RESEARCH: PART 3 – ERASED DE KOONING DRAWING
During the period from 1951 to 1953, Rauschenberg explored the concept that artworks could be created entirely through erasure – removing marks rather than applying them. This was part of his wider exploration into the limits and definition of art, in particular the concept of the artist as the creator of ideas. In the summer of 1950 he created his first pure white paintings in different grouping on rectangular panels. In these he was making nothing of the subject.
He began this idea of erasing by erasing his own drawings. This idea was abandoned, possibly in the search for more tension in the work by pushing out into the wider art community according to a Tate discussion. He had a fascination for De Kooning who was the most important artist of the day. So he asked De Kooning for a drawing to erase. De Kooning reluctantly agreed and gave him a multimedia work on paper which was difficult to erase. It took Rauschenberg one month to erase the drawing.
The erased drawing was carefully framed and inscribed with the words, “ERASED de KOONING DRAWING, ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG, 1953.” Without this inscription the piece would have no meaning. Digital processing has revealed what was erased. The de Kooning drawing was not a finished piece or even a focused study. “Instead we see de Kooning at work, in process, thinking with his pencil and charcoal. Multiple figures fill the sheet, oriented in two directions.” (SFMOMA 2010)
Before attempting to try to understand this drawing, I needed to put it into context. The 1940s and 1950s saw the development of the form of art known as Abstract Expressionism which was characterized by strong gestural brush-strokes or mark making and the sense of immediacy and spontaneity. (Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning.) They were inspired by the surrealist idea that art should come from the unconscious mind and respond to emotions. This was the time of the aftermath of the Second World War and artists were searching for an artistic language for the time. Rauschenberg (1925 – 2008) as a reaction against the dominance of the Abstract Expressionists artists painted his White Paintings followed by Erased de Kooning Drawing. In this drawing we are seeing the repeated trace of the eraser and the obliteration of the worker’s identity and not the unique mark of the individual.
My research has shown that the questions remain as to what the drawing is about… and from the interview with Rauschenberg it is hard to discern what his real motives were. Yet I feel that we are looking at an individual’s search and struggle for meaning in a highly charged creative environment as it must have been at that time. Rauschenberg was a very individual artist, in fact the Tate writes, …”he was too much of an individual ever to be fully part of any movement.” The drawing is certainly a reaction to the work of the Abstract Expressionists and no doubt there is a ‘destructive’ element to it. The work has taken out every element of the uniqueness of the artist’s touch, wiped it out in fact. Such a concept of destruction has to an extraordinary act of hostility and yet it was done with the artist’s consent which seems to eliminate the pure destructive element. In its place, I feel there must have been some degree of unity here with both Rauschenberg and de Kooning coming together in their search for what art was about.
Interestingly, I felt, for me, many of the elements of Abstract Expressionism are in this drawing – the gestural marks of the eraser though faint, the strong performance element, a highly individual presence in the act of erasing. In Rauschenberg’s own words on the Utube video, the drawing is “Poetry”. And what is poetry – emotion, search, creative energy, individual expression, uniqueness, mystery. I think this image has all of those elements.