One of the more amusing Erased de Kooning references I’ve come across is from Norman Mailer. It’s reproduced in his 2003 book, The Spooky Art: Thoughts On Writing, but it seems to date from either a 1984 lecture or even a 1974 Esquire Magazine article. Mailer gets things wrong in a helpful way:
The work, when sold, bore the inscription, “A drawing from Willem de Kooning erased by Robert Rauschenberg.” Both artists are not proposing something more than that the artist has the same right as the financier to print money; they may even be saying that the meat and marrow of art, the painterly core, the life of the pigment, and the world of technique with which hands lay on that pigment are convertible to something other. The ambiguity of meaning in the twentieth century, the hollow in the heart of faith, has become such an obsessional hole that art may have to be converted into intellectual transactions. It is as if we are looking for stuff, any stuff with which to stuff the hole, and will convert every value into packing for this purpose. For there is no doubt that in erasing the pastel and selling it, art has been diminished but our knowledge of society is certainly enriched. An aesthetic artifact has been converted into a sociological artifact. It is not the painting that intrigues us now but the lividities of art fashion which made the transaction possible in the first place. Something rabid is loose in the century. Maybe we are not converting art into some comprehension of social process but rather are using art to choke the hole, as if society has become so hopeless, which is to say so twisted in knots of faithless ideological spaghetti, that the glee is in strangling the victims.
Yow, OK. To the extent that Rauschenberg wanted to create an imageless drawing, upon which would be projected the passing shadows of meaning and ideology, I think Mailer has helped him succeed.
Mailer’s focus on the non-existent financial motivations behind Erased de Kooning Drawing seem to show his fight is elsewhere. Not only did Rauschenberg not sell the work for more than 35 years, and only then at a discount to a museum, he actually destroyed a gift, a valuable drawing from one of the highest-paid artists of the time, when he himself was dirt poor and relegated to painting on newsprint.
But combined with his specific error on the inscription, Mailer’s market-centric misreading does help identify the source for his anecdote: it was Leo Steinberg, one of the first and most important critical voices on Rauschenberg’s work. Steinberg, whose major works like Other Criteria, require you to leave the screen and head to the shelf, old-school.
Before Steinberg, though one more from Mailer. He attributes this story [or non-story, as it turns out] to Jon Naar, the photographer who collaborated with Mailer on the epic 1973 book, The Faith Of Graffiti:
Years ago, back in the early Fifties, he conceived of a story he was finally not to write, for he lost his comprehension of it. A rich young artist in New York in the early Fifties, bursting to go beyond Abstract Expressionism, began to rent billboards on which he sketched huge, ill-defined (never say they were sloppy) works in paint chosen to run easily and flake quickly. The rains distorted the lines, made gullies of the forms, automobile exhausts laid down a patina, and comets of flying birds crusted the disappearing surface with their impasto. By the time fifty such billboards had been finished–a prodigious year for the painter–the vogue was on. His show was an event. They transported the billboards by trailer-truck and broke the front wall of the gallery to get the art objects inside. It was the biggest one-man exhibition in New York that year. At its conclusion, two art critics were arguing whether such species of work still belonged to art.
“You’re mad,” cried one. “It is not art, it is never art.”
“No,” said the other. “I think it’s valid.”
So would the story end. Its title, Validity. But before he had written a word he made the mistake of telling it to a young Abstract Expressionist whose work he liked. “Of course it’s valid,” said the painter, eyes shining with the project. “I’d do it myself if I could afford the billboards.”
I was waiting for an infant Dan Colen to crawl into this story, but alas. He must have read it in art school.