“It’s not a negation, it’s a celebration!”

By our very nature, my wife and I love to have something to look forward to in our immediate and long-term future. We don’t dwell on the negative, but we do enjoy celebrating when something nice, special, or particularly good happens in our lives! In this blog, we are going to confront the notion of celebration!

The famed Pop Artist Robert Rauschenberg exclaimed in the 1972 Painters Painting documentary: “My paintings are invitations to look somewhere else.” Hmmm…what could this famous American artist of the Material Culture Age mean by this statement? Seems contradictory at first glance!

Rauschenberg, during his early years as an emerging artist in New York City, was seriously questioning the very nature of art. In many ways, Rauschenberg was a contrarian inspired by such legendary artists as Marcel Duchamp and the experiments with readymades. In 1951, Rauschenberg made a notable series of paintings he called White Paintings. These were all-white canvases exhibited at Black Mountain College where he was a student. At first glance, these all White Paintings appeared to be unpainted. Rauschenberg even asked fellow Black Mountain College faculty artist Cy Twombly to paint a few for this series! This request to Twombly deepened Rauschenberg’s questioning the very nature of the idea of authorship!

But the most experimental, if not the most radical questioning on the part of Rauschenberg about the nature of art in the 1950s post-WWII era, happened in 1953—a form of celebration in his mind! While Rauschenberg was a student at Black Mountain College, he befriended the institute’s faculty member Willem de Kooning! In a short period of time, Rauschenberg and de Kooning were on friendly terms. Rauschenberg had formulated a request in his mind, a request that certainly could be a volatile one to be sure, but he went to de Kooning house to present the idea to the famed artist directly. Standing at the front door, reflecting on his idea, he said to himself as he knocked on the door “Don’t be home!. But de Kooning was home and he opened the door! Rauschenberg dug down deep within himself and asked de Kooning for a drawing. Not for his own collection but he wanted to erase it! Erase it! de Kooning was less than enthused by the request but he did engage in a conversation with Rauschenberg as they discussed this idea over whiskey. Rauschenberg explained to de Kooning that as a student he had already experimented on one of his own drawings and erased it after it was a completed expression. Rauschenberg stated: “If it was my own work being erased, then the erasing would only be half the process, and I wanted it to be the whole.” Rauschenberg tried to explain to de Kooning that erasing one of the master’s drawings wouldn’t be destruction, “although there was always the chance that if it didn’t work out there would be a terrible waste.”

Surprisingly, de Kooning was won over by this young student’s idea and the master pulled out two portfolios of his drawings he had still in his possession. As he came to one that he considered giving Rauschenberg, de Kooning said “No, it has to be something I’d miss”. After a few moments of flipping through images, de Kooning finally settled on a sketch where he used grease pencil, ink, charcoal, and graphite. He gave the sketch to Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg took the de Kooning sketch back to his studio and carefully erased it. Surprisingly, the artist recalled it took him two months to erase! After the deed had been done, Rauschenberg’s friend Jasper Johns said the erased de Kooning sketch needed to be framed and he produced a name tag for this framed piece—Erased de Kooning Drawing…Robert Rauschenberg…1953

In 1964, at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Rauschenberg exhibited the Erased de Kooning Drawing. This framed piece became a sensation. de Kooning was indignant about the spectacle as he thought the exchange between him and Rauschenberg should have remained private. Rauschenberg, in his defense, maintained that it was never intended to be private! “It’s not a negation, he said in 1999, it’s a celebration!”

What are your thoughts on Rauschenberg asking a celebrated artist for a drawing with the expressed intent of erasing it? Rauschenberg was transparent and fully informed de Kooning of his intentions.

Artist Robert Rauschenberg photographed in August 1966. (Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)
Rauschenberg’s Framed Erased de Kooning with Jasper John’s Name Tag

Here is an 2010 SFMOMA enhanced infrared scan of the de Kooning sketch work revealing several female figures seen/drawn from different angles

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.

26 Comments

26 thoughts on ““It’s not a negation, it’s a celebration!””

  1. I see the erasure of a drawing from an artist he looks up to, a respected one at that, not as destruction, but an exploration of what creating art can be. At first glance, it seems he is taking away the art by erasing an existing drawing, one by an existing professional artist. But, he himself is is still taking part in the act of creating; this piece is like gestural abstraction. He could have easily just painted over it with white paint and called it a day. The fact that he spent two months and many erasers to erase de Kooning’s drawing, shows he was creating, not destroying.

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  2. I think it’s a really cool idea, erasing the art. Rauschenberg, as mentioned in the article, was transparent with his intentions, so de Kooning knew to give him a sketch he wasn’t too attached to. An eraser is just as much of a tool in art as a pen or pencil. Rauschenberg was just adding to the work, in a way that hadn’t before been considered. Erasing a whole piece is definitely a new way to approach, but it’s not a bad one.

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  3. I think that erasing the art is way of expression. It is a process: draw, observe, erase, repeat. This is very interesting and creative way. Being an artist gives freedom of self-expression. In this case the eraser, doesn’t erase, it creates artwork.

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  4. Lizbeth Ramirez | Art 477

    I think Rauschenberg asking a celebrated artist for a drawing with the intent of erasing it, could be seen as bad but I think it is a very interesting way of approaching art. Without de Kooning knowing his intentions it could’ve been a very disrespectful thing to do but he was informed and allowed Rauschenberg to add to his art (by taking away). As long as everyone is on the same page I don’t see any harm in this.

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  5. In art classes they always tell you to not erase your work because you don’t know if later on you will want to go back to that drawing and use it. Sometimes I have a bad habit of not listening to that advise, but in general I’m pretty good about not erasing my sketches. I would have never thought to make erasing a form of expression/art but it does make sense. We put so much emphasis on the act of creating but not destroying/erasing. It reminds me of the quote, “It gets worse before it gets better,” where things getting destroyed is part of the overall process and I think disregarding it is a disservice to the whole creative process.

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  6. Rauschenberg asking de Kooning to erase his artwork I think came from a point of creative intent so there was nothing wrong about asking him first to do it. I think that the idea of creating an artwork and then erasing it and hanging it is definitely very “pop art”. I think this just because it’s incredibly outside of the box and takes art from a different perspective to understand. It’s taking approach to work and driving more interest into it. I think the aspect of erasing was a cool concept for himself and de Kooning.

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  7. Although it sounds like an odd request, it is a fascinating idea to wrap your head around. I think there was a part of Rauschenberg that was also hesitant to ask de Kooning for a sketch as he was reflecting on his idea in front of de Kooning’s home. I would have never thought erasing work can be a form of expression. When thinking about work, I always think about visually communicating an idea and when something is erased, you’re left with a blank canvas with no visible aspect of what was there. I think that Rauschenberg being transparent and fully informing de Kooning of his intentions is appropriate and respectful to the celebrated artist. To think about how Rauschendberg spent two months is absolutely mind-boggling. Spending two months to fully erase the work is a long process of its own and I think this circles back to the act of creating a final product.

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  8. Erasing art is a very interesting element to do within your artwork, but one I can fully understand. I think it adds a lot of additional layers to a piece of art that we don’t normally see. It’s something that forces you to look closer for any sort of remains of what there was–and it reminds me of how in detective shows when they’d take empty notebook pages and scribble pencil across it to see what was written on the previous pages. It’s a good sense of mystery, and adds a whole other layer to the art. Just as some previous students have said, the eraser is just as much of a tool within art than a pencil or brush, so seeing it used as a central art of a piece is incredibly fascinating and thought-provoking.

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  9. I find Rauschenberg’s intention of creating an artwork through erasure very eye-opening. I wouldn’t have thought that art could be created for this purpose, and I find it to be very radical and poetic. It seems that Rauschenberg admired the artist and wanted to explore this kind of concept to express his imagination that can elude to many answers. It leaves me wondering if the artwork truly alludes to the act of celebration or deliberate destruction. It’s a statement of how vast and creative the art expression entails and puts into a new perspective of what “art” could be and how we can observe it. His ideas have left me with a greater curiosity about what direction he wanted to take with this process for I find the artwork to have a mysterious meaning for the unseen, which I find very compelling!

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  10. I laugh because I feel like my answers to these posts are often repetitive. This is how I know my opinion well on the subject of art. Art is completely subjective. Some may think the act of art was the erasing itself and not the original piece. I for one, would be disappointed to put in effort for it to just be erased, but not all people see it this way. Destroying art is something I have seen be done plenty in the world of creative people. I think it can make a bigger statement than the art itself and if the goal is to make a statement, then what better way!

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  11. Personally, both works, Kooning’s sketches, and Rauschenberg’s Framed Erased de Kooning, should be respected. I believe the story of Rauschenberg’s story proves that art is a continuous process, always opened for possibilities. Indeed, many artists erase and revise their work. If so, the process of erasing a sketch or a painting is not rejecting the work of art, but rather should be thought of as only erasing what we can see visually, not the art itself. I believe the purpose of art creation is not only to visually communicate with the public but to give them an opportunity to go beyond what they see and find what’s visually hidden; although we may not visually see the erased marks, we cannot say no marks were added by Rauschenberg.

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  12. I don’t think he would have given Robert it if it was something that was EXTREMELY important. Being said I think that it was an ingenious thing to do. By him erasing the sketch I believe Robert was just trying to put a different meaning to Kooning’s work. He thought of him as an idol and added his own original spin to his idol’s work. That is brilliant. It is compelling to say the least.

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  13. The thought of erasing someone’s work and then calling it art is something a lot of people still would think is more so destruction rather than the process of “adding” to the piece. Thinking about it from a viewer’s perspective I would agree with them, but with the added context of both Rauschenberg and de Kooning, I have more insight on what they were trying to accomplish with that piece. Creating art is a sign of expression, and with artists often drawing and erasing their works, shouldn’t the act of erasing something precious be considered a sign of expression as well? Most people are more fixated on the result of a painting, without thinking about the act and process of painting and erasing. I think Rauschenberg asking de Kooning was a sign of respect, and his hesitation was a given since he was asking a famous artist if he could erase their work is honestly a very strange request to make.

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  14. This is one of those artworks where I believe the story is what makes the piece so captivating and interesting. I’m usually not one to focus on the story behind the creation of a work rather than the visuals of the piece itself, in some cases I even think it’s a bit haughty and over the top, but in this case I liked it. After the buildup of the backstory I honestly thought that the piece itself lacked a lot of punch, but this is probably due to my unfamiliarity with de Kooning and his work. That story is what hooks and sells this piece, and I doubt without it it would have gotten as much attention as it did. The thought of coming up to a celebrated artist and asking to erase one of their works is something that takes a lot of guts, and a lot of confidence in one’s own argument for it. I think that confidence and clarity in one’s own goals for art is another aspect that pushes the story of this piece and makes the work as a whole work as well as it does.

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  15. I enjoyed this story behind the work. Rauschenberg is one of the artists, or one that is at the very top when comes up with ideas that are completely in a different path. When most think about median, context, process, Rauschenberg dig into the other realm of creating. My language is vague and weak to translate the exact meaning behind his strange vision. What he did can not be copied by others, otherwise it will loose meaning and the make the others look dumb.

    When celebration comes in with erasing, I feel like the erasing was Rauschenberg’s process, For two months, he carefully erased the image, taking his time and attention. Finally, a white canvas appeared in front of him. It is a moment of completion, and it becomes a celebration for his labor. To another content, de Kooning knows Rauschenberg’s intention, de Kooning becomes a part of the collaboration. In the end, when Rauschenberg showed the finished work to him, it is in a way of celebrating their successful collaboration. If we connect this story with a larger background, new contexts will branch out. This story and the work itself can held so much conversation.

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  16. Honestly the thought of erasing a piece of work seems a bit scary. All the dedicated work will seem like it’ll be a “waste” and wouldn’t be able to showcase all the work that you’ve done to the world with it being erased. But the way Rauschenberg explains it is very interesting and seems to be a form of expression by adding another step into the process of the piece of work which is “erasing” it. It’s interesting that Rauschenberg took the time to erase the canvas and took him two months than use any other easier alternative to white out the canvas. It feels like a collaboration and there doesn’t seem to feel any infidelity by doing this but something out of respect.

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  17. Rauschenberg’s use of erasing as a form of artistic expression is interesting, especially that he would only consider a piece that he erases complete if it is not his own. He was entirely open and honest about his intentions for the piece with Kooning, which means that he had the artist’s permission to erase the sketch because that is why he gave it to Rauschenberg. Usually, when one adds to an artwork, the evidence of the collaboration is distinct and identifiable. Pointedly, the new components of the piece are often adding more imagery. The idea that Rauschenberg’s participation and addition to Kooning’s sketch was erasure, meaning the more he contributed to the sketch, the less conventionally identifiable art was present is abstract and innovative. He enjoyed the process of doing so and celebrated the work of a fellow artist, not destroying it but transforming it.

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  18. At first thought, it seems so absurd! To erase a piece that an artist, a celebrated one for that matter, had put thought and time into just to erase it seems terrible! However, when Raushenberg said that covering up paintings with white paint was part of a two step process that actually convinced me. It is up to the artist to deem whether their creation is art or not, with or without purpose. In a way, the art was never cleared or erased because it existed at a point and still has its mark on the canvas used. It seems fitting for an artist to be able to let go of their work as well since we move onto the next project. The process is more memorable than the product itself.

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  19. I see nothing wrong with Rauschenberg erasing de Kooning’s work because he informed de Kooning first and had expressed creative intent when erasing. If de Kooning knew nothing about the erasing, then I could see this being disrespectful, but both artists agreed and knew of the expressed intent. He demonstrated that he appreciated the artist and was not destroying the work, by carefully erasing it for two months. Rauschenberg could have used quicker means to erase the work, but he showed that he was creating in the process and demonstrating a form of expression and adding a different approach to the work by erasing. I think it adds an interesting view because it makes the viewer wonder what sketch was originally there, and out of all means, why would he choose to erase.

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  20. What are your thoughts on Rauschenberg asking a celebrated artist for a drawing with the expressed intent of erasing it? Rauschenberg was transparent and fully informed de Kooning of his intentions.

    Dear Professor Tracy,

    In all fairness, I was dumbfounded when skimming this week’s post question. As a fellow artist, it’s hard for me to work with someone on a painting or draw together since I prefer to create my work alone. Still, having someone simply express his intent to erase my work as a second attempt at an experiment seems way out of my comfort zone. I don’t know if I could personally stomach the idea of erasing my work, let alone letting someone else do it, since thinking about it physically hurts. At first, I was flabbergasted that one would or could find Art in removing what many would consider Art as it is.

    Still, I have to say that after reading the story of Rothenberg and de Kooning, and the outcome, my initial thoughts seem to have changed slightly, and I now see that there is a beauty in what once was and what is now no longer in existence. I think that the leap of faith that de Kooning took when offering Rothenberg one of his pieces is part of the beauty of the work and despite the removal of the drawing, the process and story of the reason why and how Rothenberg was inspired and convinced de Kooning are what make the work speak volumes.

    Kindest regards,

    Sydney-Paige CeCe Kay

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  21. What are your thoughts on Rauschenberg asking a celebrated artist for a drawing with the expressed intent of erasing it? Rauschenberg was transparent and fully informed de Kooning of his intentions.

    Dear Professor Tracy,

    In all fairness, I was dumbfounded when skimming this week’s post question. As a fellow artist, it’s hard for me to work with someone on a painting or draw together since I prefer to create my work alone. Still, having someone simply express his intent to erase my work as a second attempt at an experiment seems way out of my comfort zone. I don’t know if I could personally stomach the idea of erasing my work, let alone letting someone else do it, since thinking about it physically hurts. At first, I was flabbergasted that one would or could find Art in removing what many would consider Art as it is.

    Still, I have to say that after reading the story of Rothenberg and de Kooning, and the outcome, my initial thoughts seem to have changed slightly, and I now see that there is a beauty in what once was and what is now no longer in existence. I think that the leap of faith that de Kooning took when offering Rothenberg one of his pieces is part of the beauty of the work and despite the removal of the drawing, the process and story of the reason why and how Rothenberg was inspired and convinced de Kooning are what make the work speak volumes.

    Kindest regards,

    Sydney-Paige
    CeCe Kay

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  22. I think that he is one of those artists who admits to making mistakes so by using the erasing method he tends to fix the mistake and make his art much to see and understand. Everyone makes mistakes so it is important to try and fix them before they get worse.

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  23. I found this act of erasing someone’s art and displaying the erasure to be rather mind-blowing. I cannot even imagine erasing my own art after it being completed let alone doing it to someone else’s art. I found it interesting that it took Rauschenberg 2 months to do the erasure and there are still remnants of the original piece. It shows that it can take just as much effort, if not more, to fully erase something than to create something. Rauchenberg was very careful in handling the de Kooning sketch which really does show that he was celebrating the artist and not doing anything to insult his work.

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  24. “Erased de Kooning” clearly proves that even something that is respected and most admired, such as works of De Kooning, who was one of the most influential artists of the 1950s, can be erased with the eraser on the other end of the pen that created that accumulation. Frankly, I am not surprised that this work, described as ingenious, even people who do not like modern art adopt this painting in its fun and “playful” form. On the other hand, I think this move might be Rauschenberg’s way of saving himself from his idol and saying goodbye to de Kooning’s style.

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  25. “My paintings are invitations to look somewhere else,” makes perfect sense! Strangely, in my own way at least, I think I understand what he means by celebration of erasing a de Kooning. I think it is extremely truthful and humbling. As someone who loves permanence and routines, I hated the idea of “getting rid” of art. I started my artistic journey with markers, especially with permanent markers. I didn’t want my work to get smudged or faded. But I think by erasing de Kooning’s work, it reflects and respects life. Life moves and changes, whether we like it or not. Even though it got erased, we can still see the imprints and traces of what used to be there even though it looks blank at first glance. The legacy is there, the memories are there. But all things fade into the background, making way for new creations and new things in life.

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