Those whose art-world memory goes back to the 1950s and 1960s must recall, as I still do, what noisy pro-and-con responses the sound of de Kooning's name would trigger during the heated critical battles of those decades. One big issue was the question of aesthetic good and bad, right and wrong, led mainly by Clement Greenberg, who, while inevitably recognizing, as who could not, the master's world-class genius, began to find in the 1960s that the cutting edge of painting's future depended for its very life on getting out of the painterly muck and mire that had become synonymous with the de Kooning look. Impalpable color stained into the very weave of the canvas was to conquer lather and froth. Another big issue was the myth of "Action Painting," a lofty moral territory mapped out by Harold Rosenberg with de Kooning at center stage as the perfect model of an exalted spontaneity of muscle and emotion. Yet if one was skeptical, as many were, about the paint-on-canvas reality of such macho myths, de Kooning might be the first to be deflated along with such rhetorical heroism. And of course, there was the question of generation. By the 1950s, the huge impact and titanic authority of de Kooning]'s achievement was such that he became a chef d'école, worshiped and imitated with varying degrees of slavishness or originality by dozens of younger artists who were nourished for years, even decades, by his turbulent work. If one wanted something totally young, new, and adventurous, de Kooning's mighty presence was as burdensome as, say, Picasso's was to his own juniors. For many ambitious artists, success depended on the degree to which they had managed to dethrone de Kooning.
Rauschenberg was one of the first to attempt to get de Kooning out of his system, and he did so in unexpectedly literal and witty ways. Already in 1953, he talked the master into giving him one of his drawings which he, in turn, would erase in an impudent act of artistic patricide, with which he tried, as he later explained, "to purge myself of my teaching." And four years later, in 1957, he struck again, this time making a painting, Factum I, that bore the earmarks of de Kooning's signature style with the requisite drippings, slather, and whirlwind speed, and then exactly replicated it in Factum II, proving that genuine spontaneity and accident could be counterfeited both the first and second time round. A different kind of attack was mounted in the same decade by such other up-and-coming artists as Johns and Stella, who challenged de Kooning's language of impulse by wiping their own compositional slates clean, replacing ragged lunges and thrusts with pre-plotted geometries of stripe, rectangle, and circle, and undoing the master's gorgeous chromatic collisions with completely name-