Art, Poetry and Erasure

For a long time, art was seen as something that was creative by definition: writing a poem or painting a picture involved the invention of something more or less new. With Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, Francis Picabia’s machine drawings, and Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup cans, the 20th century ushered in a radical challenge to the seemingly incontestable equation “art = creativity.” Around the same time, writers also began to experiment with questions of originality, exploring how transplanting an object or text from one context to another could significantly change its meaning. From the Dada poets’ collages of “found language” to William Burroughs’ and Brion Gysin’s cut-up methods, conceptual and procedural techniques started to supplant direct expression and lyrical inspiration. 

The next logical question for artists to ask was this: what happens when you don’t just reproduce, but also subtract at the same time? In the mid-20th century, poets and artists started taking existing texts and images and then redacting and erasing them to form new ones. These procedures, known as erasure practices, focus on the potential symbolism of such a gesture — on what erasing someone’s lines or words could say. 

In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg exhibited a blank sheet of paper on a conventional mount with a thin gold frame. A small inscription at the bottom bore the title: “Erased de Kooning Drawing.” Rauschenberg had approached de Kooning directly, who had reluctantly agreed to give his fellow artist a valuable pencil drawing. Rauschenberg set about it with an eraser, and the result now hangs in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A decade later, the British artist Tom Phillips began working on his “Humument” project, a project that would take 50 years to complete. After stumbling across a little-known Victorian novel, “A Human Document” by W. H. Mallock, Phillips began to alter the book, drawing, painting and collaging over the pages, so that most of the original work was concealed, with just certain words showing through. Sitting at the intersection between visual art and poetry, and thus typifying the intergeneric nature of most erasure practices, Phillips’s project prefigured the movement now known as erasure poetry. 

Ronald Johnson, “Radi os” (1977)

The founder of this movement is generally considered to be the American poet Ronald Johnson. In his seminal work “Radi os” (1977), he redacted John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” excising all references to God and Satan so that only the elemental forces of the natural world remain. The result is not just a radical retelling of the fall of man; the literary technique itself — the deletion and revision of text — echoes how the decline of Western religion and the rise of science and evolutionary theory have revised and transformed our conception of human history. As the critic and erasure poet Travis Macdonald suggests, Milton set out to “‘make visible’ the world, by creation or addition,” whereas Johnson’s erasure “consists of reversing this work; revealing the world, instead, through the subtraction of that very same verse.” 

Since these early examples, erasure practices have proliferated and source texts now encompass everything from the Bible to Donald Trump’s political speeches. Many of the literary greats have undergone the erasure treatment: Shakespeare (Jen Bervin, “Nets,” 2004), Emily Dickinson (Janet Holmes, “The ms of my kin,” 2009) and Marcel Proust (Jérémie Bennequin, “ommage,” 2008-2018), to name just three. In the last example, the French conceptual artist took on the painstaking process of rubbing out “In Search of Lost Time,” a page a day — thus reprising Proust’s original theme of time in a performance work that took ten years to complete. 

Jérémie Bennequin, “Ommage.” ©  Jérémie Bennequin. 

In recent years, these techniques have been put to increasingly political ends, with writers examining the notion of erasure on a thematic level, along with its adjacent motifs of loss, censorship, and silence. In 2008, the Canadian poet M. NourbeSe Philip published a book-length erasure poem, “Zong!,” based on a legal document from an 18th-century court case, “Gregson v Gilbert.” The case involved an insurance claim made by a slave-trading syndicate for the loss of 130 slaves who were thrown overboard from one of their ships, likely in the hope that the insurance pay-out would bring financial gain. Philip’s work highlights the unsettling contrast between the document’s dispassionate legalese and the violence of the massacre it describes. In this context, the poem’s erasure techniques acquire a symbolic quality, echoing the arbitrary loss of life and underscoring how the faceless court ruling effectively effaces the deceased’s voices from history. 

In a similar vein, Yedda Morrison’s “Darkness” (2012) is an erasure of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1899). While Conrad’s novel has been widely criticized for its colonialist mythology and dehumanized representation of African people, in Morrison’s version, she “whites out” all references to human civilization — leaving only the words and passages from Conrad’s novella that evoke the natural world. Without communicating directly, Morrison demonstrates how the very act of erasure has an expressive force. A message is delivered not through the words themselves, but through the intersection of the original text, with its own particular historical and cultural context, and then its subsequent displacement and revision.  

The political dimension of more recent erasure poems is apparent from the nature of the texts revised: the 9/11 Commission Report (Travis Macdonald, “The O Mission Repo,” 2008); the testimonies of Abu Ghraib detainees (Nick Flynn, “The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands,” 2011); Donald Trump’s inaugural speech (Jerrod Schwartz, “Inaugural Speech – Erasure,” 2017); and the US Declaration of Independence (Tracy K Smith, “Wade in the Water,” 2018). 

Page 53 of the Redacted Mueller Report

In the visual arts, meanwhile, Jenny Holzer has been mining the US National Security Archive, digging out military and intelligence documents now available through the Freedom of Information Act. In her “Redaction Paintings” series, she exhibited the most striking of her discoveries as enlarged silkscreen paintings, thus forcing these once confidential documents into the most public of forums. Between the heavily redacted lines, the viewer is confronted with a visually arresting portrait of American political power and its abuses. While not an erasure practice in its most straightforward sense, Holzer’s project nonetheless asks the same questions as many of the writers and artists described here. Their work is interested in the interplay between voice and power, testimony and censorship, and about what is hidden and what is revealed. Although the basic idea behind erasure practices is very simple, its applications are numerous, and it already constitutes a rich and important tradition. 

Article published in Modern Painters (Summer 2019).