A couple of things that I still wonder about about Rauschenberg's Erased de Kooning Drawing:
What did de Kooning think? The story of making it is always told by Rauschenberg, or from his side. Did de Kooning ever tell the story? Did he ever see the result? Or talk about it? Did anyone ever ask him about it? I've never found any reference at all.
When did Rauschenberg actually make it?
The date's all over the map. SFMOMA currently says it's 1953. For a long time, it was dated 1953-55. James Meyer had it as 1951-2, but I don't think I've seen anyone else put it that early. Even the extraordinary timeline in John Elderfield's de Kooning retrospective catalogue has only the basics of Rauschenberg's travel schedule and his account to go on ["Probably April or After," it says, since April 1953 was when Rauschenberg returned from his European trip with Twombly.]
[UPDATENever mind. I got the EdKD dating ambiguity mixed up with Johns' Flag, which has been variously dated between 1954 and '56, whereas the date for EdKD has consistently been given as 1953 from its very earliest forays into the public view. Thanks to Sarah Roberts, research curator at SFMOMA, who took a moment from her multiyear project documenting Rauschenberg's work, to point out my error.]
What did people at the time think? Who actually ever saw it? Even someone as early to the work as Leo Steinberg apparently only talked to Bob about it on the phone.
And what about Johns? Who knew about his involvement? What is up with that? For forty-plus years, while Rauschenberg claimed or let others write or publish that he came up with the title, and drew the hand-lettered label, Johns stayed silent about his role in the collaboration. But others surely knew, certainly in the early years when the work was taking shape.
Just before the holidays, I got in touch with Edward Meneeley, and artist and photographer who became friends with many artists and dealers in 1950s and 60s New York because he photographed their artwork. Meneeley created Portable Gallery, a subscription slide service that provided regular installments of art images to libraries, colleges, galleries, and collectors.
I found him because it was his monthly newsletter, Portable Gallery Bulletin, to which Jasper Johns wrote in 1962, explaining that it was artist's prerogative, plus an agreement between himself and Rauschenberg, not "politics," behind the refusal to let Portable Gallery publish and distribute slides of Short Circuit.
In a multi-chapter biography published online by Joel Finsel, Meneleey says that he was friends with both Johns and Rauschenberg in the late 1950s, and that he had an affair with the latter behind the former's back. [He tells Finsel of Johns coming to his loft one morning looking for Rauschenberg, and inviting him in to talk about it, all the while Bob is hiding in Meneeley's bedroom, eavesdropping on the conversation. Which sounds like a dick move to me, but there you go.]
Anyway, after talking to Meneeley for a while about Short Circuit--which he first saw in 1955, when it was first exhibited at the Stable Gallery--I asked him what people thought or said at the time about Erased de Kooning Drawing.
"Everyone at the Cedar Bar knew," he told me, but they thought it was just a stunt, a joke. After finishing it, Rauschenberg didn't do much with it or, as Meneeley put it, "he didn't know what to do with it." Until Jasper came along.
[Remember, Bob apparently acquired the original de Kooning sketch of a woman sometime after April 1953. He met and quickly became involved with Johns in the winter of 1954.]
In Meneeley's recollection of the time, it was Jasper who basically saved Erased de Kooning Drawing from ending up as a barroom one-liner. He mounted it, gave it a title and a label, or really, a drawing of a label. "Bob made it," Meneeley told me, "But Jasper made it art."
Which is why I'm interested in hearing what people thought at the time it was made.