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Appropriation Anxiety
December 12, 2006

For the show that he curated here in D.C., New York–based artist José Ruiz writes that he was prompted by a bit of wordplay:

I was listening to someone talk about six degrees of separation (for about the hundredth time) one day, when I inwardly chuckled the phrase: six degrees of appropriation . . . . Although it was a joke, appropriation is an act of separation.

The artworks Ruiz selected for the show play on Ruiz's appropriation/separation theme. I'll pay his pun forward with "appropriation anxiety," perhaps the right term for the notorious incident in which Robert Rauschenberg received a drawing from Willem de Kooning to erase, the resulting work being the Erased de Kooning Drawing. JL of Modern Kicks expanded on the "anxiety" of the exchange between de Kooning and Rauschenberg in a writeup of de Kooning: An American Master:

The story of Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning, for instance, has been told many times, but far too often bloodlessly, concerned only with the art theoretical maneuver.  In Stevens’ and Swan’s [de Kooning: An American Master]—unfortunately too long to excerpt in full here—it becomes real drama. The younger artist visited de Kooning, then still only beginning to enjoy fame, to ask for a drawing to erase.  The latter became grave and "told Rauschenberg: 'I know what you’re doing.'

An excerpt from the de Kooning biography illustrates the nearly predatory scene that played out between Rauschenberg and de Kooning:

De Kooning brought over a portfolio of drawings and began leafing through them. At last, he seemed to settle on one. He looked at it. But then he slipped the drawing back into the portfolio. 'No,' he said, 'I want to give one that I’ll miss.'

De Kooning brought over a second portfolio. He leafed through it as slowly as he had the first, examining one drawing and then the next. 'These I would miss,' he said. 'I like them.' He seemed to settle on a particular image. 'No,' he said at last, 'I want it to be very hard to erase.'

But it's difficult to say exactly how that anxiety plays out. One colleague here at SAAM read de Kooning as being in control of the situation, raising the ante on Rauschenberg, giving him what he asked for but making the process as agonizing as he can — manipulating the situation to make Rauschenberg feel more anxious about erasing the drawing.

One way or the other, de Kooning made Rauschenberg pay for the appropriation. One wonders whether such vivid stories of an artist participating in his own appropriation could be told about the appropriation artist, Sturtevant. Since the 1960s, she has made a career executing the artworks of other artists, and her body of works includes nearly exact appropriations of pieces by the principal artists of the last forty years. Sturtevant's replications of Duchamp's readymades were included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. The wall text that accompanied these pieces included this bit:

Warhol in particular recognized the collaborative rather than appropriative basis of her approach and even gave her one of his Flower silkscreens to use in creating her own canvases. When later quizzed about his own painting techniques, Warhol deadpanned: 'I don't know. Ask [Sturtevant].'

That Warhol recognized the pieces as collaborative does not mean that every artist has, of course.

Posted by Kriston on December 12, 2006 in American Art Elsewhere


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