October 25, 2014

Show Me the Money

Andy Warhol often professed his great love for money, once famously stating, "Making money is art." In 1962, he immortalized the object of his affection in electric-colored screen prints, portraits of the almighty dollar that were among the first examples of Pop art.

Warhol is among 29 artists who use currency as subject or medium in "$how Me the Money: The Dollar as Art," opening April 2 at the Naples Museum of Art. The curator of this provocative exhibition dedicated to the world's most recognizable image is, appropriately, the fine arts director at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C., Mary Anne Goley.

Goley cites the decline of the stock market, the debut of the euro, the rise of electronic technology for conducting transactions, and a pressing need to deflect counterfeiters as factors that make money an appealing subject for artists today. But the steadfast ties between art and commerce, our inescapable consumer society, and the ubiquity of U.S. currency around the globe make the dollar's imagery and symbolism an evergreen theme attractive to both artists and museum audiences. As Goley notes, "Everybody's interested in money."

The show spans more than four decades, and includes a lithograph of Roy Lichtenstein's 1956 image of a $10 bill considered by many to be the first Pop work ever created. Also featured is West Coast Pop artist Robert Dowd, who began painting dollar bills the same year as Warhol and created more than 100 images of paper money between 1962 and 1968 in a style Goley compares to that of the trompe l'oeil painters of the 19th century. (In the 1890s, the Secret Service, responsible for enforcing counterfeit laws, confiscated two of those artists' very realistic paintings of money.)

Two young American artists, San Francisco's Ray Beldner and Miami-based Steven Gagnon, evoke connections between patriotism, politics and money in their respective works. Both have created double-fisted symbols of the American way with flags whose stripes are composed of repeated images of dollar bills.

Vienna-based Djawid Borower focuses on the heads of statesmen found on dollar bills. His large-scale portraits include George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Ulysses S. Grant and Andrew Jackson. Adam Leventhal silk-screens images of currency onto metal sheets with which he creates sculptures of human figures. French artist Arman casts dollars in polyurethane to create his "Venus aux Dollars," a bust of a naked woman wrapped in dollars.

Other artists make their works with real money, cutting or ripping bills up and stitching, gluing, or weaving them together to create surprising new forms, including Zoe Morrow's woven baskets and Oriane Stender's delicate miniature tapestries. Robin Clark changes the look of dollars by scraping away the imagery on a bill, outlining some details and leaving only shadows of others. In a 1996 work whose title "Ruin" now has an eerie ring, Mel Chin created a spectral vision of the New York skyline on a $5 bill stripped of its original ink.

According to Goley, the Federal Reserve Board does not take a position on artists' defacement of bills in their studios. "This is artwork," she stresses. Nonetheless, Barton L. Benes undoubtedly took a more politically correct approach when he used shredded currency deemed unfit for circulation, given to him in 1982 by the Reserve, to create his fanciful, tribal-looking objects, bird nests and scepters, executed by a professional weaver.

"$how Me the Money," which includes about 40 works, is a broad exploration of cash and its meaning, connecting very diverse artists through its universal theme. "It's all about money," Goley says with a laugh.

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