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BEAUX ARTS, BIG BUCKS : 'The Realm of the Coin,' at the Fullerton Museum Center, Examines the Dynamite Duo

April 22, 1993|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

Purists may sigh, but art and money have been a dynamite duo at least since Renaissance artists hungered to be taken under the wings of the Medici. Even Rembrandt, revered for the psychological depth of his paintings, had a shrewd awareness of the value of his art as a commodity for the thrifty burghers of the Netherlands.

Money began making cameo appearances in art centuries ago, in Western religious paintings and vanitas still lifes warning of the fleeting pleasures of earthly gains. But filthy lucre didn't take center stage in a big way until the go-go 1960s, when pop culture began giving high-minded abstraction a run for its . . . money.

"The Realm of the Coin: Money in Contemporary Art," at the Fullerton Museum Center through May 23, presents a sampling of money-related works by famous and little-known artists (mostly but not exclusively Americans) during the past 30 years.

The exhibition, organized by the Hofstra University Museum in New York, has a catchy theme (who isn't interested in money?) and enough good work by significant artists to warrant a visit. Still, major flaws keep the show from being the sock-o event it might have been.

The biggest disappointment is that--beyond bland generalizations about the socioeconomic picture of each decade--the exhibition has no overall point of view about its subject. It looks as though curator Barbara Coller simply tossed together works--some of them of little artistic merit--that happen to contain prominent images of money (or checks or a bank or wealthy-looking people).

The other big problem is that, in both the catalogue text and wall labels, Coller drastically oversimplifies--or misstates--key issues regarding artists' motives and beliefs. For example, one myth sustained in this show is that Pop Art was simply a celebration of pop culture.

In fact, depictions of money by such artists as Andy Warhol, Robert Dowd and Phillip Hefferton have to do with such issues as the vast cultural significance of banal objects, the inability of angst- ridden Abstract Expressionism to deal with the cool surfaces of contemporary life, and a fascination with the ubiquity of mechanical reproduction (in which all subjects--whether tragic or inane--are reduced to the same disposable, commonplace level).

Warhol, of course, is famous for his replication of pop imagery from media and commercial packaging sources. In the early '60s, a gallery owner told him that if he'd paint a $2 bill, she'd give him his first one-man show.

Coller's simple-minded statement that Warhol "rejected the Romantic myth of the artist as poor and suffering, and openly stated that he loved money above all else" completely misses the point about his visionary grasp of contemporary American culture and his wry duel with the forces of Abstract Expressionism.

By 1981, the year Warhol painted "$," an off-register layering of dollar signs, he had proven himself a master of deadpan media manipulation. The small painting (which mingles the looks of several hands-on processes including drawing, painting and rubber stamping) suggests a blur of simultaneous transactions that almost cancel each other out--quite the appropriate icon of the '80s.

Dowd, who was fascinated by the elaborate patterns printed on paper money, painted bills that no one would mistake for the real thing. His first currency piece, "Five Dollars" (1962), is a truncated bill in a loose style, jokingly framed by an arch recalling religious paintings. Dowd changed details (including spellings) and turned Lincoln's face into a blurry mask to point up the oblivious way we look at the green stuff in our wallets.

Three years later, Dowd painted "Van Gogh Dollar" in which the the 19th-Century artist's face--painted in Van Gogh's intense colors and broken brushwork style--replaces George Washington's. In the aftermath of the $53.9-million auction sale of Van Gogh's "Irises" in 1987, Dowd appears amazingly prescient. Back in 1965, however--when Van Gogh was known as yet another famous artist whose stuff didn't make him any money--Dowd was musing about the painful relationship between an artist's vision and the harsh realities of the marketplace.

Hefferton, who shared a Los Angeles studio with Dowd, also began painting money in the early '60s, unaware (as was Dowd) that Warhol was doing the same thing. Like Dowd, Hefferton was primarily interested in the formal qualities of bills, though some of his works display an amusingly campy interpretation of American presidential heroes.

In his oval painting "One," from 1964, homespun flat lettering interrupts an ornate three-dimensional frame. Inside, a linear numeral (reminiscent of cheap advertising art) casts a shadow onto a painterly background reminiscent of early Philip Guston. One critic has likened Hefferton's beguilingly awkward mixture of styles to that of an old-fashioned itinerant sign-painter.

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