De Kooning was, unsurprisingly, less than enthused at the request. “I remember that the idea of destruction kept coming into the conversation, and I kept trying to show that it wouldn’t be destruction,” said Rauschenberg, “although there was always the chance that if it didn’t work out there would be a terrible waste.” As the younger artist further elucidated his intentions over glasses of whiskey, de Kooning relented.
But the painter wasn’t going to make it easy. As Rauschenberg tells it, de Kooning pulled out a portfolio and began flipping through the contents. Just as he seemed to settle on one, he paused. “No,” the artist mused, “it has to be something I’d miss.” So he pulled out a second folder, finally landing on a sketch made with a combination of grease pencil, ink, charcoal, and graphite.
Later, Rauschenberg couldn’t recall precisely what the drawing looked like. (In 2010, SFMOMA
enhanced an infrared scan of the work that revealed several female figures from different angles.) What he did remember was how long the process took: two months, “and even then it wasn’t completely erased,” he said. “I wore out a lot of erasers.”
The result? A blank sheet of paper bearing a few smudges of its former image. It wasn’t until late 1955, when Rauschenberg was scrounging for submissions to a group drawing show, that his friend
suggested he frame the work. Using a duplication machine he had access to through a job designing department store window displays, Johns printed the accompanying inscription:
ERASED de KOONING DRAWING
When it went on view at New York’s Elinor Poindexter Gallery, there was no fanfare. No reviews of the show mentioned Erased de Kooning Drawing. But the story spread through the art world anyway. “You heard of it by word of mouth,” Steinberg recalled.