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A genteel iconoclasm Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg was fascinated by Willem de Kooning, and in 1953 asked the artist if he could erase one of his drawings as an act of art. The result has become a cherished and resonant work from that period

To Whom It May Concern:
The white paintings came first;
my silent piece came later.
John Cage

I had coffee with a friend the other day at a Cuban restaurant in Manhattan. I was about to take a trip, but we wanted to get together before that, as I was going to be away for a while. A few days later, while reading a poem of hers, a line she wrote made me realise I had misunderstood something she said that day, causing me to miss the opportunity to talk about her poem, and also to give her a copy of a book of mine. Thinking a lot about Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing 1953, I realised that one of the things it is about is minimising the subject, indicating that the removal of one subject can allow for the appearance of another. The things that go undiscussed in conversation are in some way equivalent to those that are talked about; what we did manage to discuss was just as important as what was left out.

Erased de Kooning Drawing symbolised what was iconic about much of what Rauschenberg did in those days – iconic and iconoclastic at the same time, although de Kooning was not the icon the young Turk wanted to smash. His iconoclasm took a more genteel and personal approach. As he explained in an interview: ‘I erased the de Kooning not out of any negative response.’ Rauschenberg had been doing the same thing with his own drawings, but there was not much tension in that; it didn’t push out into the world. He had a fascination with de Kooning, photographing his studio in 1952. Another key factor was that ‘de Kooning was the most important artist of the day’.

The genesis of the project is well-documented: Rauschenberg went over to the master’s studio and said he’d like to erase one of his drawings as an act of art. De Kooning, apparently intrigued, had three groups of drawings. The first comprised those with which he was not satisfied – that wouldn’t work. The next was of drawings he liked, but which were all in pencil – too easy to erase. If de Kooning was going to participate in this neo-Dada performance, he would play his part. He looked in his third group and found a multimedia work on paper that would be quite difficult to eradicate (the media of Erased de Kooning Drawing are “traces of ink and crayon on paper”). It apparently took Rauschenberg one month to get the sheet relatively clear of marks. No photograph exists of the work he erased; we do have a photograph of the relatively simple sketch on the reverse, published here for the first time [see published magazine].

I wonder what Rauschenberg felt when he first started on it, and later, when he was halfway through, and at the end, when de Kooning’s drawing was completely obliterated, the work of an artist considered one of the most significant draughtsmen of his day. Much of Rauschenberg’s practice was based on the idea that what the artist may or may not have been feeling is unimportant, but I just wonder. I wonder because I don’t think most people who love art would have been able to bring themselves to do it. What he was smashing was not de Kooning; he was using an artist he admired to smash given ways of working. Rauschenberg in those days was forever fleeing what he (and others) had already done, and for about fifteen years his choices were unerring.

He began – like his friend Cy Twombly – a fully formed artist, while both were students at Black Mountain College in the early 1950s. Fielding Dawson remembered them there in 1951, under the watchful eye of Robert Motherwell, dropping gravel on to a tar-covered canvas. It was that same summer that Rauschenberg created his pure White Paintings in different groupings of rectangular panels. Malevich had painted White on White. Rauschenberg’s teacher at Black Mountain, Josef Albers, who he accused of “abuse” because of his harsh manner in refusing to brook missed or misconstrued assignments, taught that art came not from self-expression, but from an understanding of materials and colour weights. Those influences play strongly in Rauschenberg’s work, starting with the White Paintings, but he instantly knew how to take his aesthetic models to places that made those models seem old world in every sense of the phrase.

It is possible to think of Rauschenberg’s life’s work as falling into four categories: 1) those works that come from materials in the world; 2) those that have to do with the living actions of individuals in time; 3) those based on seeing that is done photographically; and 4) those that are about the value of white. One might think that Robert Ryman would have a better claim to being the master of white, but in fact Ryman’s stripped down colour has the function of allowing one to focus on the actual painting of his marks (the later work of Chuck Close is similar, in that it’s not about photography, but about painting).

Rauschenberg’s moves in white are part of the grand gesture that his early work strove for and often achieved. His colleague John Cage recognised this when he wrote: “The white paintings were airports for the lights, shadows and particles.” Rauschenberg was able to make nothing the subject of a painting in a way that Cage would, after him, make nothing the subject of a piece of music. Then everything could enter in. “Having made the empty canvases (a canvas is never empty), Rauschenberg became the giver of gifts.” The timing of these acts was crucial; it was a different response to the Second World War and the atom bomb. Unlike the existentialism of Giacometti, which depicted man alone in the universe, Rauschenberg’s emptiness has a positive tonality, and although he in part rejected the serious themes of his Abstract Expressionist predecessors, his White Paintings have nothing of the humour of the Surrealists.

The linkage of Rauschenberg and Cage is critical. They met in 1951 in New York and studied with Merce Cunningham at Black Mountain in the summer of 1952, when they all participated in Theater Piece #1, a combination of predetermined, independent parts that occurred simultaneously. Cage acknowledged that the White Paintings enabled him to compose in August 1952 his iconic 4’33”, during which the pianist sits at the piano, but does not play. When the White Paintings were exhibited at the Stable Gallery in New York in the autumn of 1953, Cage wrote a statement for them: “… No subject/ No Image/No taste/No object/No beauty/No message/ No talent/No technique…/No idea…”

Felix Gonzalez-Torres Untitled [Passport] 1991

Felix Gonzalez-Torres
Untitled [Passport] 1991
White paper, unlimited series
10.16 x 60 x 60 cm
© Photograph: Peter Muscato  © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation

It is in this context that we must consider Erased de Kooning Drawing. It was a performative act – the erasing is the important part of it – resulting in a conceptual work (you have to know that there was an actual de Kooning that was erased, with the artist’s consent, to have full understanding of it). The mount and the frame are part of the piece (hence the depth measurement of half an inch in its documentation). It also helps to know that another significant Rauschenberg cohort, Jasper Johns, did the lettering, which states: “Erased de Kooning Drawing, Robert Rauschenberg, 1953.” It was a collaborative act; later, Rauschenberg’s collaborative theatre work with Cunningham, Cage, Trisha Brown and others formed an essential part of his activity.

Erased de Kooning Drawing is iconic because it stands for an era when something seemingly negative could, in fact, turn out to have positive repercussions. It is revolutionary in a philosophical, though not in an aesthetic, sense. The influence of Rauschenberg’s white work can be seen in many later artists, from Richard Hamilton, who designed The Beatles’  White Album cover, to Richard Tuttle and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Mostly, I see Erased de Kooning Drawing as part of Rauschenberg’s way of making a grand gesture. If he had created the White Paintings at a different time or in a different way, they would be forgettable, if not laughable, but when we installed Seven Panel White Painting in an arched niche in the Reina Sofia museum in 2002 for the Black Mountain show I curated there, it transformed that space into something like a temple, even though there was much that was active going on around it. It transmitted a sense of stillness, of interiority. It was only later that one stopped to wonder at its maker’s quiet genius.