When Robert Rauschenberg Asked Willem De Kooning for One of His Paintings … So That He Could Erase It

How to make a name for one­self in the art world? Every up-and-com­ing artist has to face that intim­i­dat­ing ques­tion in one way or anoth­er, but Robert Rauschen­berg, now remem­bered as a lead­ing light of the pop art move­ment, came up with a par­tic­u­lar­ly mem­o­rable answer. When in 1953 he got the coun­ter­in­tu­itive idea to make a draw­ing not by draw­ing, but by eras­ing, he at first tried eras­ing images he’d drawn him­self. This brought him to the real­iza­tion that not only should his eras­ing con­sti­tute more than half the process — “I want­ed it to be the whole,” he lat­er said — but that, to make a real artis­tic impact, he’d have to erase the work of some­one impor­tant.

The log­i­cal choice at the time: Willem de Koon­ing, then already con­sid­ered a mas­ter of abstract expres­sion­ism. “I bought a bot­tle of Jack Daniels and went up and knocked on his door, pray­ing the whole time that he would­n’t be home,” says Rauschen­berg in the inter­view clip above, “but he was home.” Even­tu­al­ly he sold the old­er and more emi­nent artist on the idea of tak­ing a draw­ing, eras­ing it, and turn­ing that into art of his own, a pitch no doubt assist­ed by Rauschen­berg and de Koon­ing’s already friend­ly rela­tion­ship. (The already vast dif­fer­ence between their artis­tic styles also took the notion of artis­tic pat­ri­cide out of the ques­tion.)

De Koon­ing at first resist­ed, but then dou­bled down: “I want it to be some­thing I’ll miss,” Rauschen­berg remem­bers him say­ing before pick­ing out the sac­ri­fice. Erased de Koon­ing Draw­ing, the result of two months of eras­ing and count­less spent erasers, “essen­tial­ly remained an under­ground, art world phe­nom­e­non for more than ten years after it was com­plet­ed.” So writes SFMOMA cura­tor Sarah Roberts in an essay on the piece. “Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, it was exclud­ed from numer­ous impor­tant solo and group exhi­bi­tions in the late 1950s and ear­ly 1960s, cru­cial years when Rauschenberg’s rep­u­ta­tion was becom­ing estab­lished inter­na­tion­al­ly.”

But slow­ly, over the years, word spread through the art media and social scenes, and now the 27-year-old Rauschen­berg’s brazen artis­tic act has a place among the prog­en­i­tors of con­cep­tu­al art. “Yes, the era­sure was an act of destruc­tion,” writes Roberts, “but as a cre­ative ges­ture it was also an act of rev­er­ence or even devotion—to de Koon­ing, to draw­ing, to art his­to­ry, and to the idea of tak­ing a risk and being open to what­ev­er comes as a result.” Though prac­ti­cal­ly unknown for quite a long time, Erased de Koon­ing Draw­ing can now hard­ly be for­got­ten — which takes eras­ing a respect­ed fore­bear’s work off the table as a means of name-mak­ing for young artists today, each of whom will have to find their own way to set off a slow-burn shock.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Robert Rauschenberg’s 34 Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s Infer­no (1958–60)

New Robert Rauschen­berg Dig­i­tal Col­lec­tion Lets You Down­load Free High-Res Images of the Artist’s Work

The MoMA Teach­es You How to Paint Like Pol­lock, Rothko, de Koon­ing & Oth­er Abstract Painters

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Brad Bell says:

    “…find their own way to set off a slow-burn shock.”

    Does there have to be a shock?

    Con­text: shock can be a side effect of doing some­thing new. Often how­ev­er, it becomes an end in itself: what can I do that will shock? And at it’s very worst, it seems lit­tle more than the focal point of mar­ket­ing. Shock sells. Shock is easy to under­stand. Shock is wild­ness tamed. Shock is blow­ing away Pales­tini­ans with a sniper rifle with zero con­se­quences for­ev­er

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