The eloquence of absence:

omission, extraction and invisibility in contemporary art

Additive Subtraction

Robert Rauschenberg: Erased De Kooning Drawing

Robert Rauschenberg, whose White Paintings provided the first definitively blank canvas, is equally well known for another landmark depiction of absence: Erased De Kooning Drawing (1953, above).

Rauschenberg's piece sets out to redefine art through a very conscious negation of the work of an illustrious forebear.

Yet he was also a fervent admirer of De Kooning, and one of the various paradoxes inherent in the work is the fact that the older artist's presence, so conspicuous in the title, is ultimately rendered indelible.

Rauschenberg's creation of image by removing, rather than adding marks - a strategy famously described by Jasper Johns as "additive subtraction" - attests to the power of absence when specifically associated with a former state; an act that can never be viewed entirely as a destruction or negation, but rather as a kind of 'reverse' palimpsest in which concatenations of removal flicker across nominally blank surfaces.

Since 1953, many artists have reprised Rauschenberg's original act of erasure, imbuing it with additional nuance engendered, primarily, by the issue of what is being erased, as well as the circumstances under which such removal is performed.


Tom Friedman

Tom Friedman

Tom Friedman's practice in general is very much concerned with materials: shaping, for example, everyday objects such as toothpicks and plastic cups into spectacularly complex artworks that wittily undermine the ordinariness of the materials involved. His occasional excursions into the realm of the immaterial possess, therefore, a certain ambivalence. What place does the entirely unseen hold in such a practice?

Although works such as Erased 'Playboy' Centerfold (1992) exist, on one level, as a characteristically cheeky riff on established cultural artefacts (in this case, of course, Robert Rauschenberg's Erased De Kooning Drawing) its intrinsic comedy masks a more serious questioning of the efficacy of absence as an artistic trope.

The erotic, particularly in the male mind, is powerfully linked to the visual, and by deleting an image intended to titillate, Friedman suggests that his intervention fails entirely as an example of "additive subtraction", resulting, instead, in a frustrating void.

It's also possible, of course, to read Friedman's work very differently: as a politicised, pro-feminist obliteration of a genre of image many women find regressive and offensive. But political correctness is hardly a trait with which Friedman is identified, and it's a reading that frankly seems unlikely.

We're left then, with the question as to whether a sexually suggestive image can gain in intensity by being suggested rather than shown.

The answer, of course, will vary according to the viewer, but the likelihood is that - particularly for the enthusiastic consumer of 'real' Playboy centrefolds and their ilk - Friedman's obliterated centrefold can only be perceived as an impasse rather than a revelation.

It's an observation that we're forced to conclude could equally apply to the general perception of immaterial art itself.

(For more work by Friedman, see also Invisible Artworks and The Emptied Canvas).


Christian Capurro

Christian Capurro

At the centre of Australian artist Christian Capurro's project Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette (1999 - 2007), lies an undertaking that took 250 people five years to complete: the erasure, by hand, of a 246 page issue of 'Vogue Hommes' (September 1986, #92 (with Sylvester Stallone cover), (1999 - 2004; above and below).

Christian Capurro

Although comparisons with Rauschenberg's erasure are, again, absolutely inevitable, Capurro's work far more specifically highlights the labour-intensivity of the task and performative aspects of its long completion.

A corollary to the work, for instance, features pencilled descriptions by each participant of the time spent deleting each page, as well as the hourly rates and dollar value assigned to the labour (calculated as a percentage of their salaries at the time).

Procedure, as much as the finished object, is fundamental to Capurro's coordinated erasure of fashion editorial, the easy allure of which is literally laid bare.

Christian Capurro

The 1999-2010 piece A vacant bazaar (provisional legend) (above), is similar in conception to September 1986....

Consisting of nine almost completely erased magazines, all but one contains the vestiges of an identical advertising image.

These are not copies of the same magazine, however, but completely different publications which happen to share the same ad.

In a work that therefore entails nine variations of absence, the mounds of inky-rubber fragments collected during each erasure are included as testimony to former presences.


Textual erasure: editing absence

Marcel Broodthaers

Marcel Broodthaers, Mallarmé

By converting French poet Stéphane Mallarmé's 1887 proto-modernist work Un Coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance) into a series of abstract images, Marcel Broodthaers made good his contention that "Mallarmé is at the source of modern art.... He unwittingly invented modern space."

The Dutch artist's 1969 appropriation of the verses replaced text with solid black bars corresponding to the original point sizes, and substituted the word 'Poème' on the title page with the word 'Image'.


Terry Atkinson & Michael Baldwin - Art & Language

Inspired by Lewis Carroll's 1874 'nonsense' poem, 'The Hunting of the Snark', Art & Language's series of cartographic interventions reprise the 'perfect and absolute blank' non-map used by Carroll's hunting party to navigate the oceans.

In works such as Map of a thirty-six square mile surface area of the Pacific Ocean west of Oahu, (1967, below) the extraction of all markings other than location presents newly uncharted territories.

Art & Language: map

By contrast, the exhaustively titled


lists everything it doesn't show, reducing much of the geography of North America to a contextless flurry of names.

The only two areas depicted and labelled - Iowa and Kentucky - are physically isolated, set metaphorically adrift in a sea of geographical erasure.

Art & Language: to not indicate...

(For more work by Art & Language, see also Into Thin Air and The Emptied Canvas).


Joseph Kosuth

Joseph Kosuth: Nothing

With his 1968 suite of works 10 Definitions of Nothing - consisting, appropriately, of typographic reproductions of different dictionary definitions of 'nothing' - Kosuth underlined the paradoxical profusion inherent in nothingness itself.

Joseph Kosuth: Nothing

Exemplified, in this case, by the sheer number of words required to define that which is not, as well as the varying approaches to its iteration, 10 Definitions... asserts a penchant for self-negating wordplay that continues to define the artist's work today.


Kosuth's 1986 Zero & Not takes a different approach to the absence / presence dichotomy via a reflection on the work and influence of Sigmund Freud (detail below).

Reproductions of Freudian texts are struck through with black lines, but remain more or less legible. Attesting not only to the ineradicable (although frequently contested) legacy of the 'founder' of psychoanalysis, the piece also refers to his premises concerning the very real presence of 'hidden' or unconscious aspects of our psyche.

Joseph Kosuth: Zero & Not

Glenn Ligon

Glenn Ligon: We're Black and Strong (I)

At the centre of Ligon's We're Black and Strong (I) (1996) lies a white banner. Its clarity not only appears to overwhelm the indistinct outlines of the protesters carrying it, but it also represents a literal blank space from which Ligon has erased the words that are used, instead, as his work's title.

The image is gleaned from a documentary photograph of the polemical 1995 rally, 'The Million Man March'.

Organised by the political group the Nation of Islam, women were implicitly excluded and asked instead to take a day off work - a so-called 'Day of Absence', which Ligon also adopted as the title for the series of works to which this piece belongs.

Ligon's erasure of the banner's wording - an enforced textual absence - echoes the non-visibility of women (and unlikely attendance of gay men due to the Nation of Islam's extreme homophobia) at the event.

The resultant space at the centre of the image is simultaneously a void and a place of non-definition, figuratively expressing Ligon's conflicted responses to the gathering as both an inspiring show of strength and arena of exclusion and troubling machismo.


Benoît Maire

Benoît Maire

The philosophical conundrum whereby absence can only be referred to as a kind of presence is often predicated in the work of French artist Benoît Maire.

Such a conundrum becomes even more complex with regard to text that is excised or revised through the conventions of editorial mark-up; a system of signage which effects deletion through its very presence.

Maire's Lamia, Cancelled lines following II-81 (2007), exactly reproduces the pen strokes with which the English Romantic poet Keats excised a substantial passage from his 1884 poem.

Recording an act of erasure intended to enhance the work's artistry, Keats' gesture, like all such editing, instigates removal as an essential aspect of creative completion.

While Keats' revision ensured that the poem would be read in its present form, the visible lines of his correction hint forever at a tantalising absence, and do so - unlike the wholly erased images discussed above - through a commanding visual presence.


Olve Sande

Olve Sande

The paradoxes inherent to Benoît Maire's piece are similarly (although arguably, even more successfully) explored by Norwegian artist Olve Sande.

The images in his series The Fire Sermon I-III (2011; above and below) resemble spare abstractions, but in fact consist of the annotations and revisions made by Ezra Pound to T.S. Eliot's modernist literary masterpiece, The Waste Land.

With the underlying text removed as intended, the graphic mark-up takes on a life of its own. Visually granted new context as an (appropriately) modernist-inflected drawing, it also continues to represent the fragments of Eliot's poem made inaccessible by the lines themselves.

Olve Sande

Daniel Lefcourt

Daniel Lefcourt

Looking less like erasures than imposing riffs on a minimalist monochrome, the works in Daniel Lefcourt's series Breach of Contract (2006) nevertheless exist both as censure and censorship.

Referring to newspaper reports of a political scandal involving an alleged misuse of funds, Lefcourt's works echo the dense blocks of text, photos and captions through which the case was made public.

The black slats and lines speak of obfuscation and concealment; 'dark deeds' uncovered through journalistic investigation. As the artist himself has stated, "If there is meaning provided by these artworks it is only in that they are signs of an absence - they are evidence of that which has been displaced, negated, substituted or denied."

Daniel Lefcourt

Joseph Havel

Joseph Havel

Joseph Havel's A Void turns French author Georges Perec's cult novel of the same name (at least in its translated version, the original title being La Disparition) into a site of literal disappearance.

Perec's famous work, which was written entirely without the letter 'e', grapples with issues of mourning and displacement through the suppression of the most commonly used letter in the alphabet.

Havel's intervention converts figurative meaning into a physical representation of loss by cutting away the text from Perec's work except for, on page 101, the single word and exclamation mark 'No!'


Other absences: omissions, extractions and removals

Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono, white chess set

By removing the colour black from her All White Chess Set (1966, above), Yoko Ono negates the competitive element and turns the game into one which, if it is to be played at all, requires mutual negotiation and lateral thinking. (A later version of the work was titled 'Play it by trust', more fully underlining such processes of cooperation and collaboration).

A game based on an approximation of warfare becomes, in the words of Los Angeles art critic Shana Nys Dambrot, "a visceral reminder that it's impossible to fight an enemy who is indistinguishable from yourself."


Cory Arcangel

Cory Arcangel Super Mario Movie

New York artist Cory Arcangel is well-known for playful interventions that both refer to and utilise the digital technologies that have rapidly become part of our lives.

His early work Super Mario Movie (2005, above) strips the famous Nintendo game of everything but its blue-sky background and fluffy, cartoon-like clouds, transforming a visual space associated with frenetic action into a tranquil scene of reflection and repose.

Cory Arcangel Bruce Springsteen

Glockenspiel Accompaniment to Bruce Springsteen's 'Born to Run' (left) sees the artist humorously seek to rectify what he considers an existing omission: a lack of continual glockenspiel percussion in the famous album.

The result - an LP designed to be played in synch with the Springsteen classic - contains nothing but the 'missing' percussion; a soundtrack which, if played alone, elliptically points to the absent tracks it is intended to augment.


Jack Strange

Jack Strange

UK artist Jack Strange elicits complex skeins of meaning from apparently inconsequential minutiae, often playing on the theme of presence and absence by investigating the space between virtual realities and the physicality of objects themselves.

Into A Puff of Virtual Smoke (2008, above) beautifully illustrates the beguilingly transformational nature of Strange's practice. Taking the tiny, animated puff of smoke produced whenever icons are removed from a Macintosh computer's 'dock', Strange recontextualises the sequence by displaying it on an otherwise empty monitor.

Occasionally flickering into view, the graphic utilises a universally acknowledged visual short-hand for disappearance that can trace its origin far beyond the digital era to comic books and animated movies: a signifier that succinctly indicates absence by its very presence.


Latifa Echakch

Latifa Echakch: frames

French-Moroccan artist Latifa Echackch creates works that question and compare the historical and cultural constructions relating to her heritage.

Her best-known works, 'Frames' (above), consist of Islamic prayer mats that are systematically unravelled until only a surrounding fringe is left.

While the resulting voids are, as the title of the works suggests, forever framed and contextualised by our knowledge of the objects' cultural and spiritual significance, the stripped-down rugs exist as a newly negotiable space defined purely by geometric borders, as well as confusing the demarcation between holy and unholy ground.


Loris Gréaud

Loris Greaud - celador candy

Perhaps unsurprisingly for an artist whose work so consistently invokes a multitude of stimuli, the importance to Gréaud of the evocative power of the unseen is accompanied by emphasis on other sensory absences.

Celador candy - a gummy confectionery with absolutely no aroma or flavour (left) - was produced in conjunction with his Cellar Door project and branded with the slogan "A taste of illusion".

And a recent New York show, 'The Unplayed Notes' (2012) included a soundless 'soundtrack' by Lee Ranaldo, guitarist with the band Sonic Youth, who was recorded "thinking hard" about the most beautiful guitar solo ever played.


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