University of Konstanz, Germany Paolo Monti, Dollar Image, 1989   PAOLO MONTI VIERDIMENSIONAL²
Selected writings on the Art of Paolo Monti


Money, its depiction and the fourth dimension. . .
The works of Paolo Monti

Fiedermann Malsch
, Director of the Liechtenstein Art Museum

When I met Paolo Monti in the early nineties, he showed me several works with a single subject: the banknote. Piled up, cut up or processed in various other ways, all those banknotes rotated around a single abstract concept, the system used to determine the value of the banknote. At first sight, Monti seemed to be following in the footsteps of Joseph Beuys and Marcel Broodthaers, both, in different ways (one “engagé” the other ironical) disciples of the prophet Marcel Duchamp and his insistence on the contextuality of art. Particularly in his “ready-made” Duchamp drew his audience’s attention to the fact that art inevitably exists inside the broader social and temporal context of its day and insisted that it should not cut itself off from that context.

In following the Duchamp line, Joseph Beuys was more analytically motivated and applied his approach to the socio-political commitments of various avant garde groups up to and including the surrealists. He developed his own system of economic values, the essentials of which were summed up in the statement that emerged from the “Bitburger Talks” of early 1978: «But what is CAPITAL… since it can only be the product of man’s capacity to make things that output at its most bounteous is art and at its most concrete is CAPITAL. ART = CAPITAL ».

Any phenomenological analysis of the flow of economic values in the production process will identify economic value 1 as output capacity (creativity), economic value 2. as the spiritual or physical goods produced by combining work capacity with the raw materials supplied by nature. This makes the tools involved resources at a higher level of development. In this process there is no economic value that can be identified, as we do today, as the property of MONEY. Though Beuys’s economic values are equally intangible, what distinguishes them from money is their bond with natural capacities of man who is the hub of all economic activities. MONEY HAS BEEN EMANCIPATED to become the legally recognised regulator of all economic processes. In the DEMOCRATIC CENTRAL BANKING SYSTEM money has been created out of nothing. [1]

The less ideologically committed Andy Warhol or Robert Watts settled for mere irony in presenting the banknote as an “art product”. In his seventies paintings copied dollar bills in arbitrarily selected numbers and arrangements. For his part, Watts spotlighted the absurdity of our collectors’ greed for banknotes in works like his “Dollar bill in wood chest” (c. 1976) which places three piles of fake dollars inside a carefully handcrafted, made-to-measure wooden casket. By contrast, Marcel Broodthaers’ works repeatedly focused on the relationship between art appreciation and the art market in order to undermine it with irony. Even so, his approach has more in common with the detachment of a Marcel Duchamp. In his 1991 work, “Die Bank”, Thomas Huber makes a much more forceful attack in the money maker, picking up the core ideas of Joseph Beuys but treating comparability in a more poetic fashion.

Paolo Monti’s approach is quite different and distinctively his own. He is less interested in the overall social contest of money than in the formal characteristics of the banknote and the paradoxical logic that governs its operations. Many of his works directly counterpose the physical presence of the banknote and the tendentially absurd, abstract concept of monetary value. In these works, money, which Beuys himself had already proclaimed “autonomised” seems to be trapped inside its own frame of reference. What the artist does is “liberate” money by treating his banknotes with chemicals that, over time, leach out the material base from the abstract value. What that means is that once released from its “earthly” shackles of paper and shape, the abstract value is free to return to the space-time continuum, to the fourth dimension.

Monti takes his own line at one other level as well. His works of recent years, in particular, have taken a surprising turn towards the general theme of ways to represent non-visible phenomena. This leads to unusual associations between cultural and monetary phenomena, two aspects that had always been treated as antithetical in the past. The key concept in these later works is equivalence, which can be applied both to the monetary system and to the fundamental aesthetic aspects of the figurative arts. For example, in the composition of a painting or a sculpture, the relative weight of the works’ various elements plays a decisive role. When it comes to the point of intersection between money and art, the question of equivalence is posed as follows: «Is there an equivalence between art and money in terms of each system’s concepts of equilibrium and equivalence?».

While we can speak of equilibrium in discussing total monetary flows inside a given economic policy, the question of equivalence primarily takes the following form: what is the value of this or that sum of money? The answer would appear to be a simple one that covers all the almost infinite number of different goods we can buy with money at any given time, but what is the value of a work of art? Clearly we would not expect that to be indicated primarily by its market price, though a sum of money is obviously one of the many possible equivalents of an art work. Picasso, indeed, may have hit the nail on the head when he told the lady who asked what a painting of his represented: «Madame, this picture represents twenty million francs».[2]

However, if we bear Beuys’s concepts in mind, it is clear what Paolo Monti’s intentions are. Equivalence in the sense of “correspondence” creates a link between the abstract values the artist has “liberated” and the properties of the human. But then, what are these properties? And can they too be effectively represented, ie abstracted?  This takes us back to an age-old problem of the figurative arts, one that goes back as far as Plato: what does an image represent? The question is posed with the utmost clarity in Monti’s latest works which involve photographic images of the different temperature zones in the human body. The photographic technique employed visualises certain chemical and physical processes in the human body, but also the outline of the human figure photographed. In a very real sense, therefore, these photographs are portraits.  Schiebler has something to say about this too: «Since equivalent does not mean equal, it cannot be a question of substitution (but rather transposition, transformation, metabolisation).  A portrait is not a substitute for its sitter, but a reality on its own account, which in some respect has less and in others more value than the person portrayed.  Moreover, the sitter cannot be the equivalent of his portrait or why would portrait of the same sitter by different artists have different values. The actual equivalent is the image created in the artists’ mind. Fragile and subjective, that image however could only be brought into being via a medium of the same nature in the observers mind. Only money and art possess this dual ability to be both subjected to an extremely complex regulatory system and, the same time, to possess a universal capacity to achieve liberation. What they do with it depends, in both cases, on their users. [3]

lightonmyselfnow 1998 De-localisation Looks 1998 De-localisation Unlimited-Retro-action 1998

Monti uses the portrait (mostly of himself) to carry the concept of equivalence to its illogical conclusion. In doing so, he assigns a substantial role to the logical and formal aspects of the matter. However, despite their attractive colours and recognizable human figures, these pictures give the impression of an existential vacuum. Here too, his printings operate inside their own frame of reference that tends to be purely self-referential.

However, since, as already stated, Monti’s deliberations, despite their circumlocutory logical convolutions, always converge upon an existential plane, his portraits, like all his other works, are rationally constructed: like the human figure they represent, Monti’s portraits are subject to the ravages of time and decay into unrecognizability. Here too, what happens is the liberation of abstract value (in this case the value of the man whose image is depicted) in a space-time continuum that cannot be represented, in the fourth dimension. And in that dimension every avenue for experimental exploration is again open. In this way Monti wins back for alchemy its freedom of action in both the rational (money) and non-rational (art) environments. Which gives one some hope for the future.

Fiedermann Malsch
Vaduz, December 2000

[1] The Money Museum: The strange value of money in art, science and life.
[2] The fifth element: money or art
[3] ibid.



Selection of critical texts on the Art of Paolo Monti