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COMMENTARY

$20 Note Fills the Bill for These Fast Times

November 23, 1998|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Have you seen the new $20 bills? Issued in late September, the redesigned currency follows in the footsteps of the revamped $100 bills and $50 bills unveiled in 1996 and 1997, respectively. Because of their value, those larger bills aren't in common circulation. But the $20 denomination has been making its way into American wallets with great speed, thanks to the ease and ubiquity of automatic teller machines in contemporary life.

Appropriately, speed is one thing the design of the new currency declares in visual terms. The new money is fast money.

Size and color remain the same--what other color could a greenback be?--but place a new 20 next to an old 20 and the difference in sensibility is blunt. Out is a reserved and static symmetry, which spoke of classic verities and rock-of-ages stability. In is a style that, while built on fragments of the past and certainly not avant-garde or radical, is visibly bigger, bolder and more dynamically on the move.

Graphically, these stark changes should make the various denominations of U.S. currency easier to differentiate from one another (especially for the 3.5 million Americans who are visually impaired). But the main intent of the overhaul, designed for the U.S. Treasury Department by engraver Jack Ruther, was to thwart high-tech counterfeiters, who have traded in green eyeshades and engraving tools for sophisticated copying machines and computer graphics programs.

High-tech copying accounts for an ever-increasing share of confiscated forgeries, now approaching 40%. The new money comes with a hidden security strip that glows under ultraviolet light, areas of microprinting that are hard to duplicate and a translucent watermark and color-shifting ink--green from one angle, black from another--that can be seen by the human eye but can't be photocopied.

However, these technologically sophisticated maneuvers aren't the only features of the new money that speak of a brave new world. The design itself, which hadn't been significantly altered since 1929, now reflects a decisive sea-change in American perceptions.

Gone is the elaborate cartouche with scrolls and foliate decorations, all interlaced with a fluttering banner declaring "The United States of America," that framed the old bill. In its place is a big, clean, simple white rectangle, which makes the surface area of the bill seem larger and more modern.

Also expanded is the scale of the oval medallion sporting Andrew Jackson's portrait; now it bursts outside the frame, rather than being enclosed within it. Likewise, the scale of the portrait inside the medallion has jumped.

Jackson Given a Real Close-Up

The new portrait brings Jackson in for a close-up. The old look of an engraved painting has been replaced by that of an engraved head-shot. The tenure of the seventh U.S. president ended two years before the 1839 invention of the camera, but his crisp new picture is a more photographically familiar presence than in the old bust-length view, which was traditional for formal oil paintings.

The bill's visual center of gravity has also shifted. The medallion has been moved off-center, slightly to the left. Before, Jackson's right eye was in the cross hairs at the exact center of the rectangular visual field; now, it's his left eye.

That asymmetrical kick has a lot to do with the bill's dynamic feeling of movement. It's given a subtle boost by a clever optical trick. Look at the denomination numbers in the four corners: The numeral 20 in the lower right is located inside the rectilinear frame; above, in the upper right corner, it has jumped outside the confining frame. Continuing counter-clockwise to the other two corners, the numeral starts to overlap the frame while getting progressively larger.

In the old money, all four corners were anchored by numerals of identical size and shape, imparting a sense of harmonious equanimity. Now, it's as if the number 20 is spiraling out at you, quietly bidding for your attention amid the contemporary clutter of competing visual images.

The most abrupt change in the $20 bill occurs on the reverse. In comparison to the lush, overgrown, American Rococo-style scene we've been accustomed to for nearly 70 years, the new bill is startlingly blank. The decorative green foliage has been mowed down. A simple rectilinear frame, which separates large fields of white, is interrupted in the lower right corner with a booming number 20. It's so big and unadorned you can read it from across the room.

My favorite part of the bill, though, is the dramatic change that's occurred in White House scenery in the center of the back. Before, the bill was graced by a picturesque view of the presidential mansion, seen across a great verdant lawn and framed by a veritable forest of sturdy trees.

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