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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Robert Rauschenberg

Rebus, 1955, Robert Rauschenberg,
If you're any kind of experienced artist, you've no doubt learned long ago that you can use either end of a pencil with which to draw. I've even seen lesson plans in which the students cover a sheet of paper with graphite, then use an eraser to create the image. At first glance, this might seem like a rather strange (even silly) exercise; but in fact, it's great for teaching students to think in terms of both positive and negative space or (in abstract terms) the relationships between space and shapes. From a practical standpoint, it's also great for creating night scenes or interiors having limited lighting. However, I've known some perfectionist artists whose pencils would suggest they use the rubber end more than the sharp end.
Black Square, 1915,
Kazimir Malevich,
You've no doubt heard the question, "If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one to hear it fall, does it make any sound?" (or words to that effect). The same question might be applied to art. If there's no light, can there still be art? Around 1915, the Russian painter, Kazimir Mal-evich with his painting Black Square (above) posed just that question. After more than a hundred years, the jury is still out on that one. The 1950s Abstract Expressionist painter, Robert Rauschenberg (below), asked the art world a similar ques-tion, "If there's nothing but light, can there be art?"

Rauschenberg poses with some of his imposing "white paintings" sometime during the early 1950s.
(The color photo, by the way, is by Chuck Close.)
Though coming at it from opposite directions, both artists were essentially asking the same question. Is art merely canvas and paint; or does it also require at least some degree of content to be labeled with such a high honor. As a counterpoint to his "White Paintings," Rauschenberg resurrected Malevich's Black Square in the form of a series of all black paintings (below). He was sometimes referred to as a "Neo-Dadaist." During the early 1950s when artists like Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers, Wolf Kahn, Helen Frankenthaler, and most of all Willem de Kooning were splattering pigmented colors all over the place, it would seem no one had bothered to stop and ask themselves, is all this really necessary?

Untitled [glossy black painting], 1951, Robert Rauschenberg
Rauschenberg went so far as to coax Willem de Kooning into a further questioning of the very nature and definition of art. Though two men had known one another casually, in 1953, Rauschenberg called upon de Kooning asking the famous artist to give him one of his drawings so he could erase it. After what was probably a good deal of friendly persuasion, de Kooning finally agreed, though he insisted that the work be one of his best pieces, moreover one of his favorites. Rauschenberg was already an experienced artist with an eraser, having already erased one or two of his own drawings. This he found to be of little consequence. To make the kind of statement he wished to declare, he needed the work of a big name in the art world. De Kooning was, at the time, an artist at the top of his form.

Rauschenberg not only erased de Kooning’s work, but also
exhibited the “erasure” as his own work of art. He thus
raised the question, had he destroyed a work of art, or
created a new work of his own? Perhaps both? If so, Why?
Not the erased drawing by
de Kooning but probably on
quite similar.
The results can be seen in the upper image (above). Rauschen-berg did quite a job on the crayon, ink, pencil and charcoal drawing. In fact it took him some two months to pretty much obliterate de Kooning's drawn image. An infrared scan of the work many years later suggests that the highly abstract drawing seems to have featured one of more female figures (no surprise there, given de Kooning's other works). Rauschenberg's friend, and some-times lover, Jasper Johns supplied the title, Erased de Kooning Draw-ing. Beneath that were the words, "by Robert Rauschenberg." Though Rauschenberg had shown the work to friends, it wasn't until 1956 that he first displayed it in public.

Estate, 1963, Robert Rauschenberg
To say the least, not everyone was so happy with the "erasure" as Rauschenberg. Despite a lack of publicity, word got around. The results were mixed. Many were indignant at the loss of an undocumented de Kooning drawing. They accused the young, upstart artist of vandalism, plagiarism, and destruction. Others were concerned by how profound this act really was. Rauschenberg represented a new generation of artists literally erasing the work of the old as they began to take over with their own ideas. However, over time, the reputation of the Erased de Kooning Drawing and that of Rauschenberg himself skyrocketed with works such as his Estate, (above) from 1963.

Monogram, 1955-59, Robert Rauschenberg, mixed media
with taxidermy goat, rubber tire and tennis ball.
Monogram (detail from above).
Rauschenberg continued to shake up the art world. His work would eventually be seen as bridging the transition from the Abstract Expressionism to the rise of pop art that would usher in An-dy Warhol. Despite what the early critics and established artists init-ially thought, Rauschenberg work-ed with as much good humor and deference towards what came be-fore as he did with disruption. To those who still contemplate Eras-ed de Kooning Drawing and mourn the original artist, Rausch-enberg delighted in pointing out that they could just flip the draw-ing over. On the backside is an-other “gorgeous drawing of Bill’s” that Rauschen-berg left complete-ly untouched.

Bed, 1955, Robert


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