, that—that— that—That could be indisputably considered art. And so—
ROSS: And so how did you approach—how did you approach de Kooning?
RAUSCHENBERG: I’m doing it. I bought—I was on a very low-budget situation. But I bought a bottle of Jack Daniels. And hoped that— that— that he wouldn’t be home when I knocked on his door. [laughter] And he was home. And we sat down with the Jack Daniels, and I told him what my project was. He understood it. And he said, “I don’t like it. But, you know, I—I understand what you’re doing.” And— and so—He had a painting that he was working on, and he went over and— and—and put it against the— the— the— the door to the stairs. And as though, you know, being closed wasn’t enough. By now, [laughs] I’m really frightened. And—and—and—and he said, “OK. I don’t like it, but I’m—I’m going to go along with it, because I understand the idea.” And—He went through one portfolio, and he said, “No. It’ll have to be something that—that I’ll miss.” So I’m—I’m—I’m, you know, just sweating, shitless, ya know? And then I’m thinking, like—like, It doesn’t have to be something you’re gonna miss. [they laugh] And—and then— and then—Then he went through a second portfolio. Which I thought was kind of interesting, things he wouldn’t miss and things he would miss and—And then—and—and he pulled something out, and then he said, “I’m gonna make it so hard for you to erase this.” And he had a third portfolio, that was—that had— had—had—had crayon, pencil, charcoal and—and—and—And it took me about a month, and I don’t know how many erasers, to do it. But actually, you know, on the other side of this is also—I mean, if there’s ever any question about this, there’s a gorgeous drawing of Bill’s.
ROSS: So you chose a two-sided drawing—or he chose that for you?
RAUSCHENBERG: No, I think that was just on the other side of this one.
ROSS: Uh-huh. Do you remember what the drawing looked like in your mind?
RAUSCHENBERG: It’s— it’s part of the Women series.
ROSS: Uh-huh. I mean, do you have the image, though, burned into your head?
RAUSCHENBERG: Sorta. It’s not burnt in. And—and—and—and so when I titled it, it was very difficult to figure out exactly how to phrase this. And Jasper Johns was living upstairs. So I asked him to do—do the—the the writing.
ROSS: He’s still very proud of that, you know. [Rauschenberg laughs] After he learned that we’d acquired this, he—he told me that.
RAUSCHENBERG: Oh good, yeah.
ROSS: He said, “You know, the only—the only thing added to that picture was by me.” The lettering on the title card. I—I—I love the—the pentimento that is on here, though. Is this—is this imagery that we see, the dark areas, is this bleed-through from the drawing on the other side?
RAUSCHENBERG: [over Ross] No. No, no.
ROSS: Or is that the crayon, the grease crayon that you—that you couldn’t get off?
RAUSCHENBERG: [over Ross] No, just the—just the grease, that I couldn’t get off.
ROSS: Uh-huh. And I—I—I imagine that it had to be done very delicately, so that the paper wouldn’t tear.
ROSS: I mean, the idea of erasure there was a very delicate piece of surgery. But was it also about a kind of negation? I mean, there seems to be—
ROSS: —something kind of—
RAUSCHENBERG: No. Like, nei—neither—neither is the White Painting. It’s not a negation, it’s a celebration. It’s just the idea.
HOPPS: David, twenty years ago, when I first had a chance to exhibit this and faced it with Bob, he was very passionate about the fact that this only would have meaning if it were a drawing that he really thought was great, from an artist he admired enormously; and it was not a negative act.
HOPPS: And going to de Kooning and working that out was sort of a miracle. But as you say, he under—respected what you were doing, even though he didn’t like it.
ROSS: Was this work ever taken as a sign of— of a—of an aggression—aggressive stance—[inaudible, Rauschenberg over Ross].
RAUSCHENBERG: Oh, it— it was only read that way.
ROSS: One generation to another?
RAUSCHENBERG: It was only—Yeah.
HOPPS: Should we— should we name names?
RAUSCHENBERG: It was a— it’s anti-Abstract Expressionism and—
HOPPS: Yeah, well, I mean, from Jane Fitzsimmons, who wrote in— serious criticism in Arts and Architecture magazine, and later Hilton Kramer, they hate this thing. There’s been nothing but—There’s been a constant kind of negative people approaching, to me, what is a very extraordinary work. I consider that a beautiful work. This is one side of a process…
RAUSCHENBERG: It’s a very positive gesture.