Presence in Absence

Vanessa Castro
Oct 19, 2014 8:03PM

Through the use of erasure and negative space, one finds significance in what is no longer visible rather than what is. That is why Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning,” is one of the most important landmarks of postmodernism. The work acknowledges both the power of the non-figurative monochrome as well as the paradoxical importance of the artist’s presence in a piece of art. For this reason the work reminds the viewer that the public’s eyes are conditioned to a pre-configured history and internalized understanding of what we see around us. In the case of the “Erased de Kooning,” it is the importance audiences put into the gesture of the painter, the signifying presence of a “master.” It makes sense that Rauschenberg reached out to the master of their epoch, Willem de Kooning, to contribute a work to be erased. But Rauschenberg did not just erase the gesture of the master. In fact, one could argue that by erasing de Kooning, he is only bringing forth his presence more strongly. Rauschenberg replaced de Kooning’s gesture of his own eraser, establishing the notion that history cannot truly be erased or forgotten, but new iterations of history should be proposed.  Acknowledging the history of what came before the appropriated artwork builds a new semiotic system that looks at what is said, but not visually there—opening up a dialogue that may not have been acknowledged beforehand. Negative space thus becomes an important tool in understanding the history and politics of visual culture. While this piece is understood as a rejection of traditional practices of drawing, the agency found in physical removal influenced later artists to use negative space and erasure to similarly find presence in the absence. This sense of displacement resonates with artists from marginalized backgrounds, situating their works within multiple times and places to impose new dialogues to internalized ones.  The viewer not only can then acknowledge their pre-determined semiotic system and re-imagine the history of the image itself, looking to the past to create a new future.

Vanessa Castro
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019