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January 17 - April 5, 2009, at
Pepperdine University, Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, West Side

by Nancy Kay Turner

In the late fifties and early sixties there were artists from New York (Andy Warhol, Claus Oldenburg, Jim Dine) and California (Ed Ruscha, Mel Ramos, Wayne Thiebaud) who began to incorporate everyday, banal objects into their work. These objects, such as shoes, soup cans, telephones, bathrobes, tools, and cigarettes were all lowly, ordinary items found in hardware and grocery stores. It was Andy Warhol who hit upon the idea of painting and drawing money, one of his favorite things. Or was it?

It seems that Robert Dowd (aka Robert O’Dowd), a Midwestern artist residing in Detroit, Michigan, began drawing and painting dollar bills in the late fifties and early sixties, before he moved to Los Angeles. Though Dowd eventually exhibited with the West Coast Pop artists, his story was unique. The FBI actually arrested him for “counterfeiting” printed money (shades of JSG Boggs!), though his works on canvas and paper were clearly not intended as forgeries. This had a chilling effect on the young artist’s career. It is easy for us today to underestimate the pervasive climate of fear that was the dark underbelly of the fifties with its anti-communist fervor, rampant conformity, paranoia, and the Cold War with the Soviet Union. . .or maybe it has not been for the last decade or so.

With our own deepening financial crisis, I am reminded of the cynical, darkly comic lyrics of the song “Money” from the musical “Cabaret”--“Money makes the world go ’round. . .!” As anxiety and hunger increase in America, it is wildly appropriate to be showcasing the Pop Art money paintings of the underrated, and relatively little known Robert Dowd.

Unlike many of his Pop Art brethren, Dowd’s acrylic and oil paintings of currency continued to have a painterly, gestural quality. Long after Warhol and Lichtenstein began to use paint in a flat, unmodulated surface with crisp edges, Dowd’s work still retained the touch of the artist. He varied his money paintings by copying famous paintings and self-portraits such as of Picasso and Van Gogh. Substituting iconic European protean art and artists for American Presidents was a provocative action, which begs a question or two. Was Dowd presciently connecting art and artists as commodities? Or was he suggesting artists are or should be as powerful or as “valued” as presidents? Did he foresee the business and money savvy artists of the future--Jeff Koons, Mark Kostabi and the most successful of all, Damien Hirst  (who recently managed to bring his own work to auction and eliminate the dealer)?

“Money makes the world go ‘round
the world go ‘round,
the world go ‘round. . .”
from Cabaret

"Vincent Dollar," 1965,
oil on canvas, 18 x 36".

"Picasso Dollar," 1968,
oil on canvas, 58 x 44".

"Lincoln," 1965, acrylic
on canvas, 24 x 20"

"Gauguin Dollar," 1966,
oil on canvas, 46 x 64"

"Lichtenstein Lincoln," 1965,
acrylic on board, 31 x 25".

And what about his choice of an object of desire--the All American Buck? The dollar bill, which is the most widely used denomination, is in itself a work of art, filled with enigmatic symbols, letters and numbers. The third eye, the unfinished pyramid, all of these make the dollar bill a unique and thoroughly recognizable object. When asked about his currency paintings Dowd replied, “My fascination with American currency lies in its quality of ‘symbolness.’ Truly each bill is an epic story in picture and word. . .Forget that it illustrates a complete monetary system of unimaginable proportions or that it represents destinies of nations and men. What we are dealing with here is a marvelous form of American literature of epic proportions in the proud tradition of P.T Barnum and tabloid journalism.”

So it is eye opening to be able to re-discover Robert Dowd and his money paintings. Especially now, as we all watch our 401K’s shrink into 301K’s, we can still ponder the meaning of money as art (or art as money) while humming the following lyrics: “a mark, a yen, a buck, a pound, that clinking, clanking sound, is all that makes the world go ‘round, it makes the world go ’round.”