Mark Wagner Treats Money as Art Material

Collage artist Mark Wagner treats money as a means rather than an end. Known for his intricate collages made entirely from deconstructed U.S. dollars, Wagner destroys thousands of bills yearly to create works that playfully explore the intersection of wealth, power, value, and American identity.

The result has a tongue-in-cheek quality to it that has gained attention over the years, with institutions as big as the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and Museum of Modern Art, all collecting his pieces.

But at least according to Wagner, his material of choice was discovered by mere chance. “While I was living in Brooklyn in 1999, I was making a lot of collage out of a lot of different materials,” he recalled in an interview with Topic. After first experimenting with cigarette packets, he decided to look for other familiar imagery. “I hit on the dollar bill,” he explains. “It’s the most common piece of paper, literally, in the world. When I started using it, I was just using it because it was common. And then I realized that I could bend the subject matter of the work to address what it held for people.”

Treating collage not as a verb more than a noun, Wagner defines the cutting-and-gluing technique as one of the simpler creative impulses. “Simpler than the impulse to generate a fully new thing is the impulse to alter what exists,” he writes on his website. “The world can be different, and I will make it so like this and like this.”

Making each of his pieces costs money but not as much as you’d think, and Wagner estimates that a 30 by 40 inches piece costs less than $100. “People always think that it’s expensive, but it’s not in the long run,” he notes. “I use up most of the bill. A piece might look like it has a whole lot of dollars gone into it, because it has 300 heads on it, or 1,000 heads on it, but that’s just that one little piece of paper from the middle, and the rest of those bills are being used in other works.”

Scroll down to see some of his more incredible collage pieces.