In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg set out to create a work in which erasure/negation would define the principal production method. Instead of building a drawing or painting up from aggregated layers, the artist made a conscious conceptual decision to work backward from the point of completed artwork back to a form of trace in which the original could be seen, but only through the impression of the maker’s initial pressure on the paper. There would be some amount of pencil or ink still lodged in the micro-fibers of the paper, but the overall result would be an amorphous form, barely visible to the human eye. The work in question was erased by hand. The artwork was to be celebrated for what it was and was not. The action of negation took precedence over the aesthetic outcome.
Rauschenberg, a fan of appropriation and assemblage, was a known quantity before starting the project. At first, he began by erasing his own artworks, an autodidactic ritual that he ultimately regarded as hollow. He had skin in the game, but he could not assert a formal dominion over his work if it were intended that this act of erasure would be the final result of deleting his work. In thinking through the dynamism of his predicament, he made a second important decision. He decided to strip the ego from another artist he adored through this act of negation. He chose Willem de Kooning, an artist he was deeply indebted to. As a fan of de Kooning’s work and a friend to the artist, Rauschenberg secured a thickly-layered drawing from de Kooning and took one month to remove as much of the original image as possible painstakingly, thus reducing the drawing to the base of its once built-up layers. In each line deleted, each shading excised, the bare bones or undergirding of the artist’s hand could be seen faintly. At this point, the drawing belonged to the original artist in title alone and was, through the auratic method of deconstruction, now entirely Rauschenberg’s work, not only de Kooning’s.
The final coup de grace of Rauschenberg’s appropriated and deconstructed piece was based on the unorthodox authenticity of his actions and the reframing of de Kooking’s work. Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg’s intimate and fellow artist, titled the piece Erased de Kooning Drawing, Robert Rauschenberg, 1953 on the paper closely resembling an official Renaissance monogram and titling before putting the piece in a gilded frame, signaling an academy artwork, in line with the presentation of classical drawings, yet denying the pomp of such institutions by negating the substance of the picture. Of course, it is an absurd gesture, but it can be counted as one of America’s finest pieces of conceptualism, only to be mimicked by countless artists from that point forward. As a note of contemporary reference, the extension of Rauschenberg’s legacy (as Duchamp before him and Rauschenberg) can be seen in Tom Friedman’s 1000 Hours of Staring 1992-1997, a paper/ drawing artwork in which the artist, by process of staring/observing of a blank piece of paper in his studio over time, auratically charged the paper into becoming a work of art simply by the method of paying it attention it over time. The hand of the artist is not even present, merely the belief that the rapport between the artist and the object of his intentions was enough to create authenticity.
Alejandro “Luperca” Morales’s El Retrato De Tu Ausencia book, published by Kult Books, is also a logical extension of Rauschenberg’s neo-dadaist intervention. Thus stated, it is slightly more complicated than Rauschenberg’s piece for several reasons. First and foremost, the artwork is impugned not by the workings of master/genius/student/fan relationship but from a piece refined from photography and newsprint, namely the Nota Roja newspapers from Mexico. These populist newspapers have come to define, albeit sensationally, the era of ultra-violence and sex that permeated Mexico before and in the wake of the cartels. These newspapers are gory. They uniquely mix sex and death in public displays at newsstand kiosks. I know this as I also have a collection of these newspapers purchased from kiosks in 2018. Susan Vargas’s exceptional Mujercitos (Editorial RM, 2014) and oblique works by Enrique Metinides and Stefan Ruiz also traffic the topic. Several projects have used Nota Roja for more extensive discussions about cartels, borders, sex, and international politics, particularly the divide between America and Mexico. They are fascinating anthropological items and, at the same time, intrinsically morose as they deal with horrendous private deaths and, in doing so, are considered insensitive and disarming concerning the process of mourning and national self-identity.
In prefacing all that I have about Rauschenberg and the idea of erasing artistic genius from one existing art drawing, it would be remiss of me not to address the aims of Morales’s work in which politics plays a massive role, as does the notion of the press’s outrage pandering and the mass production of such material. Instead of erasing the genius in another act of ingenuity, Morales is critiquing the media and asking what the removal of sensational material in a widely distributed and notorious form of pornography might accomplish. By removing the body, the artist asks for dignity, but we might also see the photograph in a suggestive, if benign, way. It also allows the artist to play/intervene in the death of the image of death itself, which, if not God-like (to erase death), suggests that we, as an audience, each have the power to feed the media machinations if we choose to. In reversal, we also can upend the sensationalism found in these papers by disallowing the mechanism of sensation to be employed. Further, in imagining a potential body, the artist asks the audience to “fill in the blank,” making the reader responsible, partial, and in proximity to the death and crime shown or imagined. There are many ways in which Morales critiques the public images of these newspapers and their influence on Mexican society at large.
Sculptural exhibition view of the erasings from the Nota Roja newspapers that Morales kept. Reminiscent of Damien Hirst’s early works, the sculpture conveys something between ash and lead, erasure and death.
Morales’s book, published by Kult, effectively displays how taking away a reveal from the content sincerely serves more significant questions regarding how we view and consume media. I have put forward similar questions in my book Soft Touch (Chaco, 2016) about how we work with the pornography of violence and victimhood through printed mass media. Though I am sheepish to plug my title, I do so as it is part of a broader conversation that I believe Morales and I are pointing to regarding how we consume photographic images in print. I highly recommend El Retrato De Tu Ausencia. It is sadly timely and historic and certainly worthy of note.
El Retrato De Tu Ausencia