Editor's note: The following text was reprinted in Resource Library on February 24, 2009 with permission of the author and Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Robert Dowd: Pop Art Money

January 17 - April 5, 2009


Overview of the exhibition

Robert Dowd (1936-1995) was an American artist best known for his imaginative, whimsical paintings of money and stamps. In 1961 he moved to Los Angeles and began to create his currency paintings. These enlargements of U.S. paper currency were large-scale -- some 10 feet wide. They often had humorous alterations, such as substituting portraits of famous artists for the presidents. In 1962 his work was included in a groundbreaking exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum, considered to be the first museum show of Pop Art. Despite the success of these paintings, the FBI accused him of counterfeiting and by 1970 he had shifted his attention to paintings exploring scientific atomic theory. This exhibition at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art is the first in-depth examination of the currency paintings and related work by this seminal Los Angeles modernist.


Excerpt from the Robert Dowd: Pop Art Money catalog essay by Michael Zakian

Robert Dowd (1936-1995) is best known today as a painter of Pop Art money. He played a formative role in the earliest years of the style and created his first Pop art paintings from 1959 to 1962, earning him a place as one of the historic founders of the national movement. He also bears the distinction of being one of the first artists in Los Angeles to paint in a Pop Art style. He moved to LA in 1961 and almost immediately began producing paintings of American currency and stamps. His work was selected for inclusion in a historically important group show, "New Paintings of Common Objects," at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1962, which was the first museum exhibition of Pop Art in the country.

Although Dowd occupies a place in the historical development of the movement, he has been ignored by history. It is ironic that he was making the right art, in the right place, at the right time and yet, little in his career as an artist went right. He never found his niche in the emerging Los Angeles contemporary art scene and after struggling to make a living as an artist through the 1960s, left for New York in the early 1970s to start his career anew. When he returned to Los Angeles in 1985 in order to resurrect his former life he met only partial success. An important 1989 survey exhibition, "LA Pop in the Sixties," brought a new wave of attention but it was too little and too late. Dowd died of cancer before his sixtieth birthday in the Veteran's Administration hospital in Westwood in 1995, never receiving the attention or acknowledgement he deserved.

In retrospect, the Money paintings occupied only a small part of Dowd's artistic production. He actually painted money for a short period of time, from 1962 to 1968, but they remain his best known and perhaps most successful work. In those half-dozen years he explored the subject thoroughly, dissecting and reinterpreting the imagery of our currency in order to reveal deep truths about the true nature of money. Money is a tool, a means for people to affect change, and Dowd treated the subject as transformative and protean. It one of the many ironies of Dowd's life as a creative artist that his career suffered because he was too creative. The Pop Art that achieved international recognition and lasting fame was reductive, detached, and impersonal. The most celebrated artists, such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Ed Ruscha, created a cool, aloof art that mimicked the emotional indifference of mechanical reproduction and the mass media.

Dowd's paintings were emotional and complex -- the very antithesis of mainstream Pop Art. He did not know how to divorce his subjective perceptions and create art that was remote and unemotional. When addressing money, or any subject, Dowd entered into a personal dialog. He edited and altered his sources, freely adding and removing elements, all to explore deeper truths about how objects function in our lives. He was intrigued by paradoxes, and was amused by the paradox that nothing is valued more highly than money yet it is nothing more than flimsy pieces of printed paper. As an artist he saw this process of transformation from the meaningless to the meaningful as embodying the essence of all art. To understand this process, Dowd dissected money and explored its multiple levels of imagery. He questioned the authority of the pictured presidents, substituting their famed portraits with those of subversive modern artists. He rethought and restructured the regal aura of the compositions -- an odd amalgam of mottoes, signs, symbols, numerals and inscriptions. He even addressed the ways money is made personal and individual in the ways we handle, fold, and pass it from person to person.

Dowd has often has been described as a quintessential Irishman. Heir to Ireland's great tradition of writers and poets, he possessed a deep love for language and literature and was instinctively drawn to stories and narrative. He used language creatively and delighted in puns, word plays and double-entendres. In fact his Currency paintings explore the complex narratives of possession and exchange. He saw money as a grand fiction and as an elaborate soap opera, revealing the widest range of human actions and emotions, running the gamut from greed to generosity.



In many ways, Dowd embraced money as a subject because of its pictorial and symbolic complexity. Rather than see it as shallow and superficial, he understood money to be an enormously complicated cultural sign. He was fascinated by the fact that it reflects a larger-than-life grandeur, unrivaled in scope and implications. In a series of notes reflecting on the meaning of money, he wrote,

Money is a powerful blend of American literature, document and symbol. 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.

He saw money not just as an important cultural symbol, but as the cultural symbol -- the one that best told the complex story of who we are as Americans. Our country became the dominant world power during the 20th century by virtue of its capitalist economy. If capitalism was the engine of success, than currency provided the tickets. The daily exchange of money lay at the heart of this grand economy and was what inspired Dowd to engage the subject so thoroughly. He saw money as symbolizing a marvelous human drama and as in all true stories, events are not always pretty. In fact these tales are often sordid and distasteful, part of that wonderful, colorful circus that is American history.

Dowd saw money as an epic form of literature. He understood that our currency is nothing but one great fiction. Paper money is in itself worthless and only acquires value through social consensus. He was fascinated by the degree to which our government succeeded in convincing people that small pieces of printed paper were valuable. This grand ruse elevated money to the level of our greatest literary accomplishments -- more profound than Herman Melville's Moby Dick, more expansive than Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. As an artist he saw the design of our currency as playing a key role in this deception.

Crammed into each bill is a whole array of impressive letters, numbers, and symbols. Indeed it's a document of 'signs' to guide the seeker to enduring faith in the system. What could be more persuasive or compelling than a document with the carefully selected contents: well chosen words supported by compelling pictures -- fun house of symbols, weighty symbols.

The design of American currency is odd and unsettling, consisting of a series of random inscriptions, symbols, marks and emblems that is supposed to add up to some greater meaning. Our paper money combines conflicting and contrary genres of art, freely juxtaposing the representational, the architectural, the graphic and the decorative. The lack of pictorial or conceptual coherence in our money helped foster incoherent responses. Conspiracy theorists have interpreted the oblique mix of symbols as hinting at secretive government plots. Dowd carefully analyzed and dissected the multifarious look of individual bills. He played with words, freely altering official inscriptions. He enjoyed deleting and recombining letters to create sly and oblique messages, engaging in spirited Dada wordplays. To use a more contemporary term, he deconstructed money.



Selected images


(above: Robert Dowd, Folded George, 1967, acrylic on canvas, 20 x 28 inches, collection of Joni and Monte Gordon, courtesy of Newspace Resales, Los Angeles)


(above: Robert Dowd, Lincoln, 1965, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 20 inches, collection of Joan and Jack Quinn)


(above: Robert Dowd, Fire at U.S. Treasury, 1968, acrylic on canvas, 14 x 34 inches, collection of Joan and Jack Quinn)


(above: Robert Dowd, Vincent Dollar, 1965, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 36 inches, collection of Joni and Monte Gordon, courtesy of Newspace Resales, Los Angeles)



About the Author

Michael Zakian, Ph.D., is Director of the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on February 24, 2009 with with permission of the author and the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on February 17, 2009.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Brad White of the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art for his help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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