An artist reveals the networks of power and money underlying the modern world
Though artist Mark Lombardi died in 2000, his work maintains a fascinating relevance today. Global Networks, a traveling exhibit featuring Lombardi’s drawings, is on display at the Faulconer Gallery at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa through August 1. Organized by Independent Curators International, the seven-city tour will end after a stay at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto from September 10 to December 5. — The Editors
If I could, I would ask Mark Lombardi a lot of questions. Questions like “To what extent did you realize Osama bin Laden posed a significant threat to America?” and “Does it scare you that an FBI agent requested to see one of your drawings just after the attacks on September 11?” And especially “Who are the real ‘evil ones’ the American public should be concerned about?” Unfortunately, I’ll never ask him these questions — Lombardi committed suicide in his Brooklyn studio in 2000. He was 48 years old.
The crowd today at the Drawing Center in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood is nothing like the typical Saturday gallery-hopping throng. There are somber old people, shaking their heads. There are bright-eyed, disbelieving young people, obviously inspired by Lombardi’s drawings. And, most incongruously, there are middle-aged Wall Street types in suits, soberly staring down the pieces with blank, sad eyes. They’re here to see Global Networks, a posthumous retrospective of Lombardi’s huge, impossibly detailed diagrammatic drawings of high-profile financial and political scandals involving government and corporate personnel from all over the world.
From far away, Lombardi’s drawings look like tightly composed scientific or business diagrams. Swooping arrows conjoin dozens of nodes, mapping the dizzying interconnectedness of politics to corporations, of corporations to natural resources, and, of course, of natural resources to politics. Move in closer and it becomes clear that the drawings’ form is a convenient method of exposing their damning content.
“It’s an electrifying moment,” says Frances Richard, who teaches at Barnard College and wrote one of the two catalog essays for the Global Networks exhibit. “You’ve just enjoyed your visual cake, airy and fragile and decoratively luscious, and then you’re forced to eat it, to digest this heavy dose of economic, political, caustic, and complicated reference.”
Lombardi began making his diagram-drawings in 1994, in the midst of the roaring ’90s and well before Osama bin Laden had supplanted Saddam Hussein as America’s favorite villain. The drawings coolly show the recurrent corruption and disturbing greed of advanced capitalism at work, usually centering on banking and investment scandals that are normally cursorily skimmed in newspaper business sections. Taken as a group, Lombardi’s drawings represent a powerful critique of the dysfunctions of the global economy and economic laissez-faire of the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush regimes. As the capital piled up and the ’90s boomed all around him, Lombardi refused to let white-collar criminals off the hook.
Lombardi based his information-overloaded drawings on meticulous research he conducted using mostly public records available at local libraries. He discovered his talent for research when he was a college undergraduate. While studying at Syracuse University, Lombardi worked as chief researcher for the Everson Museum at Syracuse’s 1973 Teapot Dome to Watergate show. He later moved to Houston, a location that would further influence the direction his art would later take. Living in the heart of oil country and the epicenter for the savings and loan scandals exposed in the late 1980s by Houston journalist Pete Brewton informed the artwork that Lombardi would later produce.
Legend has it that Lombardi happened upon the format for his complex drawings while talking on the phone to a lawyer friend who was explaining a complicated network of political and corporate relationships. While his friend talked, Lombardi jotted webs to arrange the information in a visually legible manner. Something clicked.
Though these drawings evolved between 1994 and 2000, their content remained remarkably focused on money and transfer among the global power elite: the axis of greed, if you will.
“Mark was making available a scheme for looking at what is mostly hidden, counteracting the aura of infotainment chaos with the presentation of causality,” Richard says.
Without a doubt, the most chilling Lombardi drawing in the context of America’s current political situation is George W. Bush, Harken Energy and Jackson Stephens, c. 1979-1990 (5th version), completed in 1999. Lombardi clearly shows money flowing from Republican backers through the Republican National Committee to George H.W. Bush, to George W. Bush’s Texas-based company Harken Energy, to the mysterious James R. Bath, to Sheik Salim bin Laden — brother of Osama. James R. Bath was a Houston businessman who was hired in the late ’70s by wealthy Saudis to invest in American corporations with their money. In 1979, Bath invested in W’s Arbusto Energy, which eventually merged with Spectrum 7 Energy Corporation, retaining W as its head and later merging into Harken Energy.
In her article “Obsessive — Generous,” published online by Williamsburg Quarterly (www.wburg.com) and excerpted for the Global Networks catalog, Richard explains, “In 1990 [Harken Energy] embarked upon a sweetheart deal to drill oil wells in Bahrain. . . . Oil industry cognoscenti again assume that the Bahrain contract was orchestrated as a favor from the Saudis to the American chief executive and his family.” George W. Bush made out like a bandit when, in 1990, he sold the majority of his Harken Energy stock, and watched as the stock lost 75 percent of its value as his father became involved in the Gulf War.
As if W’s chilling involvement in the bin Ladens’ wealth accumulation wasn’t bad enough, Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, Reagan, Bush, and Thatcher and the Arming of Iraq, ca. 1983-1991, a 1995 drawing, details the involvement of two American presidents in the well-known funding of Saddam Hussein to combat a feared enemy of Reagan and George H.W. Bush: Iran. This drawing plainly shows enormous sums of money (between $800 million and $950 million) flowing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture under Secretary John Block to the Commodity Credit Corporation, to several other corporations, then to Iraq for the purpose of arms purchases.
While the rest of the art world was consumed with identity politics and free-for-all “pluralism,” Lombardi’s work was an austere and solitary island. In part because of the obvious disparity between his complex mapping of politics and economics and the typical work of the rest of the New York art world, Lombardi seemed to be on the cusp of real art world stardom.
“I think he was due for a significant step into fame,” Richard says. “And I also think that success would have created an interesting context for change in the work. It would have been fascinating to see him extend the use of ‘corporate vernacular,’ as he called it, to tackle things like 9/11 or Enron, or even to grapple with the change in his own finances.”
Lombardi’s big break seemed to come when he was invited to show BCCI-ICIC-FAB, c. 1972-1991 (4th version), a drawing narrating the collapse of the monumentally corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce, International, at the Museum of Modern Art’s P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center’s Greater New York group show in February 2000. While it was a huge step forward in his art career, everything wasn’t necessarily perfect for Lombardi. He battled with depression — which friends speculate was at least partly influenced by the truths he learned about in his work — and he drank excessively. He also experienced a crushing string of bad luck in the spring of 2000, culminating in the sprinkler system in his studio malfunctioning a mere 10 days before the Greater New York opening, destroying several drawings, including the one scheduled to show at P.S. 1. Although he remade the piece in time for the show, the strain of working so quickly may have put him over the edge.
He was found hanged from his ceiling less than a month after the opening of Greater New York.
There’s a temptation to construct elaborate theories that Lombardi was killed by the same shadowy — and-not-so-shadowy — figures his artwork revealed, but no one gives such speculation much currency. According to friends and acquaintances, Lombardi was unhappy, maybe a little manic-depressive, and definitely a lot obsessive. And he’s seriously missed by the close-knit community of artists and art professionals in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.
“People missed him not only as a friend, a member of the community, and an exciting artist,” Richard says, “but also as what you might call a public intellectual, a watchdog, a commentator, and an explainer.”
The difference between Lombardi and most other people is that most other people let these things go. They shake their heads after reading the business section and move on. Lombardi clearly couldn’t. His drawings lucidly document the painful fallibility of late capitalism’s banking and governmental structures and the international instability they caused — ultimately leading to catastrophic events like September 11. Lombardi’s work is a total debunking of the naive idea that governments and corporations are looking out for your best interest, a cold denial that the PR machines these institutions employ give the public any semblance of what happens behind the scenes, any semblance of the truth.
Lombardi’s drawings are also impossibly delicate and gorgeously ethereal. Back away from a drawing too far and the crushing information disappears, dissolving into a fragile abstraction. As Richard says, “Standing before those drawings allows political thought to touch aesthetic thought, civilian-citizen thought to mingle with aesthetic-conceptual thought, organically, as they do in real life.”
Nick Stillman writes about art, music, and politics and lives in New York City. Reprinted from Punk Planet. Subscriptions: $21.95 (6 issues) from 4229 N. Honore, Chicago, IL 60613; www.punkplanet.com