Brooklyn-based collage artist Mark Wagner is well-known for his series of meticulously crafted “currency portraits” made from deconstructed dollar bills reassembled into the faces of politicians and cultural figures. Wagner has said that the taboo of destroying dollar bills makes people pay attention to his work in a way they would not were he using any other kind of paper as a medium. Money elicits high emotions; it’s something people worry about and fight over. Anarchists think he’s an anarchist, he says, because he cuts up the tools of the oppression. Capitalists think he’s a capitalist because he revels in the “almighty dollar.”
But if this is the kind of art that speaks for itself, I was curious to learn more about Wagner’s design process and recently spoke to him to find out more about how he works.
“A dollar bill is a great piece of paper for an artist,” Wagner told me by phone. “There’s no commercially available paper that’s that hard and durable, because it’s hyper-engineered by the government to be passed around by tens of thousands of people.”
Defacing currency for artistic purposes is allowed in Europe, but technically illegal in America. Nevertheless, Wagner’s work is collected by institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, the Walker Art Center, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian. And Wagner said that he has never heard of an artist being prosecuted for killing money (one artist in California who makes military-themed dollar bill collages even claims torn-up bills as a tax deduction).
Wagner cut up his first dollar bill in 1999. How did it feel?
“It’s taken me years to shake that cringe factor of feeling like I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing,” he said. But after sacrificing around $10,000 over the years for his art, the act of carving up dollar bills with an X-Acto knife, which he often does while watching TV, has lost its emotional power. “Now I don’t think about it like money,” he said, “and it’s easy to cut up.”
To make a currency portrait, Wagner starts with a pencil sketch on paper based on source material before painstakingly assembling the collages, sometimes working with an assistant, in a process that takes between 30 and 40 hours to complete.
In the early days, Wagner gathered his art supplies by hoarding dollar bills after breaking a $20 at the deli, but he has learned to plan ahead, ordering a fresh stack of 1,000 dollar bills from the bank. New “crispy” bills work best, he said, because the color of old bills can become dingy from too much handling. Plus, fresh singles lack the pungent odor of a well-circulated bill.
New bills, he said, have the scent of “production, of the press room, so there’s probably linseed oil and gum arabic and talc from the printing process.” Used dollar bills, on the other hand, are redolent with “the stink of a gym locker, just from people handling it.”
Wagner said he’s learned over the years that the scale of the images on a dollar bill is best suited to life-size portraits. While he slices bills into 20 to 25 individual components, there are core elements that he repeatedly uses as building blocks: The oval around George Washington is roughly the size of a human eye socket and the Treasury seal functions well as an iris, for example. Foliage motifs often work well as hair and eyebrows.
He said he sometimes puzzles out the design of a collage using photocopies of dollar bills so as not to throw money away on a rough draft, which is a funny admission given that this whole line of his work is built on stripping money of its buying power.
But Wagner notes that each collage uses 15 to 20 dollar bills, making his materials cheaper than oil paint. He makes a point to overlap pieces of the bills as little as possible while gluing them into place with a brush. In addition to the portraits, he has developed a series of landscapes and crowd scenes that utilize the decapitated heads of George Washington that end up on the cutting floor when he’s making portraits. And whatever scraps he doesn’t use, he said, he keeps in a jar: “A jar full of dollar scraps is almost better art than a collage,” he said.
Check out this time-lapse video of the artist and his assistant Cat Glennon at work: