For three decades, Bay Area artist Ray Beldner has cast a gimlet eye over the economic attributes and material jetsam of the contemporary world. Working with found material—auction catalogues, art books, Google image search hits—and drawing on his experience as both a teacher and an art appraiser, Beldner addresses questions of ownership, authenticity and what we mean by “value.” He sat down to speak with master printer and publisher Renée Bott, formerly of Paulson Bott Press in Berkeley, about his work with banknotes as a conceptual construct and physical material.
Renée Bott I wanted to talk about your body of work concerned with money. When did it start?
Ray Beldner I started working with money around 1999 or 2000. The prior work used men’s business clothing. I was interested in corporate culture, and money started to creep in because when you’re talking about corporate culture, you’re talking about the bottom line. And the bottom line’s always money.
So I started using coins and bills as props in installations. I had some friends who were working with money as a material object, and I started to look at it a little less conceptually and more for its physicality. I’m not unique—there’s a bunch of artists who have worked with money. I started to think: it can be turned into quilts; it could be made into 3-D sculpture.
Bott There’s obviously a huge conceptual component to the body of works you call “Counterfeit,” where you use real money to make fake—
Beldner Fake art—yeah. I backed into the conceptual part when I started to look at money less as this object of currency that has this significance in a capitalist society, and more as an object for art-making. I realized that money is really interesting. It’s the world’s biggest ongoing print edition. Every bill is unique, and it’s numbered uniquely. It’s signed by the person that caused it to be made, the Secretary of the Treasury. It’s made from archival materials. It’s 100 percent cotton. It’s beautifully done.
So I started to play around with it physically: fold it, bend it, shape it, sew it. I like to manipulate it. It’s really cool to sew because it has this fibrous content.
I was teaching at the same time and had gotten fed up with students asking me about cost. I’d show them a slide and say: “Here’s Duchamp, and he’s important for this reason. And here’s this significant piece called Fountain.” And they’d respond, “Oh, yeah! I read about that. That’s worth $10 million.” I was like, “You shouldn’t be impressed because of what it cost. You should be impressed by the idea that it signifies.”
I would have people in the studio and they’d do the same thing—immediately go to the question of cost, not value, which is different. What is the value of Duchamp as opposed to what it costs to purchase one on the open market?
I thought, well, this could be interesting. Let’s turn this around. Rather than looking at a work of art and asking how much it costs, what would happen if I made it out of money? We would know exactly how much it cost—the number of bills that it’s made of. I wanted to tie it into 20th-century post–World War II art because that’s where all the juice in the auction market is.
Bott What was the spark to create a counterfeit Duchamp or a counterfeit Picasso?
Beldner The whole idea came together all at once. I decided to remake one famous work from art history out of money—so it’s real money, fake art. And I started with Fountain, Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, which was the hardest thing. If you never have sewn in your life, starting by trying to sew a urinal is impossible.
Bott I was going to ask what kind of filler you used—is it lightweight?
Beldner The urinal actually is not filled at all. In later pieces that are more sculptural I did put cotton batting in. But the urinal is hollow.
But in order to create it I needed a pattern, and in order to make a pattern I needed a urinal. So I bought a urinal, put papier-maché over it, and carefully cut it off into sections to create a flat pattern. Then I sewed the money onto material and cut it up into the pattern and re-sewed it.
I had a friend who made hats help me, and he suggested a brilliant thing: ironing fusable interfacing onto the back of the bills so they don’t crumple and won’t tear as easily. Otherwise, if you try to re-sew money, it’s going to fall apart.
Anyway, I made the urinal, and I thought, whoa, okay, maybe I could do something a bit simpler. I think the next piece was a tiny Sol LeWitt. Very two-dimensional . . . No, no—I’m sorry. It was a Mondrian. That was the next piece that I made.
Bott This idea of recreating these 20th-century iconic pieces of art that you had been showing your students, explaining why they have value—did you begin with the slides from your class?
Beldner I got all of the early pieces out of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, literally taking the pictures out because I had to make patterns. This is pre-Internet and video projectors—2000, 2001—and I would put the cutout pictures on my overhead projector, blow them up to the size of the actual artwork, trace them onto tracing paper, and make patterns out of them. I cut up all my art history books.
Bott Oh my God.
Beldner I have a reverence and an irreverence for art history.
Bott You also created a money suit, but that wasn’t based on a preexisting art work, was it?
Beldner That happened when I was in residence at the de Young Museum. I wanted to make a jacket out of money so that when I went to my own art events I’d be wearing money. I figured I had enough sewing skills by then that I could do it. I didn’t. So I hired a seamstress to help me, and we made this beautiful jacket—it was silk-lined, it had pockets, it had buttons. I wore it to every art event that I went to.
Bott Was it hard to wear?
Beldner Originally it was kind of stiff and thick and hot. But the more I wore it, the more the elbows got crinkly and easy to move. It became very comfortable. It’s funny though—somebody wanted to buy it. I told them it’s not really an art piece and they said, “Really? I thought it was based on the Joseph Beuys felt suit.” And I’m like, “Felt suit, gelt suit—yeah, I can make another suit out of money.” So I made the pants to go with it and it’s called Gelt Suit.
Bott That is so funny.
Beldner I sold it because I needed the money. Then I made a second version because I missed my money suit.
Bott Did you ever branch off from recreating other artist’s pieces?
Beldner No, everything made out of money from that body of work is based on another artist’s work, at exactly the right scale and dimension. I even did a Jackson Pollock that’s 9 1/2 feet tall by 15 feet wide.
Bott But the Pollock is significantly different—it looks like flung paint, but it’s not, right?
Beldner This was for the first show I had at Katie’s [Catherine Clark Gallery] and I really, really wanted a big “wow” piece when you walked in, so I decided to tackle Pollock. But I couldn’t figure out how to sew something that big—and also how do you actually do the drips? So I had Noah and Chris over at Trilliam Graphics help me out. The background in the Pollock is mostly white, and I had to find a way to make it out of money. So I took the white parts of the dollar bill, and I made a little piece of fabric out of actual bills. Then they scanned, cloned it and printed it onto canvas. In those days, they could only print about four feet wide, so I sewed together four panels to get the background. They also printed the Pollock drips very lightly in a light green color so I had an outline to go by. Then to recreate the drips I took all my money scraps and ground them up to make flocking dust.
Bott In what kind of grinder?
Beldner I made a grinder. My studio neighbor is a machinist so I went to his shop and said, “I want to take this paper material, and I want to grind it up.” With some of my parts and some of his parts, we scavenged together this funky machine. You would load it like a musket, but with money. And then you’d set the spring and turn it on. You couldn’t grind fast or it would heat up the paper and burn. And you didn’t want dust flying everywhere, so I made a box where all the dust would settle. It was the perfect flocking dust.
I had a team of volunteers to help assemble the piece. Many of them were students at San Francisco State. One person was responsible for grinding up the money, and another for painting on the glue and then adding the flocking.
Years later the collector who bought that piece died, and his heirs wanted to sell it. I said I’ll see if I can find a buyer from some other collectors of mine. But the piece was rolled, and when we unrolled it, all the shit fell off. So I proposed cutting it into four sections like the canvas was originally, mount it onto four tall panels, and then re-flock it. So two years ago I redid the whole thing—I had to grind all that money dust over again and re-glue it all.
Bott Good thing you kept the grinder.
Beldner I know! And I’m really happy I did. I also ended up using the grinder for another body of work called “Items I Have Stolen From People That I Know.” It’s all flocked money on top of stolen things.
Bott What was it like going to the bank and asking for a thousand one-dollar bills?
Beldner Not a problem at all. I would go to the ATM and pull out $300. Then I’d go inside, and ask them to change it into ones.
Bott Do you know how much money was actually used for each item?
Beldner Oh, yeah. The three most common questions I get about the work are: Is it real money? Yes. Is it illegal? No. How much money did you use for each piece? Approximately $300.
Bott It’s legal?
Beldner It’s a felony to deface currency with the intent to defraud. So, say you take a one-dollar bill and you put “hundred” on it—that’s a felony. Or any kind of counterfeiting, obviously. But the Federal Reserve does not really care whether you use it, cut it up, smoke it, or wipe your ass with it. They decommission money all the time because it ends up getting funky. They used to shred it, and now they burn it.
Bott Some of these pieces are so labor-intensive. For example, cutting out George Washington’s face 300 times. Did you get help with that?
Beldner I had an assistant for most of that project, Jackie, who’s a musician and a visual artist. She got to be better at sewing than I did. But I can do a piece on my own. I did a Shepard Fairey a couple of years ago as a commission. It takes a couple of weeks. It’s slow. It’s a lot of sewing. It’s a lot faster when I have somebody to help me.
Bott Sure. Like printmaking. That leads me to your doily prints . . .
Beldner That’s a different series, but it is related. What’s interesting to me about counterfeit work and continues to interest me as an artist is the way that we value—there’s that word “value” again—certain kinds of labor, certain kinds of methods and materials. Things that are crafty, like sewing, don’t have as much value—they’re not as appreciated, and in the marketplace they’re not worth as much.
So, I collect doilies. We used to go to New Hampshire every summer to my ex-parents-in-laws’ summer home. We’d go to a lot of barn sales where there are all these doilies. A lot of them are from the 19th-century and are handmade. Talk about labor—holy shit! And I loved them. I just think they’re fascinating. I never knew what to do with them so I just collected them.
Then I started to scan them and make patterns out of them. I put those patterns on top of some of the money fabric and cut it out by hand, so it’d be a hand-cut money-doily, based on these 19th-century objects. When I was invited by Trilliam to do a project, I showed them my money doilies. They digitized the doilies, then we scanned the presidents’ faces from the bills, and put them together. It was a lot more efficient to do it digitally than by hand. It also gave me the ability to take the images from the money and combine them in a different way. It’s a high-craft/low-craft kind of thing.
Bott Was that just serendipitous, the idea of putting the presidents’ faces on the doilies? Or was there another layer of meaning?
Beldner No, it wasn’t serendipitous. I wanted to work with one specific part of the bill, the portraits. That was something I could never really do in the other series because the bills were just vehicles for color and value. Lights and darks. Using the Seeing Eye or the presidents’ portraits was never a part of it. The doilies gave me the ability to do that.
Bott But it’s also presidents. You started working with money prior to 2001—looking back, does the work take on a different historical meaning, given 9/11, and our current administration, and the whole relationship of art and money? Has that changed for you over the years?
Beldner Well, my understanding evolves. But the idea of the conflation of art and money, and the critique of the capitalist system as it relates to the art world is still there. It’s stronger now because we’re in a period where the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is greater than ever. The art market it is at a record high: last year Christie’s and Sotheby’s sold record amounts on the secondary market. But I just read a great article in Artsy, saying that even though the art market is up, up, up, up, up, in real terms it’s stagnant because the people in the middle and the lower end—we’re actually doing worse. So galleries are closing and artists are struggling, but people on the very high end, like the rest of the economy, are doing fantastic. Those ideas are still in my mind, the way that we think about art, the way it has been monetized and commodified.
Bott Do you still have some of these money pieces in your collection?
Beldner I have sold nearly every single piece I’ve ever made. I could’ve kept doing them and that would’ve been my job forever. People love them. There’s something about money. I mean we love money, I guess. But I wanted to move on and do other things.
I still have the big Pollack piece because I’m trying to find someone to take it from my client. I have the Shepard Fairey piece, Obey (2014), which never ended up selling. I have a new version of the urinal I made for a dealer who wanted to take it to Art Basel in Miami. It didn’t sell, and I’m just going to keep it because it’s the first piece I made.
Bott It’s appropriate that you end and begin with the urinal.
Beldner It’s all going down the pisser.
Bott Any closing remarks?
Beldner I like your earlier question. Whenever you do anything for a length of time your relationship to it changes. Part of it is historic events; part of it is life events because your life changes. And then just knowing something so intimately, whether you’re printing, making sculpture, or doing these weird mixed-media things, you get to know the material and the technique so well that it allows for different, richer understandings, more ability to try different things out. But I’ve enjoyed this project a lot because it’s made me realize what kind of power we have as artists. We’re alchemists. We take base materials—paper, ink, glue—and turn them into things that are worth many, many, many times the value of the materials. We are literally minting money with our hands. We’re turning valueless things into invaluable objects. And it gives me a lot of pleasure and hope to know that artists have that ability.
Bott That’s a beautiful thought.