17th July 2007 — 1st September 2007
1953 Robert Rauschenberg erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning, framed
the remaining piece of paper, and claimed it as his own work. The task
wasn't easy; de Kooning had used thick layers of chinagraph pencil,
ink, graphite and wax crayon. It took Rauschenberg a month to 'clean'
Strikingly, 'Erased de Kooning' successfully appropriates the iconicity of de Kooning's work, only to answer that masculine expressivity with a terminal gesture of iconoclasm: erasure. This act predates the official epoch of Conceptual Art by at least fifteen years, yet employs several intrinsically Conceptual tenets: aesthetic economy; a narrative process of explication; a subsequent emphasis on mental agency; and awareness of significant shared cultural memory. De Kooning epitomises the potency, both gendered and aesthetic, of abstract expressionism and American art at the time. His works sold for substantial sums, and the respect he garnered was universal. And although de Kooning said he would very much miss the drawing, Rauschenburg's act was not as derisive as immediately conjectured. The cultural prestige of de Kooning is of paramount importance to the success of the piece; his domineering aura saturates the work, if only in conception. The idea of the work is preserved and amplified within the form, and so becoming the mettle of the piece.
'Invisible' - a fairly typical summer group-show - at Max Wigram, presents several artists whose work conducts a similar dialogue to Rauschenberg's 'Erased de Kooning'. Paul Pfeiffer's 'Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse' is a vast, colour photograph of Marilyn Monroe, in which the star herself has been deleted, leaving only her shadow. 'Good Vibrations' by Damien Roach is the eponymous song by The Beach Boys lowered so much in pitch as to be inaudible; the physical pulse of the speaker's subwoofer the only evidence of the performance. The familiarity in these two appropriated cultural products lies predominantly with the element the artist has removed. By eliminating Marilyn Monroe's 'look', we are compelled to imagine and perhaps amplify the reality; and with 'Good Vibrations', the effect of knowing that it's playing, but not being able to hear it, is as good as playing it unbearably loud. The absent and present are equally redolent of their subject.
Michael Ashcroft's 'Other People's Achievements' is a series of framed images from exotic travel supplements, each with the human achievers in the landscape painted over with oils so as to completely camouflage them. It's a strikingly morbid act, particularly because of the subjects' anonymity. There is something uniquely unsettling about the deletion of the nameless: only ever having existed in their absence, when they are gone, no memory rushes in to take their place. This is appropriation 'in absentia', where an artist sequesters cultural memory that is itself concerned with its own pastiche. Gianni Motti's 'Magic Ink' - five drawings in invisible ink - headily combine Rauschenberg's antonymic creative erasure with a hermetic alchemy: these drawings are still there, doomed to exist in perpetual absence, their 'true' form hidden forever. Of course, invisibility may have its own invisible agenda. The peppered moth, as depicted in Damien Roach's piece, evolved its 'peppered' look to be able to camouflage itself against its newly industrialised habitat in Victorian England. Its original morphology was entirely white, a more suitable disguise against the pristine white walls of a modern art gallery.
Ironically, there were several pieces that were not visible at all. Pierre Bismuth apparently had three 'Black Paintings' in the show, although I could only find one. Cory Arcangel, prominently listed as exhibiting, was not in evidence at all. When I asked, rather embarrassed, if the invigilator might point out the missing pieces, he politely told me that they were not, and never had been, a part of the exhibition. I'd like to believe that this was an intentional curatorial conceit: that, albeit within a tighter arrangement of shared cultural memory, Max Wigram and Co. had exhibited several truly invisible works of art, which were conjured only in suggestion on the press release. However, this conceptual trope is surely, really, not there.
Ultimately, as an 'Invisible' show probably should, the ambiguity implicit in the title is made manifest in the absence of curatorial enterprise. The pieces are also somewhat monothematic in their engagement regarding ideas of visibility, and there are too many hermetic processes, as looped and complete as zeros. Perfection, I suppose, is analogous to invisibility.
When describing the way he felt about 'Erased de Kooning', Rauschenberg commented "... in the end it really worked. I liked the result. I felt it was a legitimate work of art, created by the technique of erasing. It was poetry." Erasing as appropriation is inevitably a poetic, rather than an empirical gesture. It is bound wonderfully in an affirmation of the primacy of the self and one's own imaginative faculties.
Max Wigram Gallery
99 New Bond Street
London W1S 1SW