Robert Rauschenberg made a career out of challenging the limits of what was and wasn't art. Anything and everything was fair game to use as raw material in his work — much of the materials that went into his famous combines were found objects or even pieces of garbage. Prior to the success of the combines, however, Rauschenberg was a young artist trying to make a name for himself in New York City. In the summer of 1951, he had completed what he called his "all-whites" — a series of seven geometric paintings whose blank white surfaces were designed to reflect the light, color and shadow of their surroundings. With the all-whites, Rauschenberg said he wanted "to see how far you could push an object and yet it still means something." They weren't initially well received, in fact, Betty Parsons famously refused to show them in her gallery. Still, Rauschenberg continued to explore and, in 1953, he created what would become one of the most controversial pieces of his career. He had been experimenting with a variety of materials — gold leaf, toilet paper, even dirt — in an effort to challenge the definition of art. Rauschenberg loved to draw and began to experiment with lines “trying to figure out a way to bring drawing into the all whites” and wondered if an artwork could be produced by removing marks, rather than making them. "I kept making drawings myself and erasing them," he said, "but that just looked like an erased Rauschenberg. I mean, it was nothing."
Rauschenberg reasoned that in order for the erasure to be art, the work that had been erased must begin as art and though he was friends with many of the top New York City painters, none of whom took his work seriously, he decided it had to be a de Kooning "if it's going to be an important piece." Willem de Kooning was arguably the most famous abstract expressionist in the world at the time and lived just around the corner. Rauschenberg bought a bottle of Jack Daniels® and went to see de Kooning. He explained what he wanted to do and though de Kooning didn't like the idea, he said that he understood it and agreed to Rauschenberg's request. While some of the facts around de Kooning's choosing of the painting vary in how Rauschenberg tells the story, one detail is constant and that is that de Kooning told Rauschenberg that he wanted to challenge him, adding "I want it to be something I'll miss." The piece de Kooning chose for Rauschenberg had crayon, pencil, charcoal and oil paint and, according to Rauschenberg, took over a month to erase. The documentation is built-in in the form of a title card hand-lettered by Rauschenberg's friend, artist Jasper Johns, that reads simply:
ERASED de KOONING DRAWING ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG 1953
Rauschenberg was sharply criticized for the work — some didn't understand it, while others called it vandalism. When asked about what he thought of the work, Rauschenberg replied simply, "It's poetry."
While it's not my favorite of his pieces - that would go to Rebus from 1955 - I think it's a brilliant example of not only how Rauschenberg approached art, but his place in it. He strove to always push the boundaries of what his work could be, regardless of the opinion of the art establishment and, in the process, created a body of work that is as diverse as it is important.
No photographs of de Kooning's original work are known to exist, but in 2010, SFMOMA performed an infrared scan of Erased de Kooning in an attempt to learn more about the underlying drawing. What they discovered was that the initial drawing included "several figures worked form different angles." The scan was enhanced digitally to reveal traces of charcoal and graphite, just as Rauschenberg has suggested.