Work on Monday: “Erased de Kooning Drawing” by Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg "Erased de Kooning Drawing,"1953
Robert Rauschenberg "Erased de Kooning Drawing,"1953, SFMoma

This week, Work on Monday looks at a controversial piece by Robert Rauschenberg, and Willem de Kooning—sort of.

Work on Monday is a weekly look at one piece of art related to the East End, usually by a Hamptons or North Fork artist, living or dead, created in any kind of media. Join the conversation by posting your thoughts in the comments below and email suggestions for a future Work on Monday here.

Erased de Kooning Drawing
Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008)
Erased drawing on paper in gilded frame
25.25 × 21.75 × 0.5 inches, 1953

This quirky piece was created during Rauschenberg’s experimental period. As he was trying various new techniques, materials and ideas at the time, the artist began considering whether or not a piece of art, a drawing, could be made simply by erasing. First he tried using his own drawings, but soon found he needed to erase something that was already considered a piece of fine art. This is when Springs Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning entered the picture.

A fan of experimentation himself, de Kooning obliged the artist with one of his drawings on paper, though it took some persuading because Rauschenberg requested that the drawing not be a throw-away sketch, but rather a very finished and worthwhile work of art. The piece was a heavily worked drawing in various media, including crayon, charcoal, ink and pencil, which was perfect for Rauschenberg’s plans. And he did much more than draw through the existing drawing with his eraser. He literally eliminated it almost completely, leaving only minor remnants of what was there before.

So, what of it? Is it art? Is it worthy of consideration? First, the piece is most certainly worth considering. In fact, that’s exactly the point of it. Rauschenberg created high-concept piece much like the work of Marcel Duchamp and the Dada artists after World War I. Just as Duchamp’s “Readymades” asked viewers to consider everyday objects as art when placed in a new context, Rauschenberg challenges us to see the act of taking away art as art in itself.

While “Erased de Kooning Drawing” exists as a physical piece—it’s been in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art since 1998—really, at the core, it’s a work of performance art. The framed “drawing” is evidence of that performance: Rauschenberg’s unholy act of essentially destroying the work of one of the greatest Post War masters. Proof of this comes with the fact that the frame itself is listed as part of the artwork, rather than simply something to display it. It even features a small square explaining, in Rauschenberg’s hand, what is being presented.

And it is in this act of displaying and forever memorializing the moment, that the work gets its strength. For centuries to come, anyone who visits Rauschenberg’s piece will relive the moment de Kooning’s art became his own.

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