New York

J. S. G. Boggs

Vrej Baghoomian Gallery

Post-Modern celebrations aside, money remains the art world’s premiere scandal and original sin. Money puts the “world” in the “art world” and makes it circulate in time with the real world. But references to this fact in artworks, when not overly obvious, tend merely to stimulate palates with a soupçon of toxicity.

J. S. G. Boggs’ deep fascination not only with the artisanal beauty of currency, but with the very foundations of value, sidesteps the dilemma. In what he calls “transactions,” Boggs “spends” his painstakingly rendered, exact-size drawings of paper currency, offering them in exchange for goods and services—a plane ticket or hotel accommodations, for instance. This inevitably entails renegotiation (with the travel agent or hotel manager) of the phantasmagoric underpinnings of worth. To ensure this effect, each transaction is carried out according to self-imposed rules: Boggs is careful to point out that the drawing, always humorously distinguishable from its model by flourishes like “This Note Is Legal Art For All Those Who Agree, See?,” though clearly valuable, is not legal tender. He has “arbitrarily” assigned each bill the price of its face value, and, if it is accepted, a receipt and change in real money are then expected in return as part of the transaction’s documentation. Boggs remains silent about the event for 24 hours. Afterward, collectors interested in purchasing the spent drawing are, for a fee, given leads as to its whereabouts.

In the current show, entitled “Transactions and Controversial Currencies,” the majority of the pieces involve limited edition prints of drawings, receipts, and real change from the transactions, variously framed. This shift from drawings to prints represents a turn from an investigation of value as constituted by manual labor to the more vertiginous realm of value as intellectual property. It is a move that may well attract more attention from the U.S. Treasury’s Secret Service: as recently as March of 1991, 18 of Boggs’ money drawings were confiscated from a gallery in Wyoming. He is already notorious in London, where, after his work was seized from the Young Unknowns Gallery in 1986, he was arrested and charged with forgery and counterfeiting, only to be acquitted on all counts.

So, as if first questions of value weren’t enough, a daunting internal resonance has quickly built up within Boggs’ project. Grand Hotel X 3, 1991, for example, consists of objects (a room key, a bill, a robe, money prints, change) from a transaction enacted during Boggs’ recent unsuccessful attempt to reclaim the money drawings confiscated by the Secret Service. But by enfolding Boggs’ general interrogation of the ways in which people conspire in determinations of worth, the piece not only transcends mere self-reflexivity, it obliquely addresses the reality of state-enforced definitions of exchange value. My personal favorite, only in part because it recalls the way Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and other Abstract Expressionists exchanged paintings for rent with shrewd landlords, is the series of six framed notes, documenting Boggs’ expenditure of his bills for rent from June through November, 1991. (It includes a card from the real estate agency with “Thank you” written across it.)

The American William Harnett, among others, incited the confiscatory suspicions of the Secret Service for his trompe l’oeil paintings of paper currency during the 1880s. Picasso, Duchamp, and Edward Kienholz, to name a few, engaged in clever forms of barter art in the 20th century. Boggs goes further than these predecessors by collapsing money and art in a way that proves their inextricability. It is a project that threatens to go to the very heart of America’s great pyramid hustle of value—one underwritten, of course, by no one.

Thad Ziolkowski