Chicago has played a role in the arts. Poetry, of course, ever since a teenage Charlie Sandburg took $1.50 earned on a milk truck in Galesburg and came here to check out the city’s big shoulders. Music certainly, from Louis Armstrong coming up from New Orleans to the Rolling Stones cutting an album at Chess Records on South Michigan Avenue in 1964.
The visual arts? Not so much. The School of the Art Institute draws talent - Grant Wood comes to mind, or Ivan Albright. In the 1960s, a casual group formed around the school sometimes referred to as the Chicago Imagists: Roger Brown, Jim Nutt, Karl Wirsum and top dog Ed Paschke, a source of civic pride, with his walk-up studio on Howard Street with its garish lucha libre masks and Swedish postcards. Though I suppose Paschke’s student, Jeff Koons, he of metal balloon dog fame, eclipsed them all, though that could just be now. Lasting fame or passing popularity? Hard to tell.
Most artists dwell in oblivion, and even those who are quite well-known can still be hardly known at all to most folk. When I heard J.S.G. Boggs was dead, I felt sad, but then I had read Lawrence Weschler’s 1999 profile of Boggs in The New Yorker, and was impressed by not only his artistry but by the schtick - whoops, the concept - behind his art. The local media ignored his passing, even though Boggs’ art was sparked in Chicago in 1984.
Boggs was in town for the Art Expo at Navy Pier. At a diner, he ordered coffee and a doughnut. He began doodling a numeral “1″ on a napkin, then embellishing it into a dollar bill.
His waitress, impressed, offered to buy the drawing - offering $20, then $50 Boggs later claimed.
Instead Boggs offered her the napkin in payment for his 90-cent tab. She accepted, giving a dime in change.
And so a career was born. Boggs would earn money by drawing it. He drew exact replicas of dollars, pounds, francs, the currency of whatever country he happened to be in.
He didn’t just draw banknotes and sell them, but developed a routine based on that first Chicago transaction. He would offer one of his bills in exchange for merchandise or a service. If it was accepted, he would get a receipt and the proper change, which he sold to collectors. It was the collectors’ task to use the receipt to track down the owner of the drawing and buy it. It would then be framed as an assemblage - the drawing, the receipt, the change, a still-life lesson about the value of money.
“In a madcap Socratic fashion Boggs is raising all sorts of truly fundamental questions,” Weschler wrote. “What, precisely, is it that we value in art, or, for that matter, in money? How do we value one in terms of the other? Indeed, how do we place a value on anything at all?”
Boggs fame spread after he was charged with forgery in Great Britain, Australia and the United States. The trials became part of the mystique, the gifted artist confounding thick-witted government. Given that the notes were blank on one side, and contained all sorts of fanciful elements, even a “moron in a hurry” wouldn’t be deceived, his British lawyer argued, successfully.
“He was an amazing trickster, a vivid, vivid character, and a consummate transgressor,” Weschler told Artnet News. “He was just short of being a con man, but no more than anyone in the art world, or for that matter in the world of finance, which of course, was his whole point.”
Though young artists who equate success with happiness should note that Boggs had problems with drugs, and was found dead in a Tampa hotel room Jan. 23 at age 62.
I paused before sharing Boggs’ story, aware that most readers would have never heard of Boggs before and probably never will again. I considered G.K. Chesterton’s timeless quip that “journalism largely consists of saying ‘Lord Jones is Dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.” That always sounds negative, but it needn’t be so. Better late than never.
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