Flipped Erased deKooning Drawing

Robert Rauschenberg photographed by Cy Twombly at 61 Fulton Street, where he lived from Spring 1953 until Summer 1954

[CORRECTION: The Twombly sculpture is in Chicago, see below.]

This Cy Twombly photograph of Robert Rauschenberg has been around. He is in his Fulton Street studio, the crumbling walk-up he moved into when he returned to New York from his Italian romp with Twombly in the Spring of 1953. Clearly, he’s settled in a little bit, put some interesting stuff up on the wall.

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Ghetto Erased De Kooning Drawing


[See the note about Ghetto vs Shanzhai at the bottom of this post.]

I’ve explored and written quite a bit about Erased de Kooning Drawing by Robert Rauschenberg & Jasper Johns. And I started to wonder if anyone else had ever erased one, too. If so, who and when, and if not, why?
Was it really a gesture that only needed to–or only could be–done once? Yes, there’s an audacity to Rauschenberg’s gesture, but the work is also, rather definitively, not a destructive act. Rauschenberg correctly saw erasing as an affirmative markmaking technique, one that de Kooning himself used quite skillfully.
So why not do it again?
I think the obvious explanation is that one more erased de Kooning drawing in the world would mean one less de Kooning drawing in the world, and that’s a seen as a problem. De Kooning’s pre-eminent stature as an artist, combined with his being dead, the finite number of works by his hand, the urge to preserve them, the conservation imperative of not making any irreversible alterations to an artwork–and of course, the economic folly of it, it just don’t add up.
On the other hand, it would offer an invaluable insight into Rauschenberg’s own experience and process in erasing de Kooning. Remember how he said it took him a month and a whole bag of erasers or whatever? Now we could find out.
Because Christie’s just posted an online-only auction of de Kooning works on paper collected over two decades by his longtime physician and friend Dr Henry Vogel. There are 33 works in the online Vogel sale, and some of them are nice, and even interesting. Let’s also say that there are several works available whose artistic character, historic importance, and sales estimates completely upend the calculations that have prevented a restaging of Rauschenberg’s act. They are highly erasable de Kooning drawings.
Lot 10, a diptych, is the first of nine drawings in what me might call de Kooning’s Notepad Series, which juxtapose his expressive markmaking with the rigorous geometry of lined paper:

He drew on everything from bags to grocery receipts, but it was paper–smooth, permanent and hard–that he favored most. Any kind of paper could suffice, even the torn out pages of a notebook, like with these two pieces.

The current bid is $2,600, with an estimate of $4-6,000. [update: sold for $3,250]
Christies’ specialist hints at the mysteries locked into Lot 11, above:

De Kooning often used the female figure as a starting point to explore abstraction, obsessively and tentatively probing the boundaries between the two forms. In drawings like this, only the faintist hint of the female form emerges–and even that is open to interpretation.

The starting bid will be $1,000 against an estimate of $2-3,000. [update: sold for $2,750]
But the most promising candidate for erasure may be Lot 12 (starting bid, $1,500, est. $3-5,000, [update: sold for $1,875], which not only features images that de Kooning himself crossed out–a double negation!–but which has not only been seen, but commented upon by John Elderfield himself:

“There’s one of these yellow pad sheets where he seems to have drawn a lot of forms and crossed them out,” said John Elderfield, a [sic] former curator at MoMA, describing this piece. “And it’s hard to quite know what he’s up to. […] But with de Kooning, there always is something.”

Just like a palimpsest, there always is something.
Which highlights another major difference between Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing and this, for lack of a better term, Ghetto Erased de Kooning Drawing: you could buy it. Rauschenberg held onto his for decades, until he sold it with a group of foundational, early work, to SFMOMA. But if having an authentic, erased de Kooning drawing of your very own is something you’ve always drramed of, well, the auction ends June 19th. Drop me a line. We’ll make it happen.
Willem de Kooning Works on Paper from the Estate of Dr. Henry Vogel, online auction ends June 19 [christies.com]

[NOTE: Though the use was more common at the time, I grew uncomfortable with the racist origins and implications of the colloquial use of “ghetto” for these works. I changed it to “shanzhai,” a Cantonese term which originally described unabashed counterfeit consumer goods; this usage has since shifted toward a hackier, scrappy innovation, but for these works, the original meaning pertains. I have kept the original uses of ghetto rather than delete them to acknowledge the blinkered social context I was also complicit in.]

Erased de Kooning Drawing In The House


Last month, after putting together a list of all the times Johns and Rauschenberg mentioned working on each others’ work, and wondering, “SERIOUSLY, DOES NO ONE ASK FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS?” I decided to start asking follow-up questions.

In particular, I’ve been asking around, trying to document the early history of Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953-5). Remember, the first public exhibition of it wasn’t until 1964; its measurements seem to have changed over the years; and the first known image of it didn’t come until 1970.
So I wondered how people knew or saw it in that first decade. And I really wanted to know whether folks knew that Johns had helped finish the work. Which, presumably, would only have happened while they were together, between 1954-59 or 1960 or so. Right?

And so far, my results are fascinating but mixed.

Johns told me that Erased de Kooning Drawing was actually included in a show in 1958, which was the impetus for his contribution. He helped conceive of the frame and label, and then drew the label while Bob got a store-bought frame.
The show was at Poindexter Gallery, a group drawing show in Dec 1958 – Jan 1959 Dec 1955-Jan 1956, turns out. Ellin Poindexter had been working with Charles Egan Gallery for a few months, but ended up opening her own space. This big group drawing show was one of her first.
Which is all HUGE, I figured. [Johns had a work in the show, too, apparently. A footnote in Fred Orton’s Figuring Jasper Johns mentions a Flag drawing with 64 stars, which seems like a lot of stars. It also seems not to exist anymore; so maybe Johns destroyed it. He didn’t say one way or the other.]
I went diving in the Poindexter Gallery papers at the Archives of American Art, but there’s nothing at all about the show. There is no documentation of it anywhere, that I can find. Well, that’s not quite true. Dore Ashton reviewed the show for the NY Times, but she didn’t mention Rauschenberg or Johns. I asked her if she remembered seeing Erased de Kooning Drawing in the show, and she didn’t. She didn’t recall the first time she saw the work, either, except that she did figure it was probably in Bob’s studio.
I asked around a bit more, looking for any documentation of this show–maybe one of the dozens of other artists has saved a checklist in a box somewhere? And it turns out I’m not the only person Johns has mentioned this exhibit to; it’s just that no one can find documentation to back it up.
Which makes me realize that there is an entire layer of art historical information out there, stuff that people who know know, but can’t write about. I wonder how much of this information gets lost before it’s written or published or transmitted somehow.
Anyway, the other day, while surfing along through a Swann’s photo auction catalogue I came across the great Dan Budnick portrait of Johns from 1958. Budnick’s a Magnum photographer and still alive, and he was clearly on the scene at the right time. So I started poking around. And BAM.
Budnick did take pictures of Rauschenberg, too. This Budnick photo of Bob in his studio, in fact, is listed as 1958. And what is that behind the car door? Does that not look like Erased de Kooning Drawing? In a mat and frame? Case closed. Also, check the frame profile; it IS different from the current one.
Except that that is not the Front Street studio; it’s Broadway. And so that is not 1958. It’s probably 1964-5. Because that’s when and where Alexander Lieberman took this very similar photo of Rauschenberg. [Which, amazingly, Matt from RO/LU had posted just a day or two before I found it. Eerie.]
Even though the photo of Merce dancing is tacked in the same place, Lieberman’s bigger shot doesn’t include Erased de Kooning Drawing. There’s an early 50’s painting from his Betty Parsons show in its place. [There’s also a little plastic American flag hanging to the left. A memento, perhaps?]
Which is all a way to say that if you–or more likely, your artist grandfather–was in this Poindexter Gallery show in 1958-9 1955-56, and has some checklists or installation photos, definitely drop a line.

[2023 checking back in update: In 2014 the Rauschenberg Foundation, following SFMOMA’s research, dated this Poindexter group drawing show to 1955-56. Though the Tworkov Estate chronology cited doesn’t actually reference the show, the earlier date aligns with the actual publication date of Ashton’s Times review. A good reminder to doublecheck info in old chronologies, and the conversational recollections of specific dates from decades before by living principals. Also, I spotted EdeKD in a 1954? photo at Fulton Street.]

If He Did It: Johns Edition

Alright, let’s get all these together in one place:
After claiming for more than 40 years that he had drawn it himself, Robert Rauschenberg acknowledged in 1999 that, in fact, Jasper Johns, who “lived upstairs,” created the graphite text label collaged onto Erased de Kooning Drawing. Or as one person who knew the work when it was made told me last year, “Bob made it, but Jasper made it art.”
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Jasper Johns in 1999, as published on the site of the artist’s Foundation for Contemporary Arts [and first quoted here in 2011, in discussing collaboration and Jacob Kassay, actually]:

In 1954 I had helped Bob Rauschenberg a bit with his Minutiae set, his first for Merce Cunningham, and I continued to assist him with most of his stage work through 1960.

Rauschenberg is credited with costumes and/or set design for at least 10 works for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company between 1954 and 1960, including the iconic painted backdrop/leotards of “Summerspace” (1958). Johns’s first actual credit doesn’t appear until 1968.
Oh, but look, on this walkeradmin tumblr [? ;)], a detail from the “Johns/Rauschenberg backdrop for “Summerspace.” I’m glad it’s not just me.
Of the 18 works Rauschenberg is credited with between 1954-58 for the Paul Taylor Dance Company, 17 were for costumes, and one, “The Tower,” (1957) was for set design. Jasper Johns is credited with making the costumes for “The Tower.”
The Tower, by Rauschenberg & neighbor
The Tower, a 1957 Rauschenberg combine created for the dance set, which depicts a couple, was described by the Christie’s representative trying to sell it in 2011 as both “autobiographical” and “cryptic,” which, for these two, is redundant. For composer John Cooper’s part, the Feb 10, 1957 program said he had been considering the “pastoral themes of the Adonis-Persephone myth.” [Persephone and Aphrodite both fell in love with Adonis while babysitting him. So, yeah. Not sure what to do with that.]
Untitled (Gold Painting), 1956, Menil Collection
I recently met someone who owned a Rauschenberg Gold Painting. The collector said that once Jasper saw it, and said, “Oh, yes, this is one I did.” 10 existing gold paintings predate 1954, the year of Johns’s and Rauschenberg’s meeting, but according to Walter Hopps’ 1991 catalogue, “two or three” were made afterward, at the “special request” of friends. Alison Gingeras included Untitled (Gold Painting), 1955, in “Unpainted Paintings,” her 2011 show at Luxembourg & Dayan. The Menil’s gold painting [above] dates from 1956.
In 1977, in the SoHo Weekly, art historian Roberta J.M. Olson had posed to Johns this kind of remarkable question:

During his early days in New York City Johns and Robert Rauschenberg shared a closely knit friendship of cross-fertilization…It has been said [it has?? -ed.] that during this period the two artists also painted works in each other’s styles.
I asked whether any so-called “Johns paintings by Rauschenberg existed in collections today?
JJ: No, but there is one “Rauschenberg” by Johns. Really, though, it is a Rauschenberg because after I finished it, Bob fooled around with it and I do believe that he eventually signed it. It was a small painting and I don’t know its whereabouts today…The only time I remember Bob actually working on a painting of mine was when he picked up the red paintbrush and went to work on one of the white stripes in a flag painting” […]

One? Just one? Does no one ever ask follow-up questions? No, no one ever does.
Johns told Calvin Tomkins in 2005 that in 1960 Rauschenberg, who had been using maps as an element in his combines as early as Small Rebus (1956), “simply gave” him mimeographed maps of the US, which he painted on directly, and later enlarged into paintings like Map (1960).
UPDATE: In fact, Rauschenberg painted on maps as early as 1950, when he created Mother of God, which was part of SFMOMA’s massive 1998 acquisition.
Map, 1962, image via moca.org
In 1988, Deborah Solomon told a version of Johns’s Flag dream story that somehow includes direct quotes from–and a co-starring role by–Rauschenberg:

One day in 1954, Johns casually mentioned to Rauschenberg that he’d had a crazy dream the previous night. ”How crazy was it?” Rauschenberg asked. ”Well,” Johns replied, ”in this dream I was painting the American flag.” The American flag? Rauschenberg didn’t think it was crazy at all. ”That’s a really great idea,” he said.

And this all is aside from the Short Circuit saga; and the fact that Flag looks like it’s constructed like a combine; and his paintings from the earliest canvas & fabric, drawer, canvas, fork, spoon, flashlight, plate, and letter set are essentially combines, too, only we don’t call them that–even though Johns says he came up with the term.
There is so much we don’t know about how these two artists worked and collaborated. So much that doesn’t get asked, or is known and doesn’t get written. So much about the similarities and cross-references and resonances in their work that has been overlooked, dismissed or deflected for so long.
From the earliest days, curators like Alan Solomon and critics were assiduous about keeping these two oeuvres separate and distinct. Whenever asked about influence, Johns would say he always tried to stay aware and move away from it. Rauschenberg would emphasize how diametrically opposite their personalities were, and that was that. Whatever the forces at work, whether the closet, the AbEx legacy of the lone genius artist, or the market’s willful self-delusion, the work they made and discussed side by side, alone with each other, for six foundational years, is almost only ever considered in isolation.
1954: more than a decade before BMPT, and two decades before Prince & Levine [And multiple generations before Codax, BHQF, and Dylan]. What would it mean for the concept of authorship to find out Johns and Rauschenberg were making each others’ work?
update: And while the PMA’s amazing collaboration-related show has absolutely gotten me off my duff to post about this subject, I swear, I had no idea that Alistair Macaulay would publish his email q&a with Johns about his work with Merce Cunningham this morning. Great minds.

Willem de Kooning Meant To Not Do That

In the 4th part of his video walkthrough of MoMA’s Willem de Kooning retrospective, James Kalm has an extended clip of curator John Elderfield talking with Glenn Lowry about how the artist’s late paintings relate to his earlier work.

Elderfield stays pretty broad, arguing that the works are valid and important, and that Gary Garrels’ and Rob Storr’s earlier MoMA show ably made their case. Which all sounds good to me. [While noting that “the topologies of the paintings are very reminiscent of earlier pictures,” Elderfield apparently felt that a press preview was not the right context for expanding on de Kooning’s practice of tracing details of earlier paintings which his assistants had projected onto primed canvases.]
What struck me now, though, was his discussion of how the marks in de Kooning’s 80s paintings were the result of his elimination of subjectivity. Elderfield told how de Kooning “fell into a sort of trough” after seeing a hugely successful show in 1978 of his large, gestural abstractions made in 1975-7, which were in the preceding gallery. “There could have been three times that number in the exhibition,” Elderfield said,” with no drop in quality or achievement…de Kooning had said he ‘felt he could do no wrong,’ which for him, was the point at which he had to stop doing them.”
It’s an interesting idea, and it reminds me of how much I loved those 70s paintings, and losing myself in those big, sinuously virtuosic brushstrokes. It’s really too bad Kalm’s woozy, wandering camera eye is one of the few ways left to take in that gallery.
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Still from Corinna Belz’ Gerhard Richter Painting
It also reminds me how much those de Koonings reminded me of the early states of Richter’s squeegee paintings. This concept of Richter painting and then overpainting as a transformative, not destructive, technique was what first got me looking at Richter’s destroyed paintings. [That, and Erased de Kooning Drawing, of course.]
Now it strikes me how the two painters share the urge to resist habit and ease. Richter picked up the squeegee in part to counter intentionality and the mastered brushstroke. If de Kooning was resisting the same thing when he changed up his approach after 1980, maybe there’s something to be discovered by seeing these two painters’ works together.

‘But Which One Of Us Drove The Car?’

In the Fall of 1953, Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage, fast friends and mutual admirers from Black Mountain, collaborated on an artwork. Cage had already been studying with DT Suzuki and had been discussing Zen in great depth with Rauschenberg. Which dialogue had led, the summer before at Black Mountain, Rauschenberg to make his White Paintings, and to Cage and others to orchestrate Theater Piece No. 1 and to compose 4’33”. Rauschenberg had already stayed at Cage’s loft while his new Fulton St. studio was being fumigated, where he’d surprised Cage by painting the painting Cage got from Rauschenberg’s 1951 show at Betty Parsons completely black.
Untitled (John Cage, Black Mountain), 1952, photo: Robert Rauschenberg
For the work that came to be known as Automobile Tire Print, Rauschenberg pasted 20 sheets of drawing paper into a scroll, which he laid down on an empty Fulton St one Sunday, and he inked the rear tire while Cage drove his Model A in a straight line along the paper. [Cage drove the Model A to Black Mountain, above. Apparently, Kaprow had a Model A, too.]
Michael Kimmelman is fond of noticing the similarity between the long, lone mark made by moving through space and Barnett Newman’s “zips,” which Rauschenberg would have seen at Parsons’ gallery in 1951 and 1952.
In the catalogue for his 1991 show Rauschenberg in the 50s,, Walter Hopps links Automobile Tire Print in time, medium, and concept to another major collaborative work on paper, Erased de Kooning Drawing. It turns out that for the first decade-plus after their creation, neither work was exhibited publicly, and both were known largely by word of mouth. They were discussed without being seen; as the product–or to use Harold Rosenberg’s influential 1952 term, the “residue”–of process, their physical state was secondary. Which let Hopps and others interpret and present them as precursors of Conceptual Art once such a thing came into existence.
Hopps says that Automobile Tire Print was “maintained as a scroll” which was eventually mounted on fabric for preservation. Since it was first exhibited in the 70s [and yes, I guess I’ll have to start digging into this history now, too], the work has been unfurled to various lengths. [Above, from Hopps’ 1976 show at the Smithsonian] Since Hopps, and definitely since SFMOMA’s acquisition of the piece in 1998, it has been completely unfurled.
The accounts, even the descriptions of the work, vary. Hopps said it’s ink. Rauschenberg said it was “house paint,” like the black paint he was using at the time on his Black Paintings. And that he poured it out on the street in front of Cage’s tire.
In that SFMOMA video, Bob told David Ross that he asked his friend to help execute his idea. Cage “was the printer,” Ross suggested, “the printer and the press,” said the artist. Without entirely contradicting that view, Cage wrote in 1961 in Silence, “I know he put the paint on the tires. And he unrolled the paper on the city street. But which one of us drove the car?”
Perhaps ambiguous authorship is just one more way Automobile Tire Print is like Erased deKooning Drawing, a work in which the central, conceptually transformational contribution of Jasper Johns had been willfully omitted for more than four decades.

Not that these questions of credit and origin give BMW any cover at all on their mindblowing direct marketing campaign “marking the momentous occasion” of the 40th anniversary of the M Motorsports car series.
The company that regularly puts artists in the promotional driver’s seat on its Art Car series completely fails to mention either Rauschenberg or Cage in the video for the M Print project, which is essentially a cover version, or a re-performance, of Automobile Tire Print starring the M6 sports coupe. The resulting prints were then cut into postcard size, and sent to new and prospective owners.
[FWIW, BMW also blanked a living artist, using the donut-spinning M6 (below) to re-enact Greeting Card, Aaron Young’s 2007 Park Avenue Armory motorcycle tire painting project. I’m sure if there were another car-related performance art project ransackable enough, BMW’s agency would have turned that one into postcards, too.]
I guess it’s possible to look at this as a glass half full situation, that the indexical Zen performative aesthetic of Cage & Rauschenberg has, sixty years later, gone mainstream. Or at least turned into a PR stunt to sell $100,000 sports cars.
The only way this ends well is if it spawns a cars-meets-Fluxus fauxreality TV show on the History Channel. John and Bob would surely be delighted.
The BMW M6 Creates Its Own Direct Mail [fastcocreate.com]
BMW M Presents: The Making of an M Print [youtube]
Previously, unexpectedly related: greg.org coverage of John Cage’s VW bus and of
the unexamined making of Erased de Kooning Drawing

Infrared De Kooning Drawing

First things first, yes, I’ve heard the footsteps of the Tate’s awesome, new, online exhibition/project, the Gallery Of Lost Art behind me, and I will be trying to wrap up the search for the lost Short Circuit Johns flag painting very soon. At least soon enough to give them time to write my triumphant detective work into their essay. Ahem.
Meanwhile, let’s give credit where it’s due, because the Tatefolk have lured SFMOMA’s infrared imagery of Erased de Kooning Drawing out and onto the net.
Last year at CAA, one of SFMOMA’s design & web people Chad Coerver talked about the debates over whether or how to present the wealth of information in the Museum’s Getty-sponsored Rauschenberg Research Project. Whether to publish new infrared imagery of EdKD, for example, which might alter the way people perceive the object in ways the artist did not want or anticipate.
I guess they figured it out, because not only does the GOLA have it, the IR image is the teaser today on SFMOMA’s tumblr. [via wiblog and MAN]
Or maybe they’re still working on it. SFMOMA’s Erased De Kooning Drawing page has this footnote:

The use of advanced imaging technology and its implications for our understanding of Erased de Kooning Drawing will be explored fully through SFMOMA’s Rauschenberg Research Project, a four-year in-depth research program that will result in an online catalogue, slated for launch in summer 2013.

Carry on, then!
But the page also has this description, which seems to reflect a fuller, and different, understanding of the work than what was discussed during Rauschenberg’s lifetime:

After Rauschenberg completed the laborious erasure, he and fellow artist Jasper Johns devised a scheme for labeling, matting, and framing the work, with Johns inscribing the following words below the now-obliterated de Kooning drawing:
The simple, gilded frame and understated inscription are integral parts of the finished artwork. Without the inscription, one would have no idea what is in the frame; the piece would be indecipherable. Together the erased page, inscription, and frame stand as evidence of the psychologically loaded deed of rendering another’s artwork invisible, enacted in the privacy of the artist’s studio.

Which, hmm. It seems vital that Johns’s central role in creating EdKD is acknowledged. I’d even argue it was equal, or equivalent, his precisely drawn marks the precise counterweight to Rauschenberg’s vigorous erasures. And the title, even the titling, and thus the conceptual framing, is Johns.
Or at least it was. But the gilt and the current matting, has been changed, once and maybe twice or more, since Johns and Rauschenberg broke up. So it is Bob’s. And the evidence of this evolution can be seen even more clearly, thanks to the Gallery of Lost Art’s zooming feature, on the back of the work.

Continue reading “Infrared De Kooning Drawing”

‘Bob Made It, But Jasper Made It Art.’

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.

Erased De Kooning Drawing Is Bigger Than It Used To Be

Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953, “drawing | traces of ink and crayon on paper, mat, label, and gilded frame.” via SFMOMA
Part of the reason I hustled back to MoMA Sunday was to look through the de Kooning retrospective from the perspective of his relationship to other artists [or really, vice versa].
Last summer, while mapping out the history of the reception of Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing, I thought Leo Steinberg got it the rightest when he called the work “a sort of collaboration” which treats erasure as generative, not destructive. And sure enough, de Kooning’s drawings and paintings of the 50s are filled with erasures, and smudges, and obliterations; they’re accepted as legitimate markmaking strategies. Which could make Rauschenberg’s project an extension or variation on de Kooning, not a patricidal, rebellious break, as it’s come down to us. There’s a continuity and dialogue right in front of us which we are not-told to ignore.
But while I’m glad to give attention to what I think are Steinberg’s and Tom Hess’s persuasive arguments about the deK/RR affinity, I don’t really have much to add to them.
What I’m still trying to pin down are the basics of Erased de Kooning Drawing‘s history. Because it’s become very clear that it has been presented and interpreted differently over time. It was not even exhibited until 10 years after it was made. Many prominent critics, especially those who considered it an ur-Conceptual masterpiece, seemingly wrote about it without seeing it. For decades, Rauschenberg claimed and everyone assumed, that he had created the work alone, but in 1999, when he gave EdeKD to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, he revealed that Jasper Johns had given the work its title and had hand-drawn the “label.” And it turns out that Rauschenberg physically altered the work over the years, after exhibiting it at least twice, in ways that have never been addressed.
The Erased de Kooning Drawing we know is not just a drawing. According to SFMOMA’s complete description, it is comprised of “traces of ink and crayon on paper, mat, label, and gilded frame.” To get the point across clearly, Rauschenberg wrote, FRAME IS PART OF DRAWING [all caps and underlining in the original] on the paper backing.
But in Emile de Antonio’s 1970 film, Painters Painting, Erased de Kooning Drawing appears unframed and unmatted. The sheet with de Kooning’s original drawing is mounted on a longer piece of paper on which Johns [it turns out] drew the precise, label-like box of text.
Now I think the way it appeared in Painters Painting is how the artist meant for it to be seen. The earliest exhibition sticker on the back of EdeKD is from 1973. Which made me wonder if the work had even been shown before then. Finally, I found out. Yes. At least twice.
In January 1964, Samuel Wagstaff organized “Black, White + Gray” at the Wadsworth Atheneum. The “Zeitgeist show,” to use James Meyer’s term, came to be considered the first museum exhibition of “minimalism,” and Wagstaff specifically asked Rauschenberg to provide “works that have no color…the sparser the better.”
According to the exhibition checklist, Rauschenberg loaned exactly what the title called for: a black painting, a white painting, and a relatively gray work, Erased de Kooning Drawing. The registrar’s record [graciously investigated by Atheneum assistant archivist Ann Brandwein] indicates the work was unframed and unmatted, and that it measured 12×18 inches. [It was also valued at $1,200, but listed as “not for sale.”] There was no catalogue for the 4-week show [Jan 9 – Feb 9], and EdKD doesn’t appear in the few installation photos that survive.
But the piece did get noticed. In her review for The Hartford Times critic Florence Berkman wrote:

Perhaps the most unusual work is one called “Erased Drawing” [hmm] in which two leading artists, Willem de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg are involved.” Mr. Rauschenberg erased a de Kooning drawing, leaving enough of the design so that it can be seen in a strong light.

And soon after the Wadsworth show closed, on Feb. 29, 1964, Calvin Tomkins’ first long profile of Rauschenberg appeared in the New Yorker. It included the artist’s first published discussion of EdeKD. When Lawrence Alloway showed the work in his American Drawings survey at the Guggenheim that fall, he included the paragraph from Tomkins’ article in the catalogue checklist, the only piece to warrant [or maybe to require] an explanation:
American Drawings catalogue, p. 60, Sept 1964, curated by Lawrence Alloway via guggenheim.org
Of course, just a couple of months after I chased down and bought my own copy of the catalogue, the Guggenheim released an electronic version on their website.
The dimensions here are slightly different–16 3/4 x 13 3/8 inches–but the medium is the same: “pencil on paper.” Whatever their internal variations, though, the drawing’s 1965 dimensions differ significantly from its current, frame-like object state, which SFMOMA lists as 25.25 x 21.75 x 0.5 inches. Here’s a handy, pixels-per-inch graphic to show the relative sizes.
However it was perceived before the early 1970s, whether as patricidal Dadaist prank or Minimalist forebear, Erased de Kooning Drawing came to be seen as an uncannily prescient, process-oriented, Conceptual object. But that’s not just because the art world finally caught up with Rauschenberg, 20 years later. It’s because Rauschenberg himself reconceived and transformed the work in the wake of, or in response to, Conceptual Art.
Previous greg.org posts on Erased de Kooning Drawing

‘A Sort Of Collaboration’

Erased de Kooning Drawing as of 1999 at SFMOMA
When we last left Erased de Kooning Drawing, the late, great Leo Steinberg had finally told his story about getting Rauschenberg on the phone in 1957 in order to sort the damn thing out. Steinberg’s conclusion was that, far from a “Neo-Dada” prank or Oedipal negation, Rauschenberg had offered de Kooning “a sort of collaboration” of erasure. The plausibility of this interpretation was inspired by the equally collaborative combine painting of the same period, Short Circuit.
Erased de Kooning Drawing, without present matboard, c. 1970, via Emile de Antonio’s Painters Painting
So to recap quickly: EdKD is a collaborative work. In which erasure-as-drawing is the subject, or the strategy. Each artist with his different markmaking method. And it is inscribed, labeled, by hand, with a flatly descriptive title and claim of authorship. And though it had been unmatted at some point [above] rendering the inscription and the drawing as one collaged work, it was matted in a way that obscured this unity, and it was [eventually] presented as a framed, presented object. A conceptual work, realized. A concept of a drawing erased. Hold all that in your head. Am I missing anything?
Erased de Kooning Drawing, detail, c. 1970, via Painters Painting
Anything besides the small detail that the inscription, the text, the third instantiation of the concept, the generative inverse of the erased drawing itself, was made by Jasper Johns?
For the crucial period of EdKD‘s uptake into the art world’s discourse, Rauschenberg had always claimed that he had written the inscription. That he’d “signed” it. That’s what he told Emile de Antonio on top of that ladder. That’s the only way anyone talked about it. But it is not true.
Vincent Katz has made one of the rare references to the importance of the work’s collaborative creation in Tate Magazine in 2006. But others credit Calvin Tomkins with breaking the news of Johns’ involvement in EdKD in his 2005 New Yorker profile of Rauschenberg:

Johns gave Rauschenberg the title for “Erased de Kooning Drawing,” which came into being in 1953, when Rauschenberg persuaded de Kooning to give him a drawing which he would then erase, to see whether a work of art could be created by the technique of erasure; Johns also did the precise lettering for the title, on the framed matte below the very faint, wraithlike ghost of the erased image.

The title, of course, is not on the matte, but under it. It was originally of a piece with the drawing, until the matte separated it, demoted it, even. Which may intensify the implications of difference between pre- and post-matted drawing.
[Tomkins does not identify the source of his revelation about Johns’ involvement, even though he wrote in the same piece that “Johns recently told Joachim Pissarro, a curator at MoMA, that he thought the term ‘combine’ had been his suggestion.” The latter was a memory Rauschenberg apparently did not share.]
Tomkins may have been the first to publish it, but claim of Johns’ collaboration was first made at least six years earlier, by a seemingly unlikely source: Robert Rauschenberg.

In a 1999 video interview about the newly acquired EdKD, Rauschenberg told SFMOMA curators,

So when I titled it, it was very difficult to figure out exactly how to phrase this.
And, uh, Jasper Johns was living upstairs, so I asked him to, to do, the uh, the writing.

And they say you never get to know your neighbors in New York. Sometimes you make historic works of art together with them.
Except that on Pearl Street, as Castelli famously told it, Johns was downstairs. And Rauschenberg was upstairs, in the loft vacated in the summer of 1955 by Rachel Rosenthal, who had found the building in the Spring of 1954. Rauschenberg was certainly around–and living around the corner–before then. They’d met early in the winter of 1954, began and he and Johns had already created and shown Short Circuit by then. So either Rauschenberg was referring to a time before they moved in together, Or Johns didn’t add his pieces to the drawing before mid-1955. Either way, it sounds like the drawing, to use Tomkins’ odd phrasing, actually “came into being” after 1953, the date Johns wrote on it.
Part 2: Erasers Erasing in Painters Painting
Part 3: Norman Mailer on Erased de Kooning and other ‘hopeless’ and ‘diminished’ art
Parts 4&5: Leo Steinberg on EdKD and how it’s a collaboration
Part 6: A 3-Way Collaboration, that is, with Jasper Johns. Oh, that’s this post. Just one more, I think.

Encounters With Erased de Kooning Drawing

You know what, it’s the weekend. We can have two long Leo Steinberg-related posts at once. Read’em on the NetJets to Basel.
steinberg_rauschenberg.jpgThough he mentioned it in his most important piece of writing, which was also the most important piece of writing on Rauschenberg, it’s not entirely clear whether Leo Steinberg had actually seen Erased de Kooning Drawing when he wrote “Other Criteria.”
And as he tells the story in his awesome 2000 book, Encounters With Rauschenberg – A Lavishly Illustrated Lecture, Steinberg makes not seeing it the point. I’m really tempted to include all seven pages of EdKD from the 85-page book–the text was published straight from his lectures for the 1997-8 Rauschenberg retrospective at the Guggenheim and Menil, and it really sounds just like him. [I met Steinberg in 1991 when the delightfully friendly woman I was sitting next to for his Picasso lecture series at Rice University introduced us; she turned out to be his host, Dominique de Menil. Life-changing, &c, &c. but not right now.]
But I won’t. Even though it’s out of print and expensive. It really should be a PDF now. Anyway.
Steinberg’s take on EdKD is useful here because he was watching Rauschenberg’s career and involved in its critical dialogue almost from the very beginning; he’s about as well-informed or as thoughtful an audience voice as Rauschenberg could find in the 1950s and 60s. And so his reaction seems like a good proxy for the best perspective possible of the time. And it sounds like, though he felt he had to address it, and though he could argue for its critical or conceptual significance, Steinberg didn’t really like Erased de Kooning Drawing very much. It bugged him. He even apologized to his lecture audience for spending “so much time on a negative entity” and a “one-time exploit.” But but!
The lead-in for his story about first encountering EdKD was, interestingly enough, an anecdote from 1961 and Rauschenberg and Johns, about artists putting personal content into their work, and denying it, and then eventually ‘fessing up, and so about not quite trusting what artists themselves said:

That experience confirmed me in a guiding principle of critical conduct: “If you want the truth about a work of art, be sure always to get your data from the horse’s mouth, bearing in mind that the artist is the one selling the horse.”
And did I abide by my principle? I should say not! My longest conversation with Rauschenberg occurred c. 1957, when I first heard about something outrageous he’d done some years before. And rather than going after the outrage–the horse, as it were–I called the trader.
[uh, don’t want to spoil the story arc, but isn’t not ignoring a lesson in 1957 that stems from looking back from the 80s to a 1961 conversation putting the horse before the trader? Just sayin’. -ed.]
The work in question was Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing of 1953. The piece had not been exhibited; you heard of it by word of mouth. I did, and it gave me no peace. Because the destruction of works of art terrifies.

See, now this is news right there: not exhibited before, word of mouth, a piece you know and worry about without seeing.

How could Bob have done it; and why? The work is often, and to this day, referred to as “a Neo-Dada gesture,” but that’s just a way of casting it from your thought. Obvious alternatives to Neo-Dada suggested themselves at once. An Oedipal gesture? Young Rauschenberg killing the father figure? Well, maybe.
But wasn’t it also a taunting of the art market?–an artist’s mockery of the values now driving the commerce in modern art?

This would put paid, so to speak, to Norman Mailer’s complaint that Bob was erasing to play the market. Steinberg tells how everyone was very aware/shocked/jealous/disturbed when a de Kooning finally sold for $10,000. And Rauschenberg was the one, don’t forget, who got the angriest at Robert Scull for his market-making auction some years later. But all these seemingly contradictory interpretations, Steinberg pointed out, were just assumptions from afar.

So I picked up the phone and called the horse trader himself. And we talked for well over an hour. Occasionally, thereafter, I considered writing up what I remembered of our talk, but then Calvin Tomkins discussed the Erased de Kooning Drawing in his Rauschenberg profile in The New Yorker, and he did it so well that I thought, “Good, that’s one less thing I have to write.” But I don’t mind talking about it and recalling whatever I can of that phone conversation.

On the first question of why, Rauschenberg gave an explanation similar to the one he’d told Emile de Antonio: he was interested in drawing with an eraser “as a graphic, or anti-graphic element,” and found that erasing his own work was unsatisfying.
As for why de Kooning and not some other pre-existing work of art, Steinberg examines and largely discounts the Oedipal explanation, and instead suggests that Rauschenberg recognized or claimed a kindred spirit, that erasure as a technique was central to de Kooning’s own practice. And yes, this section I’m obviously going to quote at length:

There is another reason, I think, why Bob lit on de Kooning. I live with a de Kooning drawing from the early 1950s–it’s of a seated woman, frontal, legs crossed [below]. The face was drawn, then erased to leave a wide, gray, atmospheric smudge; and then drawn again.
Willem de Kooning, Woman in a Rowboat, 1953
And here is Tom Hess’ account of Bill de Kooning’s working method. I’d like to read you a paragraph from Tom’s book Willem de Kooning Drawings (1972), and I’m encouraged to do this by the example of Rauschenberg’s Short Circuit combine, which, you remember, brought in some of Bob’s friends piggyback. Tom Hess was a friend; hear him describe de Kooning’s habit of draftsmanship.

I remember watching de Kooning begin a drawing, in 1951, sitting idly by a window, the pad on his knee.He used an ordinary pencil, the point sharpened with a knife to expose the maximum of lead but still strong enough to withstand pressure. He made a few strokes, then almost instinctively, it seemed to me, turned the pencil around and began to go over the graphite marks with the eraser. Not to rubout the lines, but to move them, push them across the paper, turn them into planes…De Kooning’s line–the essence of drawing–is always under attack. It is smeared across the paper, pushed into widening shapes, kept away from the expression of an edge…the mutually exclusive concepts of line and plane are held in tension. It is the characteristic open de Kooning situation…in which thesis and antithesis are both pushed to their fullest statement, and then allowed to exist together…

This much Tom Hess.
In view of such working procedure, one might toy with this further reason why Rauschenberg’s partner in the affair had to be de Kooning, rather than Rembrandt or Andrew Wyeth. De Kooning was the one who belabored his drawings with an eraser. Bob was proposing a sort of collaboration, offering–without having to draw like the master–to supply the finishing touch (read coup de grace)

I could just go on and on. Steinberg noticed that, despite declaring his early love for drawing, Rauschenberg seems to have pretty much stopped drawing after the early 50s, Erased de Kooning Drawing was really about erasing drawing itself.
And since he brought it up, and in the context of collaboration, too, maybe that makes Short Circuit, which includes two paintings by his partner and ex-wife, a way to wrangle painting into its place, too: subsumed behind closed doors. It’s an admittedly rough analogy, but then, I only just thought of it.
In any case, Steinberg’s collaborative interpretation of Erased de Kooning Drawing is worth holding onto. On with the story:

Meanwhile, Bob and I are still on the phone. And Bob says, “This thing really works on you, doesn’t it?”…Finally, I asked, “Look, we’ve now been talking about this thing for over an hour, and I haven’t even seen it. Would it make any difference if I did?” He said, “Probably not.” And that’s when it dawned on me–it’s easy-come now, but the thought had its freshness once–I suddenly understood that the fruit of an artist’s work need not be an object. It could be an action, something once done, but so unforgettably done, that it’s never done with–a satellite orbiting in your consciousness, like the perfect crime or a beau geste.
Since then, I’ve seen the Erased de Kooning Drawing several times, and find it ever less interesting to look at. But the decision behind it never ceases to fascinate and expand.
It now seems to me that Rauschenberg has repaid de Kooning’s gift to him. For though we all know de Kooning to have been a great draftsman, I can think of no single de Kooning drawing that is famous the way some of his paintings are, except the one Bob erased.

Leo Steinberg On Erased de Kooning Drawing

So ultimately, Norman Mailer’s off the hook. We know that when he wrote about Erased de Kooning Drawing in the 1970s, 1980s, Mailer fragged Rauschenberg for selling it–which he hadn’t–as much as making it. And he got the title wrong: “A drawing from Willem de Kooning erased by Robert Rauschenberg”. Which might mean he never went to see it anywhere it was showing over the years, but it also means he probably felt he got the work, didn’t need to see it. And that he was reading art historian Leo Steinberg’s indispensable 1975 collection of writings, Other Criteria.
That particular wrong version of the inscription on EdKD comes from Steinberg’s title essay, which was first published in Artforum in 1972 as “Reflections on the State of Criticism.” Steinberg originally presented a version of “Reflections” as a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art in March 1968. It was one of a 10-part series of Wednesday night lectures by leading critics and historians [which happens to have been organized by the Modern’s Junior Council then chaired by Barbara Jakobson, which is the predecessor group to the group I chaired for a while, the Junior Associates. Needless to say, I have never felt like a bigger slacker than when I look back at all the stuff the Junior Council did in the 60s. Recordings of the series were restored in 2008, but the Steinberg lecture is not listed among them. I’ll look into that.]
Anyway, Steinberg’s piece is an epic refutation of Greenbergian modernism’s view of both Renaissance and contemporary art. For its compelling critical framework, its defense of content and for identifying what Steinberg called the “flatbed picture plane,” Branden Joseph dubbed “‘Other Criteria’ the single most important article on Rauschenberg’s production.”
Steinberg discussed EdKD along with a 1952 grass painting hung on the wall as an example of Rauschenberg’s early challenges to conventional expectations of orientation:

In retrospect, the most clownish of Rauschenberg’s youthful pranks take on a kind of stylistic consistency…When he erased a de Kooning drawing, exhibiting it as “Drawing by Willem de Kooning erased by Robert Rauschenberg,” he was making more than a multifaceted psychological gesture; he was changing–for the viewer no less than for himself–the angle of imaginative confrontation; tilting de Kooning’s evocation of a worldspace into a thing produced by pressing down on a desk.

Which is interesting, but maybe not quite as interesting as the fact that, as late as 1972 or even 1975, one of Rauschenberg’s greatest critical champions seems not to have noticed that his version of the inscription is actually incorrect. Or that the earliest exhibition date listed on the back of EdKD itself is actually 1973, in a show by an even closer Rauschenberg ally, Susan Ginsburg.
[Interesting sidebar: after posting SFMOMA’s photo of the back of EdKD, a regular greg.org reader told me s/he had seen EdKD getting reframed or rematted “in the late nineties” at Minagawa, and watched as they carefully reattached the archival materials on the back. Maybe Bob was sprucing it up before selling it.]
So anyway, as of the publication of Other Criteria, then, Steinberg considered Erased de Kooning Drawing as a “youthful prank” that was “clownish,” yet prescient. But it’s not clear that the great advocate of close looking had actually seen the work.
Part 2: Erasers Erasing in Painters Painting
Part 3: Norman Mailer on Erased de Kooning and other ‘hopeless’ and ‘diminished’ art

Norman Mailer On Erased de Kooning Drawing, Art

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.

On Erased de Kooning Drawing, Cont’d

Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953, “drawing | traces of ink and crayon on paper, mat, label, and gilded frame.” via SFMOMA
So the basic question, “What do we really know about Erased de Kooning Drawing and how do we know it?” Is really driven by some recent discoveries that my understanding of the work and its story–its history–turns out to be wrong. Incomplete. Based on some assumptions that should, it turns out, be questioned.
For example, Erased de Kooning Drawing is regularly referred to know as one of Rauschenberg’s most important works, which prefigured or influenced entire movements in contemporary art. But so far, I haven’t found actual evidence that the work was even exhibited before 1973. It’s barely even discussed in the 1960s literature on Rauschenberg, never mind the 50s [It supposedly began shocking the art world soon after its creation in 1953.]
I’m always kind of torn between trying to figure this stuff out by piling on the research and citations and sifting through it, and then posting about it, and just documenting my inquiry, incomplete as it may be, as I go along.
I guess the key here may be laying out what freaked me out, and saying that it kind of blows my mind precisely because I’ve been spending so much time looking back at the relationship and collaboration between Rauschenberg and Johns, and at the stigmatized silence that continues to distort our view and our understanding of their crucial, early work.
A week or so ago, I saw a digitally remastered version of Emile de Antonio’s 1972 documentary, Painters Painting [Here’s the vanilla Ubu version.] De Antonio was a longtime friend of both Johns and Rauschenberg; he helped them get their earliest job together as window dressers for Bonwit Teller. I saw a 1976 note in the Smithsonian archives where Walter Hopps says that Bob called de Antonio “a hustler.” He became a complex and controversial filmmaker with a 10,000 page FBI file. For Painters Painting, he conducted extended interviews with both artists and a critically disparate range of others on the scene [the film was mostly shot in 1970]. According to my MFA brother-in-law, the film is a hilarious staple in art schools, which I think I object to; I may take on the film’s content and form head-on at some point, but not now.
Rauschenberg recounted the story of making Erased de Kooning while sitting atop a ladder in front of the church-like windows of his Lafayette St studio. His delivery is deadpan, deliberately ridiculous, and not a little drunk. De Antonio’s editing is kind of disruptive, but the issue isn’t whether erasing the drawing took “nearly three weeks” or a month, or 15 erasers or 40. The issue is Erased de Kooning Drawing itself:
There’s no frame. And no mat. No nothing, just the drawing. Which feels substantively different. De Kooning’s original sheet appears to be mounted onto the piece of paper onto which the label was drawn. Where the mat now seems to separate the label and the drawing, without it, it seems like one thing. A collage, perhaps, but a joined, unified, self-contained whole.
Which makes the label not just a label, but a text, a set of marks, as much a drawing as the erased marks–or the erasure marks. Rauschenberg’s explanation to de Antonio is different from other, later tellings, and from the neo-dada, Freudian interpretations of others. He seems entirely clear about what he wanted to do:

One of the things I wanted to try was an all-eraser drawing. And, uh, I did drawings myself, and erased them. But that seemed like fifty, fifty. And so I knew I need to pull back farther, and like, if it’s gonna be an all-eraser drawing, it had to be art in the beginning.

He was trying to make a mark with an eraser. It’s the difference between erasing a drawing, and drawing with an eraser. And when he was done, the result was both an erased de Kooning and a drawing. And the hand-drawn label declared as much. It’s almost a perfectly symmetrical prefiguring of Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, made a dozen years later.
But did Kosuth know and react to Erased de Kooning Drawing in creating his piece? Did de Antonio just happen to shoot the drawing while it was out of its frame, or did it look different–was it constituted differently–in 1970? And before? When did it change to the conceptual object, where the label is demoted, no longer an integral element, diametrically opposite but co-equal with the “drawing,” the concept, but now a separated, ancillary presentation device equivalent to mat and frame? Rauschenberg wrote on the back of the work, “FRAME IS PART OF DRAWING,” but I’m not sure that was always the case.
It seems to me that Erased de Kooning Drawing became one thing in the early 1970s, but before then, it was something else.
Next up: looking back at what was said and written and known and shown about Erased de Kooning Drawing before 1973.


How do we know what we know, and when?
For instance, we know that Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) is one of Robert Rauschenberg’s most important, influential works. It’s the kind of commonly accepted history that lands a piece in the Final Four of Tyler Green’s Art Madness poll to determine America’s Greatest Post-War Artwork.
And we know the story of it, how Bob took a bottle of liquor with him to Bill’s studio to ask for a drawing to erase. And how Bill, at first reluctant, twice-validated the sacrifice by giving away “a drawing he’d miss” and which would be “hard” for Bob to erase. And then Bob signed it and framed it and sparked an art world scandal with it which hasn’t really abated. We know this because Bob and then his curator and critic advocates repeat the story so frequently. [Vincent Katz has a nice telling of it in Tate Magazine in Autumn 2006.]
But this weekend, I suddenly had cause to wonder just how all this went down, and when, really, did this revolution start? Because it’s not as clear or as obvious as I had always assumed.
That’s Erased de Kooning Drawing up there, precisely matted and framed. That’s how I saw it for the first time in Walter Hopps’ “Rauschenberg In The Early 1950s” show at the Menil 20 years ago, and then again in John Cage’s “Rolywholyover” a couple of years after that. [Or am I conflating the two Guggenheim SoHo versions of those shows?]
At the time, it was still in the artist’s own collection. In 1998, SFMOMA acquired it along with a group of other Rauschenberg works. [Calvin Tomkins wrote in the New Yorker in 2005 that MoMA was offered the works first and turned them down.] Its official description: “drawing | traces of ink and crayon on paper, mat, label, and gilded frame.” It’s not just a drawing, not just an erased drawing, it’s an object assembled.
SFMOMA has a nice little, c.2000 interactive that includes the back of the piece:
LOVE THAT. I could geek out staring at the backs of artworks all day. Did Bob himself write that? It looks like it.
The early line on Erased de Kooning was either “neo-dada,” which was a standard critical reaction to Rauschenberg in the 50s, or AbEx patricide. But it has since evolved far beyond these bad boy, enfant terrible readings, to be considered a precursor of huge swaths of contemporary art.
In his 2009 book, Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde, Branden Joseph discussed Erased de Kooning Drawing as one of the touchstones of conceptual art and appropriation art, alongside Marcel Duchamp’s mustache-on-the-Mona-Lisa, L.H.O.O.Q:

Whether by defacement or effacement, the two works’ devaluation of the appropriated representation (an essential factor in the process of allegorization) is equally effective. Rauschenberg’s subsequent mounting of the erased sheet of paper within a gold frame, together with the addition of a carefully hand-lettered label with a new authorial attribution, title, and date (“Erased de Kooning drawing / Robert Rauschenberg / 1953”), simultaneously doubles the visual text with a new signification and calls attention away from the (now depleted) visual aspect of the work and toward the conventional and institutional devices of the work’s “framing.”…For Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing essentially reenacted the reception of his White Paintings: the initial evacuation of expressive or representational meaning in favor of transitional, temporal forces subsequently gave way to a process in which meaning was reattributed to the work from the outside.

Indeed it was. As the White Paintings were to the reflections and shadows in the room, so Erased de Kooning Drawing was to passing theories of art.
In 1976 Bernice Rose put “the famous Erased de Kooning drawing” along side Jasper Johns’ Diver at the foundation of The Modern’s major survey, “Drawing Now.” Reviewing the show for the New Yorker, Harold Rosenberg dismissively labeled Pop, Minimalism and Conceptualism, the work that followed Rauschenberg’s and Johns’s “parodies of Action painting,” as the new “Academy of the Erased de Kooning.”
Later that year, the drawing was in Walter Hopps’ Rauschenberg Retrospective at the Smithsonian, which traveled back, in 1977, to MoMA. Where it prompted Grace Glueck to open her NY Times story with a rhetorical question–“Wasn’t it only a couple of years ago that Robert Rauschenberg erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning?”
Yes, only a couple, give or take twenty four. Maybe it just took that long to get it. We had to wait for Conceptualism to be invented before anyone could recognize Erased de Kooning was its foundation.
In the September 1982 issue of Artforum, none other than Benjamin Buchloh discussed Erased de Kooning Drawing‘s historical importance in a sprawling 14-page essay titled, “Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art”:

At the climax of the Abstract Expressionist idiom and its reign in the art world this may have been perceived as a sublimated patricidal assault by the new generations most advanced artists, but it now appears to have been one of the first examples of allegorization in post-New York School art. It can be recognized as such in its procedures of appropriation, the depletion of the confiscated image, the superimposition or doubling of a visual text by a second text, and the shift of attention and reading to the framing device. Rauschenberg’s appropriation confronts two paradigms of drawing: that of de Kooning’s denotative lines, and that of the indexical functions of the erasure. Production procedures (gesture), expression, and sign (representation) seem to have become materially and semantically congruent. Where perceptual data are withheld or removed from the traditional surface of display, the gesture of erasure shifts the focus of attention to the appropriated historical constrict on the one hand, and to the devices of framing and presentation, on the other.

Whew. But.
Back up. Because here is Buchloh’s account of the gesture, and of the “device of framing and presentation”:

After the careful execution of the erasure, which left vestiges of pencil and the imprint of the drawn lines visible as clues of visual recognizability, the drawing was framed in a gold frame. An engraved metal label attached to the frame identified the drawing as a work by Robert Rauschenberg entitled and dated 1953.

[Emphasis added because, WTF engraved metal label?] When did it have a metal label?
There wasn’t one in 1991 when I saw it. And there wasn’t one in 1976, when Walter Hopps wrote this catalogue entry: “He [Rauschenberg] then hand-lettered the title, date of the work, and his name on a label and placed the drawing in a gold-leaf frame bought specifically for it.” [Oddly, the only source Hopps cites is an Interview Magazine Q&A, dated May 1976, just as the catalogue was being produced.]
There is no way that the hand-drawn label in the middle of the mat of Erased de Kooning Drawing could be mistaken for a metal label on a frame. At least if you had seen the work in person. Or had discussed it with anyone who had. So the implication, then, is that in 1982, Benjamin Buchloh had not actually seen Erased de Kooning Drawing, or that he’d misremembered it or misread a photo of it, and neither he nor anyone at the magazine of record noticed the error. Which does make some sense if Erased de Kooning is a conceptual work in the mode of Joseph Kosuth, not an art object, per se but an “idea of an art work [whose] formal components weren’t important.” [Of course, Kosuth said that in 1965, more than a decade after Rauschenberg apparently already demonstrated it.]
But there are some problems here. Judging by all the registrars’ labels and notes on the back, it seems impossible that someone like Benjamin Buchloh would not have seen Erased de Kooning Drawing in the 30 years since its creation. But looking more closely, I can’t find any exhibitions dating before 1973. That’s when Susan Ginsburg’s show, “3D Into 2D: Drawing For Sculpture,” opened at the New York Cultural Center. [Ginsburg was, among many other things, a board member of Change, Inc., an artist emergency assistance foundation Rauschenberg started in 1970.]
Was Erased de Kooning Drawing shown in the 60s? Or the 50s, for that matter? Where? How? What was the reaction? Because the triumphant Conceptualist historicization of the work seems to have obscured–if not actually erased–its early history.