Vacant, Limpid, Angelic


Willem de Kooning may or may not have been a bad painter, according to his persistent and vocal detractors, but he was surely a bad influence, giving rise to a “Tenth Street touch” that was a stereotype of spontaneity, anxiety reduced to a mannerism. This opinion has become a truism, one of the few that the likes of Hilton Kramer and Yve-Alain Bois can agree on. For Clement Greenberg, a chief detractor who had once been a supporter, more promising than de Kooning’s followers were color-field painters like Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, whose stained canvases retained something of the abstract expressionist’s spontaneity without the physical trace of the touch. Others preferred the clean lines of hard-edge painting, of Pop art or Minimalist objects—anything that would eliminate the particularity of the artist’s hand. But a hand like de Kooning’s could never have been removed from sight so easily. Robert Rauschenberg proved it with his famous Erased de Kooning Drawing of 1953. The 27-year-old Rauschenberg spent months laboring to efface the traces of the elder artist’s ink and crayon. “I wore out a lot of erasers,” he later recalled. Yet traces of de Kooning remain, inexpugnable. It’s hard to tell from those faint inflections of the paper’s whiteness what the work it once was might have looked like (no photograph of it ever existed), but that something was once there remains evident. Given how much time and effort it took Rauschenberg to achieve this distinctly unvirginal, non-Mallarméan whiteness, whatever had been there must have been formidable.

more from Barry Schwabsky at The Nation here.