24 Works of Modern Art That Shook the World

Robert Rauschenberg - Erased de Kooning

“Nothing” describes a state of nonexistence. When used as a description, “nothing” implies an absence of substance, meaning, value, or significance. Unfortunately, “nothing” is what most people see when viewing Robert Rauschenberg’s 1953 piece entitled Erased de Kooning Drawing. A white piece of paper with some smudges of pencil and charcoal in a thin gold frame. (insert Erased de Kooning photo) What is there to see? Yet, there is much more to the piece than meets the eye. In the case of Erased de Kooning, there is absolutely not a lack of meaning, value, or significance. The philosophy of nothingness has been a topic of interest for philosophers all over the world and Erased de Kooning is a prime piece to study for this philosophical question. Having been exhibited in 58 different museums and art galleries across multiple different countries, this piece is one of the most well-traveled artworks ever created.[1] It is a testament to how the notion of nothingness resonates with people all over the globe. Erased de Kooning is a piece that helps facilitate people’s fascination and curiosity with the notion of nothingness, showing that there can be meaning hidden in “nothing”. 

In order to fully describe Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing in its entirety, one must examine the drawing both before and after it was erased. With the help of modern infrared scanning technology, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has successfully recovered what Kooning’s drawing looked like before it was erased. The drawing is thought to have been composed of graphite, charcoal, grease pencil, and ink.[2]Though the drawing is very abstract, two figures are distinguishable. One is the side profile of a person facing left in the upper middle of the page. Slightly overlapping the face is another figure that is more zoomed out so the viewer can see the torso as well as the head. These figures are highly abstract and made from wild, aggressive scribbles. The term chicken scratch could almost be used to describe Kooning’s technique, but in the most delightful way possible. Some corners are rounded and others are sharp. The lines are mostly connected; however, stray markings that do not belong to any of the figures appear on the outside edges of the paper. The abstractness of the figures makes them difficult to interpret. Yet at the same time, it allows the viewer some visual freedom to move their eyes along the lines and come to their own conclusion. Near the top of the paper, there is a distinct eye shape that acts as a reference point for the viewer to make out the rest of the figure. Additionally, although the drawing is abstract, there is a feeling of “unfinishedness” when viewing it. This is almost an unexplainable feeling. It just feels as though the artist hastily began a rough sketch and never got around to finishing it. 

Examining the drawing as it appears today, all that remains is a piece of paper with some black flecks. The paper is yellowed with time and is a bit darker around the edges. In the middle of the paper there are what appear to be faint smudges or faded lines. It is unclear whether the lines are a part of any identifiable form or figure. The drawing is placed on a whiter background that gives it the appearance of a thick border. A thin gold frame holds the drawing, giving it an almost fragile look. The little label under the drawing simply reads “ERASED de KOONING DRAWING ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG 1953”. The drawing does look, in fact, erased, hence the name. 

A critical step to understanding this piece is to situate it and to discover the motives the author had when creating it. To do so, a brief understanding of Rauschenberg’s biography is necessary. Rauschenberg was born in 1925 in Port Arthur, Texas, raised by a strict father and frugal mother who he did not feel affectionate towards.[3] His first introduction to art was as a draughtsman, copying comics of other artists.[4] Receiving no appreciation for his hard work, Rauschenberg gave up his artistic dreams to serve in the US Navy for a brief time. It was not until 1947 that Rauschenberg decided to chase his dream of becoming an artist again by enrolling in art school at the Kansas City Art Institute.[5] It was then that he got the chance to meet with other artists and collaborate with them. Rauschenberg began experimenting with some monochromatic black and white paintings during this period of his career.[6] It was not long after that Erased de Kooning was created. 

The origin story of Erased de Kooning is one of great drama. It involves a 27 year old Rauschenberg knocking on the door of the most renowned expressionist artist ever: Willem de Kooning. Rauschenberg explained his vision for the piece and asked Kooning to provide a drawing for him to erase, which Kooning reluctantly gave.[7] Rauschenberg’s erasure process was long and tedious, consuming many erasers and many hours to get a sufficient amount of the charcoal and pencil markings off of the paper.[8] What was left is the piece that we know today, with the addition of a thin gold frame. On the back side of the piece is a note that says not to remove the drawing from its frame because the frame is a part of the art. Aside from this note and the small inscription in the front of the piece, this mysterious work is left to the interpretation of the viewer. 

The range of interpretations surrounding Erased de Kooning speaks to the profundity of a piece that offers so little visually. Some art historians would argue that this piece is an example of iconoclasm, where Rauschenberg literally destroys a valuable work of a previous artistic generation.[9] However, this idea does not hold up very well since Rauschenberg stated that he himself had created some drawings to erase, but said that they were not exactly what he was looking for. If he had wanted to make a taunting statement by erasing the past, he would not have created his own to begin with. Nonetheless, this piece does have an iconoclastic element and certainly makes a statement as to how art can be made using destruction. 

Expanding on that notion, another interpretation of this piece is that Rauschenberg uses it to expand society’s viewpoint of that art could be. Rauschenberg had already been playing around with some blank white paintings and Erased de Kooning could simply be an extension of these experimental pieces but with one major difference. His previous white paintings were made by applying white or off-white paint onto a blank canvas.[10] With Erased de Kooning, he began with an art piece that was already created and then proceeded to undo it. Both methods resulted in a relatively white canvas in the end, but with drastically different means of getting there. Rauschenberg’s initial white paintings were created with white paint on blank canvas, essentially making nothing (a white canvas) with something (white pant). Erased de Kooning does the opposite by creating something (an erased drawing) with nothing (an eraser). The simple act of using something meant to erase for the purpose of creation is full of artistic innovation and value. By doing this, Rauschenberg has tested the public’s view of what could be accepted as art in a shocking and almost defiant way. Luckily, instead of being deemed the work of a scam artist, Erased de Kooning was well received and has captivated audiences of museum-goers around the world. 

The success of Erased de Kooning may be in part due to the extensive and complex philosophical notions underlying it. The concept of nothingness is essential to many cultures and religions. In this case, Rauschenberg may have had some inspiration from his colleague and mentor John Cage. Cage was an American artist and philosopher who was one of the people Rauschenberg studied under whilst attending art school.[11] His primary interest was the philosophy behind Zen Buddhism. When viewing Erased de Kooning, the similarities with achieving the state of Zen stand out. Achieving the state of Zen requires the participant to release all other preoccupations from the mind and simply be in a state of existence among nothingness. This has some striking similarities to the creation of Erased de Kooning. The work began as a chaotic mass of charcoal and pencil scribbles from the hands of Kooning. Rauschenberg worked meticulously to reduce the piece down to a state of nothingness, thus achieving Zen. 

Upon final analysis, Erased de Kooning is a piece that offers little visually but over-delivers on meaning and value in a way that no art piece has ever done before. At an initial inspection, a viewer may gloss over it as a minimal-effort piece created by a “scam” artist that somehow snuck its way into a modern art museum. A more knowledgeable art viewer may see some thematic resemblance to Malevich’s Black Square or one of Rauschenberg’s other white paintings. However, this piece is so much more than all of that. It serves as a testament to Rauschenberg’s life, philosophical views, and artistic expression. Rauschenberg began his career by creating copies of other artist’s comic art. Erased de Kooning turns the tables by having Rauschenberg creating his own art by destroying the work of another artist. This almost poetic reversal of roles is captured and immortalized by Erased de Kooning. It also expanded the public’s view of what could be considered art. Using a tool meant for deletion, Rauschenberg, instead, uses it for creation. Perhaps the most significant interpretation of all is the philosophical notion underlying the piece. The drawing remarkably captures the essence of the Zen state of nothingness. With it having one foot in each realm of the humanities, it is no surprise that Erased de Kooning captured the fascination of art seekers all around the world. It speaks volumes in the areas of philosophy, culture, and biography so that every viewer can walk away with something that resonates with them personally. All things considered, Erased de Kooning should be treated as both a drawing and an introspective and philosophical case study. 

[1] Roberts, Sarah. “Robert Rauschenberg, Erased De Kooning Drawing, 1953 Robert Rauschenberg, Erased De Kooning Drawing, 1953, July 2013, www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.298/.
[2] Ibid. 
[3] Online Collection. “Robert Rauschenberg.” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum , 2008, www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/robert-rauschenberg.
[4] Kedmey, Karen. “Willem De Kooning: MoMA.” The Museum of Modern Art, 2017, www.moma.org/artists/3213.
[5] Ibid. 
[6] Roberts, Erased De Kooning Drawing, 2. 
[7] Barbara Hess, Willem De Kooning, 1904-1997: Content as a Glimpse, (Taschen, 2012), 52.
[8] Cain, Abigail. “Why Robert Rauschenberg Erased a De Kooning.” Artsy, 14 July 2017, www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-robert-rauschenberg-erased-de-kooning.
[9] Vincent Katz, “A Genteel Iconoclasm,” Tate Etc., 8 (2016), 2. 
[10] Roberts, Erased De Kooning Drawing, 2.
[11] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Robert Rauschenberg.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 14 Nov. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Robert-Rauschenberg.


Cain, Abigail. “Why Robert Rauschenberg Erased a De Kooning.” Artsy, 14 July 2017, www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-robert-rauschenberg-erased-de-kooning

Hess, Barbara. Willem De Kooning, 1904-1997: Content as a Glimpse, (Taschen, 2012), 52

Kedmey, Karen. “Willem De Kooning: MoMA.” The Museum of Modern Art, 2017, www.moma.org/artists/3213

Online Collection. “Robert Rauschenberg.” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum , 2008, www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/robert-rauschenberg

Roberts, Sarah. “Robert Rauschenberg, Erased De Kooning Drawing, 1953 &Mid...” Robert Rauschenberg, Erased De Kooning Drawing, 1953 &Mid..., July 2013, www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.298/

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Robert Rauschenberg.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 14 Nov. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Robert-Rauschenberg

Katz, Vincent. “A Genteel Iconoclasm,” Tate Etc., 8 (2016), 2

This page has paths:

This page references: