Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’: Iconoclastic Gestures and the resignification of Artworks
For this symposium we were asked to talk about a favourite drawing. And since drawing can be a subject, an object, an action, and a philosophical idea, I have chosen an artwork which I think draws together these definitions.
My discussion centres on an artwork which is arguably not a drawing. In other words, it has been inscribed with artistic meaning because of its changed status from being drawn to undrawn; that is erased. The artwork I am referring to is Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning Drawing from 1953.
I want to talk about this drawing in relation to the idea of the ‘iconoclastic gesture’ which is an action I describe as a kind of secular image-breaking, and in this case a major change in the material formation of the artwork. Taken literally, iconoclasm means to break the icon (icon is the Latin term for image).
The process of destroying images is of course something we associate with an attempted religious or political reckoning; and can sometimes result in a disastrous loss of cultural heritage. For example, think of the staggering destruction of material culture in Syria perpetrated by ISIS. Iconoclastic gestures are by nature symbolic, and in the context of art, the action of image-breaking can create new icons through multiple episodes of engagement. In other words, new meanings can be instigated through a deliberate breaching of the physical integrity of artworks, including changes to their material and temporal order.
To illustrate this concept, I would like to briefly discuss ‘Monkey Jesus,’ parishioner Cecilia Giménez’ enthusiastic restoration attempt on a fresco in the Spanish church Sanctuary of Mercy in 2012. This was a well-intentioned form of iconoclasm, but nonetheless one that seriously compromised the condition of the artwork. The original mural, Ecce Homo, was painted in 1930 by Spanish artist Elías García Martínez, and depicts Jesus crowned with thorns, a typical subject of traditional Catholic art from this period. The ‘restored’ version by Giménez has been dubbed Ecce Mono (Behold the Monkey), a humorous conflation of the painting’s Latin title, Ecce Homo (Behold the Man), with the Spanish word mono, meaning monkey. To give you an idea of the media response at the time, BBC journalist Christian Fraser stated that the botched restoration attempt resembled a “crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic.”[i]A profusion of online hilarity in the form of memes and slogans ensued, and toys and tote bags were soon available with catchphrases such as “Monkey Jesus Loves You”.
While the story is amusing, the bungled restoration ultimately produced a new and considerably more famous cultural icon (not to mention a major touristic success), highlighting the re-signification of the artwork over time. *And here I would like to point out that I am including this ‘artwork’ by an untrained woman in her 80’s, so you can contemplate it beside the work of a so-called white male genius (Rauschenberg), or indeed two, if we count de Kooning.
Notably there are different forms of erasure at play here: the original Ecce Homo painting was erased through the addition of painted marks with the intention (albeit misplaced) of restoring the artwork, while Erased De Kooning Drawing involves the systematic removal of material as an artistic device: the final material outcome was something like a tabula rasa, meaning ‘blank slate’; or perhaps a palimpsest: a re-written or otherwise altered text or image still bearing the trace of its earlier form.
Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning provides an example of image-breaking as a concept or philosophical idea in modern art. Moreover, its aesthetic quality can be readily associated with Minimalist abstraction (though Rauschenberg was not himself a minimalist), an art movement widely interpreted as a reaction against Abstract Expressionism. Seen this way, Rauschenberg’s drawing operates as a metaphor for the succession of modernist frameworks in the mid 20th Century.
With ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’ Rauschenberg set out to discover whether an artwork could be produced entirely through erasure—an act focused on the subtraction of marks rather than their accumulation.[ii] Rauschenberg first tried erasing his own drawings but eventually decided that for the experiment to be conceptually rigorous he should start with an artwork that was already artistically significant. In this instance, the stakes of the gesture were high because the starting point was another artists’ work, which; at least in theory, was already valuable. The process of re-signification is therefore reliant on the artistic significance of both the original author of the artwork, and the intervening artist.
The backstory of the drawing involves Rauschenberg approaching de Kooning, an artist for whom he had great respect, and asking him for a drawing that he could erase. Apparently de Kooning agreed to give him a drawing after some hesitancy, eventually deciding to contribute a work that, (quote) “he would really miss.”[iii]Rauschenberg proceeded to erase the drawing claiming it required several weeks of work and many different types of eraser to rub out the crayon, ink, charcoal and pencil of the original drawing. When he had completed the meticulous and laborious erasure, he and artist Jasper Johns decided to label and frame the work in a way that elevated it to museum object, with Johns inscribing the following words below the now-absent de Kooning drawing: “ERASED de KOONING DRAWING, ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG, 1953.”[iv]
Rauschenberg said about the work:
I had been working for some time at erasing, with the idea that I wanted to create a work of art by that method … Not just by deleting certain lines, you understand, but by erasing the whole thing. If it was my own work being erased, then the erasing would only be half the process, and I wanted it to be the whole. Anyway, I realized that it had to be something by someone who everybody agreed was great, and the most logical person for that was de Kooning.[v]
“Stevens and Swan note that de Kooning became angry when Erased de Kooning Drawing began to be publicly shown, because he “believed the murder should have remained private, a personal affair between artists.”(Stevens and Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, p. 360)
The only other recorded comment by de Kooning on this subject appears in Tomkins’s typewritten notes for his book Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time: “(De Kooning says he gave Bob the drawing but doesn’t remember if Bob told him what he wanted to do with it(!). He also said it was ‘sort of a corny idea.’” (Question relayed by Xavier Fourcade, 1978. This quote appears in: Sarah Roberts “Erased de Kooning Drawing”, Rauschenberg Research Project, July 2013.)
“De Kooning’s near silence on the matter—his responses were generally not available to a wide audience—effectively left the storytelling up to Rauschenberg.” (Sarah Roberts “Erased de Kooning Drawing”, Rauschenberg Research Project, July 2013.)
I will pause on this slide so you can read some of Willem de Kooning’s responses to Rauschenberg’s work… I like the drama and sanctimony inherent in the first statement by de Kooning, when he says that “the murder should have remained private, a personal affair between artists”. In using the term murder in this context de Kooning suggests an unsolicited and public killing off of the author.
By selecting de Kooning, Rauschenberg chose one of the most prominent painters among the Abstract Expressionists. Consequently, the erasure was commonly interpreted as a symbolically patricidal gesture (in feminist critique), or even an oedipal act whereby ‘the young upstart destroys the master’. Interestingly, Rauschenberg’s gesture was ultimately ‘reversed’ through infrared imaging, a development in the life of the artwork that can be viewed as iconoclastic in its ‘restoration’ of de Kooning’s drawing: a process which contravened Rauschenberg’s intention and laborious removal of material. (I will talk about the imaging process later in the presentation).
Curator Sarah Roberts, in her discussion of Rauschenberg’s artwork, notes that “The story of how ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’ came into being is central to its reception and reputation, and cannot be separated from the work itself.”[vi] In support of this idea, she refers to Walter Hopps, who claims that an understanding of Erased de Kooning Drawing “is inextricably embedded in the viewer’s explicit knowledge of the process of making.”[vii]The vigorous labour of obliterating an image through erasure, and the resulting sensory satisfaction of removal is something translatable to the viewer in the simplest terms, setting up a basic conflict between the artistic value of the original and the newly ascribed value of its dramatically changed status – its virtual disappearance. Rauschenberg said, “in the end it really worked. I liked the result. I felt it was a legitimate work of art, created by the technique of erasing.”[viii]
In 2010, the San Francisco Museum of Art’s Elise S. Haas Conservation Studio created an infrared digital partial reconstruction of the lost image, which highlighted traces of the original de Kooning drawing. Rauschenberg’s iconoclastic gesture of erasure was put under the microscope using infrared imaging, a technique known for its capacity to reveal underdrawings.[ix]The image revealed de Kooning’s original drawing, making visible several different images, such as quasi-abstract creatures at the centre and top, and a schematic female figure at the bottom left – typical de Kooning motifs from this period. While the exact characteristics of the drawing could not be precisely determined, this would seem of little consequence since, “the effect of ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’ relies much more on the weight of de Kooning’s reputation than it does on the specifics or relative significance of the original artwork he contributed.”[x]
‘Image breaking’ in this context suggests a tension between destruction and creation – a cycle of remediation that moves through manual, museological and technological domains. The re-signification of artworks over time contributes to their atemporal dimension by using gestures of revision that re-contextualise the intention, materiality, and temporal sequence of the original artwork. In Boris Groys’ book Art Power he writes: “there can be no question of ‘ultimately’: history presents itself as a sequence of revaluations of values without any discernible overarching direction.”[xi]
Rauschenberg’s iconoclastic gesture explored both the turning of art world values upon themselves through the act of erasure and the strategic deployment of those same values by framing and labelling the artwork. The effect of Rauschenberg’s action “established an enduring framework for understanding Erased de Kooning Drawing not only as a turning point for Rauschenberg but also as a necessary decalcification of art itself.”[xii]
The ideas I have covered in relation to Rauschenberg’s drawing emphasise erasure as a conceptual activity aimed not just at a single artwork, but at the elevated status of art itself. The fact that museum conventions of display (such as the frame and plaque) were used by Rauschenberg to highlight the drawing as an artefact brings a certain irony into play, demonstrating the potential for artworks to re-signify in a self-referential way. This process reflects the iconographic tendencies of artworks, their aggregation into icons and more broadly to how icons create patterns of cultural realisation, collective perceptions concerning political and social reality, as well as their principles of order and structures of power.
Iconoclastic gestures like Rauschenberg’s and the overpainting that gave rise to Monkey Jesus index both grand and modest attempts at change, as well as the various objectives of both artists and non-artists when they break images. Reflecting on the stubborn materiality of Erased de Kooning it is interesting to note how acts of wholesale erasure can still leave a trace (evidenced by the infrared image of Erased de Kooning Drawing). The spectral return of de Kooning’s drawing in the infrared image embodies a meeting point in which two vastly different artistic intentions are in a sense, cancelled out, (I like to think that in the process the artist’s egos are neutralised as well). In any case, both Rauschenberg and de Kooning’s work endures in what can arguably be seen as a collaboration: a drawing which embodies the palpable relationship between material and meaning, and intention and reception.
[iii]Robert Rauschenberg on “Erased de Kooning”[online video] (Rauschenberg recounts the meeting with de Kooning in which he asked for a drawing to erase), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Published 27 April 2010. http://www.sfmoma.org/video. Accessed 15 August 2016.
[v]C. Tomkins, ‘Profiles: Moving Out,’ TheNew Yorker,February 29, 1964, p. 66, as cited in S. Roberts, ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’, July 2013, https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.298/essay/erased-de-kooning-drawing/#fn-15. Accessed 6 April 2015.
[vii]W. Hopps, Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s, Houston, Menil Foundation and Houston Fine Art Press, 1991, p. 160, cited in Roberts, ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing.’
[viii]Rauschenberg claimed it required several weeks of work and many different types of eraser to rub out the crayon, ink, charcoal and pencil of the original drawing. He said, “in the end it really worked. I liked the result. I felt it was a legitimate work of art, created by the technique of erasing.” See: J. Mundy ‘Drawing Away’, in The Gallery of Lost Art, online exhibition, the Tate, http://galleryoflostart.com/. Accessed 2 April 2015.
[ix]The main infrared imaging process used in the field of art conservation is Infrared Reflectography (IRR): a “technique for viewing the underdrawing and early paint stages of a painting using cameras equipped with infrared-sensitive detectors. Related to infrared photography, infrared reflectography allows greater penetration of the paint layers by using wavelengths of infrared radiation that are slightly longer than those used in infrared photography. Combined with advanced optics, detectors, and digitization equipment, a clearer image of underlying paint layers and drawing is achieved. See: Art institute Chicago, http://www.artic.edu/collections/conservation/revealing-picasso-conservation-project/glossary. Accessed 10 May 2018.
[x]Roberts, ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’.
[xi]Groys, 2008, p. 69.
[xii]Roberts, ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’.