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