Art and Money | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Art and Money 

J.S.G. Boggs spends it as fast as he can make it.

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J.S.G. Boggs literally lives off his art, drawing and spending his own currency. British pounds, Swiss francs, or American dollars come fresh from his pen each day and are traded for sundry items like plane tickets, lunches, and taxi rides.

If you think this sounds slightly illegal, you share the opinion of the Bank of England, which last year had him tried for counterfeiting. Upon his acquittal, Boggs announced that for the next year he would spend no money he had not drawn himself.

This resolution has made Boggs's life-style rather mercurial. One night he might stay in a five-star hotel, and the next night could find him sleeping in his car at the side of the road. Right now he's somewhere in the middle, staying at Hefner Hall as a guest of the School of the Art Institute.

The former Playboy mansion turned dormitory is an odd mixture of luxury and squalor. Boggs greets us in the lobby, wearing a white shirt, blue jeans, and suede cowboy boots. A slightly built man in his early 30s, he leads the way upstairs with an amused, friendly air. After introducing us to Marcus, his assistant and bodyguard, Boggs takes us on a brief tour of his suite, formerly Hefner's bedroom. He points out the closed-circuit TV screen and the telephone opposite the toilet in the bathroom. "He could run his whole empire from here," Boggs says, picking up the receiver and punching a few buttons.

Seated with a Rolling Rock beer and speaking with a mid-Atlantic accent, he describes a transaction he made earlier that day. "Henry Hanson from Chicago wanted to meet me at Pump Room at 12. So I explained the situation to Henry, that I haven't spent any legal tender since the 26th of November 1987. If I cant get something with a drawing or if I can't find somebody who's kind enough to support me in this effort, then I just do without it. So I explained to him that I would try to buy him lunch, but if I failed to, he would have to pick up the bill."

When presented with the check at the end of the meal, Boggs asked the waitress, who happened to be an art student, if she'd accept the drawing of a fifty-dollar bill. She agreed. The situation became more complicated, however, when the manager refused to provide change.

"I told the manageress that I couldn't spend the drawing with her unless I got the change. I always have to have the receipt and the change. Then the waitress said she would give me change if she could have the drawing herself And the manageress, who was not completely stupid, suddenly decided that, yes, I could have the change, and they would keep the drawing."

The change and the receipt are not necessary for any legal purpose; Boggs feels that the work of art does not stop with the drawing but involves the entire transaction, which therefore must be documented. In many cases Boggs has had photographs taken of the transaction or kept some other memento--he kept a menu today. Any potential collector must engage in a complicated scavenger hunt, tracking down and purchasing the change, the receipt, and the drawing in order to have the complete work.

"In today's transaction, for example, I insisted on having the receipt, the change, and a menu," Boggs explains. "When ultimately a collector comes along and actually wants to finish the work, which I don't do myself, they will buy the receipt, the change, and the menu from me. Each of those items will go into a separate frame. And then they'll try to acquire the drawing to put into a separate frame to complete the piece. Now if they really want to spend a lot of money they can also buy the model [for the drawing], but that's real expensive. Because I actually like to keep it. It keeps track of the piece, like a little key for a lock."

This process of investigation and negotiation is what interests Boggs. "What the work is about, which is very complicated, requires that the collector has got to work, too. It's not just a simple thing. The collector has to actually have more than money--he has to have the desire, he has to do it."

Not all collectors succeed in acquiring the entire piece. Boggs describes a common scenario: "I walk into a diner and I spend a five-dollar-bill drawing, and a collector buys the receipt and the change and maybe the menu. They go to the waitress and say, 'We want to buy the five-dollar bill,' and on most occasions people will say, 'No, it's not for sale. I'm keeping it.' And when the collector tries to explain the larger dimensionality of the work--you know, 'Why don't you take the receipt and the change' most people just say, 'No, I've got the drawing. That's the work of art.'"

Boggs, a native of Florida, gave up his longtime studio in London three weeks ago to spend the next year and a half on the road. Before coming to Chicago he spent two weeks in Switzerland, where he attended the Basel Art Fair and began laying the foundations for his newest venture, designing and backing his own currency. According to Boggs, "I would create a new money, one that is absolutely hard in the fact that it actually has reserves and is negotiable. Right now the drawings that I make are not negotiable items. They are strictly a work of art. Of course, a project like that is very big and takes a couple of years to develop and execute."

Boggs takes us into his temporary studio down the hall for a look. The studio is a mess, the bed unmade, clothes strewn about. "I'm trying to make it look like the studio I had before," he jokes as he clears off a couple of chairs for us. The table is littered with glasses, a pile of hundred-dollar bills, and a couple of Boggs "originals."

"Every day I finish a couple of drawings," he says. "I start every day probably about ten drawings, but out of the ten that I start, usually five won't survive. I just trash them."

The two bills he shows us are one-sided, one the back of a hundred-dollar bill and the other the face of a 20. All the salient features of authentic bills are reproduced, but it would be hard to mistake these for the real thing. Boggs has taken the liberty of changing such details as the wording of the motto, and he has substituted his own signature for that of the secretary of the treasury. Of the paper, which is handmade in England, Boggs says, "It's about the closest you can get to the color of U.S. currency."

Boggs's fascination with money stems from an earlier passion for numbers. "Actually what no one tends to notice is that I was doing paintings and drawings of numbers for years and years. I was an abstract artist, and I still consider myself to be an abstract artist. The thing about a number is that it doesn't really exist except as an idea. You can have the word 'five' or you can write f-i-v-e on a piece of paper--the written word five--you can have five fingers, you can have five beer bottles, but show me just five. Where is five? It's just in your head."

It was one short step from the realization that numbers are abstract to the conclusion that dollars are, too. Boggs made his initial connection between these two ideas when he was in Chicago four years ago.

"I was in Chicago in '84 for the Expo. I was in the SuHu district, absolutely exhausted from all this really exciting art. I think I had two dollars in my pocket, and I decided I would splurge and have coffee and a doughnut. I started making this drawing of a number one on a napkin." Boggs sat in the restaurant for hours, first adding squiggles and then more number ones to the corners of the napkin as the waitress continued to refill his cup.

"At the end of this," Boggs says, "she actually wanted to know if she could buy it." Boggs was shocked, and refused even when the waitress offered him 50 dollars for it. "She came back over with the check, and it was like 90 cents. And she had already said about this drawing that it looked like a one-dollar bill. I really didn't make that kind of connection until she said it, and when she said it, I realized it did look like a piece of money." Boggs sensed that he had hurt the waitress's feelings by rejecting her offer, "so she came back and I said, 'The bill is 90 cents. Will you take this dollar?' And it was like a spring down inside of her opened up and this big gusher came out and she smiled."

When Boggs left the diner a few minutes later, the waitress came running after him. "She said, 'Wait a minute! You forgot your change. The bill was only 90 cents. You gave me a dollar.' And she made me take this dime. And it was weird. It was like all of the event was embedded in this little piece of silver. It was like watching a movie on the moon. I could see all of those events happening. I was very struck by the fact that this object contained for me a memory." The events of that spring afternoon became the model for the hundreds of subsequent transactions Boggs has made.

Boggs, who has had an exhausting schedule since arriving in Chicago the day before, now wants to unwind at the Rainbo Club at Damen and Division, where he promises to try to buy us a drink. On the way, he stops at the Pump Room to meet Rich Melman, owner of the restaurant and, by extension, of the 50-dollar bill spent that afternoon. They make an appointment for later in the week to discuss art and business.

At the Rainbo Club, Marcus the bodyguard purchases the first round. Now it is Boggs's turn. He makes us sponsors for this venture, which means that if he fails, we will pick up the tab. We all parade up to the bar. A complicated discussion takes place with the helpful but expressionless bartender: what exact combination of drinks will add up to $19.75 so we can get a quarter in change? Once the immense array of bottles and glasses is set before us, Boggs pulls his 20 out of an envelope and begins his spiel. The bartender listens politely while Marcus takes photographs. A woman at the bar asks excitedly, "Are you Boggs?" but Boggs and the bartender both ignore her, intent on the note changing hands. Showing not a flicker of emotion, the bartender fingers the bill and agrees to accept it. As he watches Boggs enter notations on the back of the 20, on the receipt, and even on the quarter change (with a knife), a ghost of a smile passes across his face.

When we say good night, Boggs mentions a wager he made earlier with Hanson. If he can pull it off, it will be his biggest transaction yet in Chicago. A couple days later the phone rings. 'I'm speaking to you from my room at the Drake, room 937," he says cheerfully. "I have a beautiful view of the lake."

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