It’s surprising, at least to me, that the critical responses to Richard Prince’s “rubber band paintings” haven’t yet mentioned an important precedent: Sigmar Polke’s Gummibandbild Dürer-Hase (Rubberband Dürer Hare) from 1970. In the late 1960s, Polke, fresh out of the Düsseldorf Art Academy, made several works parodying Dürer’s 1502 watercolor, which had long been a ubiquitous, clichéd image in Germany. In 1968, Polke painted a crude sketch of the hare, along with Dürer’s monogram, onto a rectangle of commercially printed fabric. The rubber band piece of two years later features pins stuck into a piece of taut blue fabric. When rubberbands are stretched between the pins, the result is an outline of Dürer’s hare and his A.D. monogram. Polke’s rubberband experiment carries a do-it-yourself, paint-by-numbers aura, in contrast to Richard Prince’s more fixed approach (he staples the rubber bands to the support, and matches them to painted lines). As far as I know, Polke only made one rubber-band painting. This was an artist amazingly rich in new ideas; he made his point and moved on. Polke also no doubt realized that to turn his invention into a formula would rob it of any wit and subversive impact.
More on Polke & Prince (June 12, 2012):
Among the responses to this entry, several artists have alerted me to other interesting rubber-band works. Cheryl Donegan points out that both Polke and Prince were beaten to the punch by the protean Dieter Roth, who made peg-board and rubber-band wall reliefs in the early 1960s. One of them was shown in a group show at Luhring Augustine in 2009. Nancy Douthey cites Joe Zucker’s Rubberband Man of 1990, shown at Texas Gallery in Houston in 1993. Sharon Butler devotes the June 5, 2012, entry on her blog Two Coats of Paint to the subject, helpfully citing various artists who have used rubber bands. Butler thinks that Polke’s Hare is merely an “interesting footnote” in the context of discussing Prince’s new rubberband paintings, unless Prince was intentionally referencing it. I have no idea if Prince had the older work in mind. What struck me was the contrast between Polke’s succinct statement and Prince’s choice to exploit rubber bands for an entire stylistically consistent show. There’s nothing wrong with mounting stylistically consistent shows—practically every artist has created consistent bodies of work, even Polke—it’s just that Polke’s rubber-band version of Durer, precisely because of its singularity, looks to me like a decisive artistic statement, whereas Prince’s works, whatever their qualities, involve developing an artistic discovery (or rediscovery?) into a method; he commodifies his process. Last but not least, poet Mary Jo Bang—whose book The Eye Like a Strange Balloon includes a number of marvelous poems inspired by Polke paintings—is less interested in the rubber bands than in their “newspaper underpinning.” She writes: “That yellowed newsprint took [Roberta] Smith to Jasper Johns but it takes me all the way back to Braque’s, Gris’s, and Picasso’s cubist collages.” Bang’s larger point is that Prince’s works are too multi-faceted to be dismissed as derivative because of their resemblance to Polke, Richard Tuttle or whomever.