“The essence of an object has some relation with its destruction.”
– Roland Barthes
During the 1960s, a growing number of artists and writers, in disparate locations around the world and mostly unaware of one another, took up the practice of erasure and effacement: in New York City, Doris Cross started painting over dictionary pages; Tom Phillips in London began to partially obliterate pages from an obscure Victorian novel; in Italy, Emilio Isgrò commenced his cancellatura (cancellations), in which he methodically blacked out lines of text; Austrian concrete poet Gerhard Rühm used India ink to largely obliterate a newspaper front page; in Belgium in 1968, Marcel Broodthaers crossed out selected words in an anti-Minimalist, blackboard-like painting and, the next year, published his version of Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dès jamais n’abolira le hasard,” in which every line of typeset words was replaced by a black band of equal length. (Interestingly, both Isgrò and Broodthaers were lapsed poets, or, rather, poets who decided to continue poetry by other means.) In 1967, Jacques Derrida published de la Grammatologie in which he put the word “Being” sous rature (under erasure) by overlaying it with a typographic X, a chiasmic device he borrowed from Martin Heidegger, but which he employed with intentions and meanings distinctly different from the German philosopher.
For both Heidegger and Derrida, the continued legibility of a term placed under erasure is crucial. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak explains in the introduction to her translation of de la Grammatologie: “Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since it is necessary, it remains legible.”1 But while Heidegger puts “Being” under erasure in order to signal his rejection of the notion that “Being” stands apart from the realm of objects, that it’s not in the world, for Derrida this critique hardly goes far enough. Putting the word “Being” under erasure is part of Derrida’s larger project of questioning transcendent meanings, systems of authority, faith in the power of origins, and Western ethnocentrism. It is a condensed instance of deconstruction, the self-undoing of language, the way in which every philosophical contains its own unraveling. For Derrida, the sous rature mark is a visualization of something that is a condition of writing, which “structurally carries within itself the process of its own erasure and annulation, all the while marking what remains of this erasure.” All writing is under erasure whether it has been branded with an X or not because the condition of erasure, of not being there, is built into writing, which is always a matter of absence, of trace. In Derrida’s usage, “trace,” as Chakravorty Spivak explains, refers to “a word that cannot be a master word, that presents itself as the mark of an anterior presence, origin, master.”2 It is, ultimately, the ethical implications of Derridean “under erasure” that continue to make it useful to artists and writers, as well as to many others, more than half a century later.
Another influential French writer, Roland Barthes, also has relevance to this project, in particular through his writings on Cy Twombly, whose work exemplifies a kind of painterly writing that has animated painting since the 1950s, evident here in the work of Antoni Tàpies, Charline von Heyl, Dana Frankfort, Samuel Jablon, among others. What Barthes said about Twombly can be applied to many of the artists who have followed him: Twombly, Barthes observed, “alludes to writing . . . then he goes off somewhere else.” And allusion, Barthes reminds us, is a rhetorical figure that “consists of saying one thing with the intention of making another understood.”3 Our reading of the many words inscribed in so many of the works in this show should never be literal: erasure in all its gradations knows how to suspend a word in the gap between sign and gesture.
The same year that de la Grammatologie appeared, Jean-Luc Godard released La Chinoise, a film about a cell of young French Maoists who spend their days holed up in a bourgeois Paris apartment debating the role of culture in politics and vice versa. La Chinoise is notable for its innovative use of collaged-in Pop imagery and inclusion of cinematic apparatuses (clapperboards, the director’s off-screen verbal directions etc.) as well as for its striking foreshadowing of May ’68. In one famous sequence, one of the actors, Jean-Pierre Leaud, carefully erases the names of several dozen playwrights from a blackboard. As each name is obliterated, the moist eraser in Leaud’s hands leaves behind a dark mark that looks like a brushstroke. By the end, the blackboard has been transformed into a kind of modular abstraction, with only a single name left untouched: Brecht.
It was also in 1967 that Robert Smithson signed the press release to the exhibition “Language to be Looked at and/or Things to be read” at Dwan Gallery with the nom de plume “Eton Corrasable,” a reference to the Eaton company’s popular brand of typing paper, which allowed the user to erase typed errors but was notorious for its tendency to become badly smudged.
Another key work of under-erasure art is Malcolm Morley’s painting Racetrack (South Africa) (1970), in which a large red X has been painted on top of an exacting depiction of a South African tourist poster. A pivotal work in Morley’s career, Racetrack marked the end of his photorealist phase. He has described how this came about:
“The painting of the racetrack was really the jump. It’s an interesting story. I’d gone with, actually, Toni Shafrazi, a very close pal, to see a movie called Z. Yves Montand plays a Greek politician in the time of the colonels in Greece, and he gets assassinated. And in the meantime I had finished the racetrack. And Ivan Karp had arranged for Time Magazine to come and photograph it on Monday. That was Friday. So Tony and I were so pissed when we came out of the movie — you come out mad — and so I got this idea of putting an X on the racetrack. And instead of just taking some paint and poom-poom, making an X, we got sheets of plastic and put them on the painting and rehearsed the X, and it got thinner and thinner. Because the painter didn’t really want to totally destroy the painting, you know. So it was really quite a thin X. And then we reversed the plastic, printing the X on the painting. And low and behold it was Malcolm’s X on a racetrack in South Africa. And because that was a pun that came out afterward, which sadly Lawrence Alloway claimed as his own discovery — but anyway, writers do this. So that was the beginning of the end. Not only was I exing out racetrack, but I was exing out Photorealism at the same time. And I’m a tremendous believer in the unconscious as an activity and have been devoted to psychoanalysis for most of my life.”4
The introduction of erasure into poetry is usually credited to Ronald Johnson, an American poet who in the 1970s set about deleting passages from the first four books of John Milton’s Paradise Lost to produce a book titled RADI OS. (This exhibition includes a copy of the first edition of RADI OS inscribed by Johnson to Jonathan Williams, who was a key figure in Johnson’s life, as lover, publisher and friend.) Although, as Travis Macdonald has pointed out, erasure-like elements appeared from the 1960s on, in the work of experimental poets such as Jackson Mac Low and Armand Schwerner, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the potential of erasure poetry was realized by large numbers of poets.5 For some of them, their embrace of erasure was linked to the political climate of the Bush Administration and the invasion of Iraq. Poet Janet Holmes found a parallel between Emily Dickinson’s Civil War-era writings and 21st-century geopolitics:
“When the second Iraq war started, I was reading Dickinson, aware of the violent edges her language could have, and I got interested in seeing whether she was using more of this kind of language during the Civil War’s beginning. I myself had had a very difficult and unsuccessful time trying to write about the war, and was seeking a way to do it. Her writing opened up a way for me, and seemed to permit a collaboration with my intentions.” 6
Another poet, Srikanth Reddy, also discovered in erasure a means of responding to current events:
“Like Janet, I was having a heck of a time trying to write in the wake of political developments with Bush in the White House, and I started fiddling around with erasure as a way of getting words on the page as a result. I myself wasn’t very conversant with the growing tradition of erasure poetics at the time—I’d heard about RADI OS and A Humument, but hadn’t really delved into either text—but after building up a head of steam on my own erasure, I went back to those texts and was quite blown away by them.” 7
This was the same period when, in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Jenny Holzer began incorporating redacted U.S. government documents into her paintings. Since then, her “Redaction Paintings” have been continually evolving and the redacted portions have assumed greater importance. As she explained in an interview with Paul Laster:
“Initially, the silkscreens looked rather like Warhol’s Disaster paintings.They were pretty straightforward, with painted backgrounds and the text screened on top. Recently, I’ve been more interested in what’s not there, so I’ve chosen almost fully redacted documents. Lack of content is the message.”8
Others have explicitly linked their interest in erasure to the subject of race, at times deploying “erasurist” strategies to depict and critique the injustices of colonialism, just as artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Glenn Ligon have, in their different ways, wielded language as a witness to the insidious damage of racism and potential tool of its redress and repair. In M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, erasure becomes a means of grappling with the history of the Slave Trade through ironic mimesis:
“I was deeply aware at the time I worked on Zong! that the intent of the transatlantic slave trade was to mutilate—languages, cultures, people, communities and histories—in the effort of a great capitalist enterprise. And I would argue that erasure is intrinsic to colonial and imperial projects.” 9
Robin Coste Lewis, whose book Voyage of the Sable Venus seeks to undo what she describes as the “historical erasure of slavery” from American museums and libraries, warns against overly narrow definitions of erasure that miss the larger narrative of cultural appropriation and linguistic colonialism:
“Even sillier than thinking of erasure as an arts and craft exercise, is the avant-garde desire to locate erasures beginning in the 1960s, or to suggest that language poets were the originators of the post-modern (read: post-colonial–when you hear ‘post-modern’, read ‘post-colonial’…) shift in western literature. It’s not only a historically silly idea, but it misses much of the exquisite point of the vastness of erasure’s reach, and, even more importantly, the vastness of literatures by people of color. Like Pablo’s glorious appropriation–I’m trying to be sarcastic–like Picasso’s glorious appropriation of African forms; glorious but appropriation, but glorious, but appropriation, but glorious, but appropriation… all over the world, from so many camps, writers of every genre who had been haunted and hunted, pursued mercilessly by a very fixed, tight, finite *ideal* of English (this part I really want to connect to the practice [of erasure]), these writers from countries all over the world, who were colonized by English, finally one day slowly turned around and began to pursue English. English became the prey. Not just since the ’60s, but for centuries….Erasure is as much about the politics of English, and its colonial history, as it is about form and object.” 10
A second wave of erasure poetry, some of which is represented in this exhibition, has appeared since the rise of Donald Trump. In a 2017 article “The Trump Era Boom in Erasure Poetry,” The New Republic, 2017, Rachel Stone sought to explain why:
“In these poems there is a desire to re-examine the institutions and narratives that shape Americans’ lives, from government bureaucracy to new media. The poems’ authors reassert power over language that has typically been used to determine who does and does not belong. And while poets have been reassigning meaning to texts in this way for at least a century, erasure has gained new energy at a moment when the country is deeply polarized—when official documents may hold radically different consequences and meanings for different people.” 11
By including both artists and writers, is this exhibition arguing against making strict distinctions between visual art and literature? Although this was not part of the original intention behind “Under Erasure,” it is a question that needs to be addressed. Does it matter whether an object is identified as a poem or as a drawing, as a conceptual text piece or as a concrete poem? Obviously, such labels carry with them specific kinds of interpretations and contextualizing, and affect how we experience the works. By eliminating, at least temporarily, the boundaries between art and literature, this exhibition hopes to draw attention to some of the ways in which various art forms converge. The flourishing of erasure poetry, for instance, brings contemporary poetry closer to the fields of painting and text-based conceptual art. A similar convergence has been happening in recent years with the growth of so-called conceptual writing, which originated in the importation of techniques from Performance and Conceptual Art into literary production. “All art aspires to the condition of music,” Walter Pater wrote well more than a century ago. If art (meaning literature as well as visual art) aspires to any universal condition today, textuality may be that condition.
At the same time as it juxtaposes contemporary artists and poets, “Under Erasure” also acknowledges the many precedents for such dialogues, especially in and around the history of concrete poetry. In the past, text art and concrete poetry have sometimes intermingled, sometimes developed in parallel directions and sometimes been separated by mutual suspicion, by a need to take an exclusionary stance. As our understanding of these histories deepens, and as boundaries between mediums, and stylistic modes within those mediums, increasingly break down, it has become more common for scholars to take an inclusive approach when it comes to art and literature. We’ve come a very long way from the time when literary critic Harold Bloom could refuse to recognize John Ashbery’s poem “Europe” as a poem because its inspiration came from “De Kooning and Kline, Webern and Cage.”12
It should be noted that outside of Western culture, such divisions and distinctions are far less prevalent. One needs only look at the history of Chinese art in which the distinction between painting and poetry, between the painter and the poet, is often nonexistent.
This is not the first time that poets and artists have been invited to exhibit in an art gallery. In early 2001, Charles Bernstein and Jay Sanders curated an exhibition titled “Poetry Plastique” at Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York. Among the 30 or so participants in this groundbreaking show were three who are also in “Under Erasure”: Bernstein, Tom Phillips and Mira Schor. One aim of “Poetry Plastique” was to focus on works (mostly by poets, but in some cases by artists working with language or in collaboration with poets) that required being exhibited in a gallery space to be fully understood. Also important to the curators was the act of bringing the work of poets into the realm of the art gallery. As Bernstein and Sanders explained in their catalogue essay:
“To the curators of this exhibition, mounting such a show in a commercial New York gallery is an important component. It annexes these poets and their works into the context of contemporary art, and generally restates the importance of poetry in the realm of the visual arts. In organizing and presenting these works, we have taken every measure to acknowledge them as equally compelling as any grouping of artworks.” 13
It is certainly the contention of “Under Erasure” that the works of the poets in the show and the works of the artists are “equally compelling.” There have, of course, been many exhibitions devoted to the relations between artists and writers, from “In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O’Hara and American Art” at LA MOCA in 1999 to the recent “Philip Guston and the Poets” at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. In contrast to those exhibitions, “Under Erasure,” like “Poetry Plastique” before it, does not posit the inclusion of poetry on any biographical relationship between artists and poets; instead, poetry—in this case, poetry that emphasizes its typographic and alphabetic qualities—is presented as an autonomous entity. This doesn’t mean that the very real differences between a painting and a poem, even an erasure poem, should be ignored. Rather, that a visually oriented work by a poet, in whatever form it might take, can operate in the same realm as visual art. While not represented in this exhibition, the activities of the Lettrists in France, Weiner Gruppe in Austria, Poesia Visiva in Italy, Brazilian concrete poetry, and all the other countless migrants between the open-border realms of art and poetry, are deeply relevant to “Under Erasure.”
Another distinction to be considered is between erasure as literary device and as political statement. In a 2010 article on the history of redaction, Michael G. Powell comments on a 1924 poem by Man Ray, which is plausibly an early use of redaction: “While Man Ray may have objected to the workings of the American or European governments in his time, his poem was not a critique of government secrecy or censorship policies. It was, instead, a reflection on the nature of writing and the power of the text.” 14
An obvious but crucial point: in order for an act of erasure to occur there must be something to erase. Whether it is a question of crossing-out, redaction, excision or over-writing to the point of illegibility, there must always be some preexisting mark for the eraser to engage. It’s impossible to erase ex nihilo. One consequence of this necessary condition of posteriority is that some kind of dialogue must happen between present and past. What came before must be acknowledged, if only as a target of assassination.
A second point, perhaps so obvious that it doesn’t seem worth dwelling on: in the practice of erasure, especially literary erasure, the “something” that gets erased is rarely made by the person who is doing the erasing. Another way of putting this is to say that erasure almost always involves appropriation. First you appropriate, then you erase what you have appropriated.
Why does it seem more effective, more significant, to erase someone else’s words or someone else’s art? When, in 1953, Robert Rauschenberg made what is arguably the inaugural work of erasure art, Erased De Kooning Drawing, the fact that he wasn’t the author of the drawing was crucial. As he later told Calvin Tomkins, before acquiring a drawing from De Kooning and embarking on its erasure, he had first tried to erase one of his own drawings:
“It didn’t work, because that was only fifty percent of what I wanted to get. I had to start with something that was 100 percent art, which mine might not be, but his work definitely was.” 15
Every generation inherits a culture, a mess of artifacts, just as every speaker in a language must enter into that existing language. Erasure is one way of dealing with such impositions. It’s perhaps no accident that the rise of artistic erasure happened as art and literature were coming to terms with the end of modernism. The act of a young artist attempting to rub out a drawing by a revered master or of a not-so-young poet-turned-artist/curator blacking out a canonical text of modern poetry were not so much acts of Oedipal vandalism as they were acknowledgements that henceforth the tasks of poetry and painting would involve the manipulation of existing material produced by the surrounding society. As Joshua Neustein describes his practice of erased drawings: “My premise is that I don’t change anything, I just move it or shift it around” 16 or, in the phrase that Marjorie Perloff has used to characterize conceptual writing: “moving information.” 17
Seen from this perspective, such acts of erasure are similar to the ancient practice of scraping away existing texts written on sheets of papyrus or parchment or simply writing over them in order to inscribe a new text. In other words, every erasure is a kind of palimpsest. Yet there is a fundamental difference between palimpsestic overwriting and artistic erasure. While the medieval scribes who reused Classical manuscripts for the transcription of Christian texts were not concerned with the content of the text-to-be-erased, or only to the extent that it was of lesser value than the text they were replacing it with—this is rarely the case with an artist who paints over a word or a writer who attacks a printed page with White Out or a collective that savagely annotates some objectionable document—that it was a De Kooning drawing he was trying to erase mattered to Rauschenberg, just as it mattered to Broodthaers that it was Mallarmé’s famous poem he was blacking out and not some random scattering of words. A similar dyanamic is at play when Derrida crosses out a foundational term of metaphysics.
And yet, for all its kinship with critique and iconoclasm, erasure is not simply a form of negation. Jasper Johns, who has periodically crossed out his own signature or parts of a composition, once referred to Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning Drawing as an “additive subtraction.” In
UndoingArt (Quodlibet Elements, 2017), a recent book of dialogues with Michel Delville, Mary Ann Caws likens erasure to sculpture, describing the erasure artist as someone who is engaged in “chipping off bits of textual or visual materials in order to give shape to new semiotic patterns.” 18 Poet Lyn Hejinian’s description of how she composed her book The Fatalist also stresses the process of removal:
“Over the course of exactly one year, I saved (in a single computer file) everything that I wrote to anybody: notes to students about their writing, or comments on dissertation chapters, letters to friends, e-messages. No matter how trivial, I saved it. And then about eight months into the saving I went back and, starting at the top of that file with the earliest material, I began sculpting away stuff that just wasn’t going to make anything useful as poetry.” 19
If erasure in all its forms now appears to so many artists and writers as an irresistible tool, it may have something to do with the fact that we live in an era when it is easier than ever to make documents and data and history disappear. Does it also reflect the larger fact that so much of the planet’s life and matter is under immediate threat of vanishing? The fact that recycling is taking on an ever more urgent ethical dimension? The fact that hands-on analog contact with matière in all its resistant and abiding beauty feels like a daily necessity? The fact that the claims of enthroned privilege and theocratic authority cry out more than ever to be slashed into doubt? The ubiquity of “additive subtraction” has many causes. If some of them remain obscure, it’s blindingly clear that putting something under erasure isn’t about making it disappear. Just the opposite. As one of the artists represented in this exhibition, Jean-Michel Basquiat, put it:
I cross out words so you will see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.“
1. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Translator’s Preface, in Jacques Derrida,
of Grammatology, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and
London, 1976, p. xiv.
2. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,Translator’s Preface, in Jacques Derrida,
of Grammatology, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and
London, 1976, p. xv.
3. Roland Barthes, “Cy Twombly: Works on Paper,” The Responsibity
of Forms, Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York, 1985 (1979), p158.
4. James Chad Hanna, “Painting for Glory: Malcolm Morley on the
World War II Origins of His High-Flying Art,” artinfo.com (Artinfo),
1 April 2011.
5. Cf. Travis Macdonald, “A Brief History of Erasure Poetics,” Jacket 2,
6. Janet Holmes in Andrew David King, “The Weights of What’s
Left [Out]: Six Contemporary Erasurists on their Craft,”
thekenyonreview.org, Nov. 6, 2012
7. Srikanth Reddy in Andrew David King, “The Weights of What’s
Left [Out]: Six Contemporary Erasurists on their Craft,”
thekenyonreview.org, Nov. 6, 2012.
8. Paul Laster, Jenny Holzer Interview, timeout.com, Sept. 8, 2014.
9. M. NourbeSe Philip in Rachel Stone, “The Trump-Era Boom
in Erasure Poetry,” The New Republic, Oct. 23, 2017.
10. “On Erasure: Quotes from Robin Coste Lewis’s Lecture
‘The Race Within Erasure,’” www.de-canon.com, May 9, 2017.
11. Rachel Stone, “The Trump-Era Boom in Erasure Poetry,”
The New Republic, Oct. 23, 2017.
12. Harold Bloom, Figures of Capable Imagination, New York,
Seabury Press, 1976, p. 174.
13. Charles Bernstein and Jay Sanders, “Introduction,” Poetry Plastique,
Marianne Boesky Gallery & Granary Books, New York, 2001, p. 11.
14. Michel G. Powell, “Blacked Out,” The Believer, Jun. 2010, p.27.
15. Quoted in Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters
of the Avant-Garde, New York, Penguin Books, 1968, p. 87.
16. Catherine Craft, “A Conversation with Joshua Neustein,”
17. Marjorie Perloff, “Moving Information: on Kenneth Goldsmith’s
The Weather,” marjorieperloff.com, originally published in
Open Letter, 2005.
18. Mary Ann Caws and Michel Delville, Undoing Art, Quodlibet
Elements, Macerata, 2017, p.18.
19. Quoted in “I am suddenly aware that phrases happen: Lyn Hejinian
at Kelly Writer’s House,” Feb. 22, 2005, jacket2.org.