In 1953, Rauschenberg decided to challenge what could be construed as Art, just as Dumas had before him. He had begun this process in 1951 by producing pure white paintings from which he had eliminated any sense of brushwork by using house paint applied with rollers (Craft, 2013). Wanting to push his White paintings into drawing, he conceived the idea of taking a drawing, a work of art, and destroying it by erasure, thereby leaving its trace but not the ‘art’ content. This would not only question or destroy ideas of what art was but also destroy a physical piece of art. He tried using his own drawings but felt that they lacked sufficient significance. He fearfully approached de Kooning, one of the foremost American artists of the time, and requested a drawing to delete, ‘I bought a bottle of Jack Daniels…..praying….that he wouldn’t be home’ (svsugvcarter, 2007). Accounts differ as to whether de Kooning was reluctant or intrigued by the proposal, possibly both.
Rauschenberg remembers de Kooning saying, ‘I want it to be something I’ll miss…..something really difficult to erase’. He selected a drawing in charcoal, oil paint, pencil and crayon, and it took Rauschenberg a month to erase it. He comments in this interview that people thought it a gesture, a protest against abstract expressionism or vandalism but when asked what it represented for him, he said ‘its poetry’.
The Erased de Kooning as a physical artefact is not a work of art, but the memory of a work of art. The second work of art here is the idea and its execution. In this respect, Rauschenberg was a forerunner of the Conceptual Art movement which gained momentum in the early 1960s. Sol LeWitt ‘In conceptual art the idea or the concept is the most important aspect of the work…it means that all planning and decisions are made before hand and the execution is a perfunctory affair…It is the object of the artist to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator’ (Harrison, Wood, and Gaiger, 2002). Except that Rauschenberg did not want the execution to be perfunctory; he wanted it to be difficult, but, like the White paintings, not to display the hand of the artist. Had he been working 10 years later, he probably would have recorded this as a piece of performance art. He created a nearly blank piece of paper on which the spectator can project their own interpretation and speculations. It is this creation of an arena for discussion and speculation which has kept the Erased de Kooning fresh and relevant for 60 years.
Erasing a work by an important artist was a genuinely creative and original idea. In his ‘Sentence on Conceptual Art’, Sol LeWitt usefully said, of this creative process:
‘1 Conceptual Artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.
2 Rational judgements repeat rational judgements.
3 Illogical judgements lead to new experience.
4 Formal Art is essentially rational.
5 Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.’ (Harrison, Wood, and Gaiger).
Erasing a de Kooning was irrational and, once conceived, followed through with commitment, leading to a new and enduring experience.
Craft, C. (2013) Rauschenberg London: Phaidon Press.