Toward a Diagram of Mark Lombardi
Who is James R. Bath?
A nodal point in Mark Lombardi's drawing George W. Bush, Harken Energy and Jackson Stephens c. 1979-90, 5th Version, 1999, James R. Bath appears in the upper lefthand corner of the 16 1/2" x 41" piece of paper. The spatial syntax of Lombardi's drawings—which map in elegantly visual terms the secret deals and suspect associations of financiers, politicians, corporations, and governments—dictates that the more densely lines ray out from a given node, the more deeply that figure is embroiled in the tale Lombardi tells. Thirteen lines originate with or point to James R. Bath, more than any other name presented. Among those linked to this obscure yet central character are George W. Bush, Jr., George H.W. Bush, Sr., Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, Governor John B. Connally of Texas, Sheik Salim bin Laden of Saudi Arabia, and Sheik Salim's younger brother, Osama bin Laden.
The drawing is done on pale beige paper, in pencil. It follows a time-line, with dates arrayed across three horizontal tiers. These in turn support arcs denoting personal and corporate alliances, the whole comprising a skeletal resume of George W. Bush's career in the oil business. In other words, the drawing, like all Lombardi's work, is a post-Conceptual reinvention of history painting, a document of factually verifiable yet extremely pared-down relationships limned in a double light of international fame and cryptic realpolitik. Or rather, the light is triple. For, though he possessed the instincts of a private eye and the acumen of a systems-analyst, Lombardi was of course an artist, and from the raw material of wire-service reports and books by political correspondents, he drew not only chronicles of covert, high-stakes trade, but technically pristine and sensually compelling visual forms. His project's sources are profoundly art-historical, even as they are obviously journalistic, and the creative tension between abstracted, self-propelling image and direct verbal communication propels his work. Delicately balanced and gracefully enlaced, these lines and circles read from across the room as purely retinal explorations of two-dimensional space. Their stylized complexity, however, lures the eye in, to a point where language registers as legible and referentiality asserts itself through the scrim of form. A narrative emerges. Looking shifts toward reading, and Lombardi's one-two punch lands.
James R. Bath, it turns out, is a Texas businessman, a sometime aeronautics broker whose firm, Skyway Aircraft Leasing, LTD., was a Cayman Islands front amassing money for use by Oliver North in the Iran-Contra affair. Bath also served as an agent minding American interests for a quartet of Saudi Arabian billionaires, one of whom was Sheik Salim bin Laden, the oldest son and heir of Sheik Mohammed bin Laden, father of fifty-four children including Osama. According to reports by the Houston Chronicle, the Wall Street Journal, Time, and others, Bath did business in his own name but with the Saudis' money; tax records indicate that he collected a fee of 5% on their multimillion dollar American investments. In 1979, Bath contributed $50,000 to Arbusto Energy, a limited-partnership controlled by George W. Bush. As Bath had little capital of his own, oil insiders trace the funds to his silent partners, specifically Salim bin Laden. Such cash infusions from Bath's client sheiks and George H.W. Bush's cartel cronies could not, however, prop Arbusto up. The venture collapsed in 1981 and merged into the Spectrum 7 Energy Corporation. Spectrum—still with W. at the helm—evolved through more near-failures and mergers into Harken Energy, which, in 1990, embarked upon a sweetheart deal to drill oil wells in Bahrain—this regardless of the fact that Harken had never drilled an overseas well, nor a marine well of any kind. 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. The favor paid. On June 20, 1990, George W. Bush sold two-thirds of his Harken stock at $4 per share. Eight days later, Harken finished the second quarter with losses of $23 million; the stock promptly lost 75% of its value, finishing at just over $1 per share. Two months later, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the Gulf War began. All these events are cited in Lombardi's drawing.
Meanwhile, another Bath associate, Sheik Khalid bin Mafouz, was involved in the collapse (in July, 1991) of the Bank of Credit and Commerce, International, better known as BCCI. Among the sins of the Pakistani-owned BCCI were money-laundering on behalf of Colombian druglords, arms brokering, bribery, and aid to terrorists; when this cabal came unglued, millions of investors in seventy-three countries lost their life-savings. Although Bath was not personally implicated in the BCCI fiasco, an estranged business partner claims that that he, Bath, had been recruited to the CIA in 1976-77 by George Bush, Sr., after serving in the Texas Air National Guard as the buddy of George Bush, Jr. (in 1972, the two young men narrowly escaped arrest for cocaine possession). Bath's putative CIA connections, the Agency's operations in the Middle East, and the adventures of BCCI thus compose a kind of symmetry. The byzantine saga of BCCI's demise is plotted in the drawing that is perhaps Lombardi's masterwork, BCCI-ICIC-FAB, c. 1972-1991, (4th Version), 1996-2000. Unveiled in the landmark P.S. 1 exhibition "Greater New York" in 2000, this piece signaled Lombardi's arrival at the cusp of art world fame; it is now in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum. A wall-size panel schematizing twenty years of suspect alliances amongst scores of players, BCCI-ICIC-FAB… was the last major work the artist made before his death.
For those who followed the BCCI scandal—or the Harken Energy/insider trading scandal, or the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro scandal, or the Lincoln Savings & Loan scandal, or any of Lombardi's pet juggernauts—these diagrams summarize rather than amend available knowledge. He was always careful to explain that he did not conduct primary investigations, but culled his information exclusively from the public record; a basic Internet search yields multiple references to the Bath/Bush/bin Laden connection. However, ferreting out and adding up in one's own head the myriad fragments scattered across the infotainment megascape is a very different experience from standing before Lombardi's rhythmic plots. In the strangely contemplative and yet galvanizing presence of these images, the graphic equilibrium with which he invests his subjects is transformative. To track these events in the context of the drawings is to experience their import freshly, to undergo a shock of mixed recognition and surprise.
It is also to enter into a subtly intimate dialogue with the mind that laid them out in this order. Palpably handmade and unencumbered by technological gadgetry of any kind, the drawings bespeak the individual effort of a single consciousness, a watchdog enthusiast profoundly engaged with matters most of us find impossible to manage. Filtering the dizzying spectrum of contemporary power relations through his idiosyncratic vision, Lombardi imposed upon the actions of these profligate VIPs a compositional harmony that in itself constitutes a critique. Like Diego Velasquez in the court of Las Meninas or Jan van Eyck in the home of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride, the incisive social portraitist has quietly included his own observing presence in the picture.
"I am pillaging the corporate vocabulary of diagrams and charts…rearranging information in a visual format that's interesting to me and mapping the political and social terrain in which I live," Lombardi told the videographer Andy Mann in February, 1997. "He was totally consumed by the stories he was following," recalls his friend and collector Mickey Cartin.
True to their origin as traces of mental process, the images were not static, and in a sense were never complete. When new intelligence surfaced, Lombardi would revise existing drawings to include it, interweaving the divagations of his own awareness with events unfolding in the news. Since this is, de facto, what we all have to do each day, Lombardi's personal feats of attention segue again toward the public realm, this time not as comments upon the tawdry activities of bigshots, but as testimonies to the thoughts of Everyperson trying to navigate mediatized reality. "I wish that he were here now," says gallerist Deven Golden, "to give us his overview of the world stage, which I know would be delivered with a puff of his cigarette through a Cheshire smile." More than one colleague has echoed Golden's sentiment, missing not only Mark Lombardi's friendship but the drawings he might have made in recent months, wishing for his particular parsing of what are now known as "the events of September 11th"—not to mention the "events" of the November 2000 election.
Making this sleek yet polymorphous art, Mark Lombardi had achieved notable success. But his success was recent, and it is difficult for the reputation of an emerging artist to survive untimely death—especially when the work is ostensibly dependent upon the ephemera of headline news. Eighteen months after his suicide, however, Lombardi's reputation flourishes. Major collections are acquiring the drawings; they are regularly included in important thematic exhibitions. In agreement with the Lombardi family, Joe Amrhein of Williamsburg's Pierogi Gallery has undertaken management of the estate, negotiating with collectors, administering exhibition loans, and addressing issues of conservation and display. Encouraged by Amrhein, critic Robert Hobbs and the Independent Curators International have recently committed to mounting a retrospective—venue, scheduling, and number of works to be determined. In anticipation of such developments, a group of artists, gallerists, critics, and curators who support Mark Lombardi's legacy have graciously contributed their thoughts and reminiscences to this article.Mark Lombardi was born in Syracuse in 1951, and received his B.A. in art history from Syracuse University in 1974. Upon graduation, he moved to Texas at the invitation of curator Jim Harithas, who had been appointed director of Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum. Lombardi worked as a curatorial assistant to Harithas, as an arts librarian at the public library, and as a gallery assistant and preparator, eventually becoming owner and director of Square One Gallery and Lombardi Gallery. In 1994 he abandoned neo-geo abstract painting, and embarked upon a fresh body of work. The vision for this novel enterprise arrived in an apparent "eureka!" moment—doodling on a napkin while talking on the phone. "Knowing his mind, I'm sure he looked at that napkin and saw possibilities for the next twenty years of work," says his close friend, painter Greg Stone. "He thought in branching structures. He would have seen the whole instantly." According to Deven Golden, whose gallery represented Lombardi from 1998 until its closure in 2000, Lombardi gravitated toward the new idea because "the diagrams were more visually interesting than his paintings. And, perhaps just as importantly, they pulled together everything Mark was interested in—drawing, social/commercial interactions and their hierarchies, and politics—into a single pursuit."
Showing this new material, Lombardi began to gain recognition in Houston, where he was already well known after two decades of administrative involvement in the arts. Solo shows were installed at the Lawndale Art and Performance Center (where he was chosen by guest curator Paul Schimmel, of LA MoCA) and at Robert McClain & Co. At the latter space, in September 1996, Lombardi met Williamsburg-based artist Fred Tomaselli, who told him about Joe Amrhein and Pierogi Gallery.
Lombardi moved to Williamsburg in 1997. A series of small but successful group shows ensued, beginning with "Selections: Winter 1997" at the Drawing Center. Lombardi also established contact with Amrhein, though no specific planning on his part to court Pierogi Gallery was obvious to Amrhein when they met.
"Silent Partners" opened at Pierogi in December, 1998, followed by the group exhibition "Why Can't We All Just Get Along?" at Deven Golden Fine Art, and an invitation to join Golden's roster. Lombardi seemed to be in his element, relishing the social math of the gallery scene. "An art lifer, I thought," remembers artist Deborah Ripley. "He was a booster," recalls Roebling Hall gallerist Christian Viveros-Fauné.
Mickey Cartin, who, like Amrhein, was introduced to Lombardi by Fred Tomaselli, agrees:
Such encomiums to an artist's lack of ego while acknowledging his skill in knowing "which buttons to push" could sound dubious, but part of the impression Lombardi made upon his new community seems to have arisen precisely from this combination of practiced sociability and genuine ebullience. "I would ask for advice on basic art 'business' questions, and he was very generous," remembers artist Beth Campbell. "Mark was a very generous person, very open and honest," echoes gallerist Becky Kerlin, who showed Lombardi's work at Gallery Joe in Philadelphia. Golden tells the story of his first meeting with Lombardi, not as an artist on the make, but as an art mover unpacking someone else's work in Golden's space. The dealer remembers particularly that the art handler paused to look at and comment thoughtfully upon the current show.
Favorable reviews appeared by Roberta Smith in The New York Times, Raphael Rubinstein in Art in America, and Boris Moshkovits in Flash Art; synergy began to build through word-of-mouth introductions and coincidental sightings of the work. P.S. 1 senior curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, for example, saw a piece in the 1999 group show "Monumental Drawings" at Exit Art. The next year she brought Lombardi into "Greater New York."
"It seemed like he was having a great time of it—a dream come true," says Tomaselli. "He had a lot of opportunities opening up that he seemed very excited about….He felt that he would be in the Biennials soon, and of course he would have been," recalls Hilary Ann Maslon, Lombardi's girlfriend in the last year of his life. Christian Viveros-Fauné concurs:
On March 22nd, 2000, less than a month after the triumphal opening at P.S.1, Mark Lombardi hung himself in his apartment. "Mark was about a year away from really connecting with museum collections, so I'm just following up for him on what he would have been able to do if he were around," says Joe Amrhein. In practice, this means honoring an arrangement Lombardi made with Amrhein in the midst of the hubbub surrounding "Greater New York."
Amrhein estimates that Lombardi gave him eighty drawings. Roebling Hall, where Lombardi had participated in a group show called "World Trade" in 2000, also had a few pieces, as did Kerlin's Gallery Joe. Amrhein explains, "Mark was only making this work for about a six-year period, so there isn't tons left. Maybe ten of the large, finished drawings." These highly refined examples—with prices currently ranging from ten to twenty thousand dollars—are accompanied by smaller drawings in various states, from finished pieces to rough notebook studies. Stylistically the material ranges from horizontally-oriented works like George W. Bush, Harken Energy and Jackson Stephens to the tighter, more circular structures that developed out of the time-line format. Pierogi also has the prototype for a new display format Lombardi was considering, a drawing transferred onto plexiglass and mounted in a light-box. Undergirding these primary visual documents are Lombardi's library of reference books and voluminous files of index cards, on which he cross-referenced his exhaustive reading and Internet research by noting particulars about each figure in a given series.
Lombardi referred to these pieces as "narrative structures," a phrase that emphasizes not only the dramatic chronologies embodied within the drawings, but the sequential or accreting process by which they were constructed. Such emphasis on process poses interesting questions for those now interested in exhibiting the work, viz., how to contextualize the finished images with the preparatory sketches and research material. Though Lombardi was ambivalent about the relationship of this back-matter to the polished works on paper, the well-thumbed books and thousands of index cards eloquently illustrate the obsessive, almost performative nature of his endeavor. Not surprisingly, "obsessive" is the adjective his friends most often choose—along with "generous"— to describe the man and his art. In combination, the two terms epitomize the figure of the artist as compulsive articulator, a solitary node tying collective experience together. The drawings' overt narrative of swashbuckling venality thus rests upon a metanarrative about the dedicated monomaniac who gathers up the threads and recounts the story.
Both Golden and Cartin stress the step-by-step inquiry through which each piece evolved. As Golden tells it:
Cartin outlines a similar procedure:
To illustrate this layered approach for collectors, Amrhein has made it a policy to assemble packets of working drawings to accompany large, finished pieces when they are sold—recent sales to the Whitney, the Altoids Curiously Strong Collection, and the Jewish Museum follow this pattern. Conservation of the drawings' inherent interrelationships is important, Amrhein feels, because
Amrhein has not included cards in the packets of drawings accompanying large-scale acquisitions. "I don't break up the index cards. The files are one complete sort of research device, an object in and of itself. I would not consider it a piece of art work, but it is an amazing document." In the same vein, he has held back from sale a set of rough images that he hopes to preserve as a microcosm of Lombardi's graphic vocabulary.
Influencing not only the contours of a given installation but the relative value of process versus product within the larger body of work, the role assigned to supporting materials in the future will clearly have a strong impact on the critical appraisal of Lombardi's oeuvre. Most specifically, perhaps, the decision to include the research materials in formal presentations of the work emphasizes what most observers agree to call the neo-Conceptual basis of Lombardi's idea, raising corollary questions about historical precedents for the project or lineages in which it might be situated.
These questions were equally valid, of course, in his lifetime. Golden remembers that "possible ways to present the work were a constant discussion," and exhibitions personally installed by the artist solved the problem by various means. No secondary materials were included in the Pierogi show or at Roebling Hall. "I told him, 'It would be really great to see your process,' Amrhein recalls. "He was on the fence about it. I was fascinated by the cards, but he didn't want to reveal that; he thought it was a side element, a private code." Similar conversations seem to have taken place each time Lombardi hung a show. "Vicious Circles: Drawings" at Deven Golden Fine Art in 1999 included "some very preliminary sketches…to give people an idea of how the drawings grew." Finally, when Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev installed BCCI-ICIC-FAB… with Lombardi at P.S. 1, they chose to present a selection of sketches, books, and index cards. Christov-Bakargiev remembers that the artist was excited by the new presentation, and the "Greater New York" experience provides a model for ways in which the installation of a retrospective might be handled. As plans develop for the ICI show, Amrhein's discussions with curator Robert Hobbs have raised the possibility of presenting a vitrine with books and index cards. They might also collect, for the first time in an exhibition context, all seven successive versions of a particular drawing titled World Finance Corporation of Miami, Florida c. 1970 - 79 (this one chosen simply because all seven versions remain accessible to Pierogi). Installing such a series would allow viewers to walk through the structural evolution of a specific narrative, and thus discover for themselves how Lombardi's clean and carefully calibrated final forms modulate the diagrammatic content. In general, those considering the impact of a large-scale solo show seem to agree that the inclusion of developmental drawings and objects is necessary, as long as the fluctuant yet vivid line between preliminary and perfected versions of the drawings is maintained.
"His library fascinated me, and I saw his card-file as an object of intrigue in itself, like a drawing folded up and tucked back into its womb," muses Mickey Cartin.
The "speaking for itself" that both Viveros-Fauné and Golden "hear" in the project underlines Lombardi's interest in creating traditional (i.e. non-Conceptual) objects of beauty, available for aesthetic contemplation without theoretical buttressing. Such "speaking" is part of the project's narrativity, its interest in non-difficult or transparent communication. Lombardi's webs of conspiracy may lead the mind to boggle, but they are not hard to read and do not require extensive art-historical background to understand. As Viveros-Fauné puts it, "His work is a kind of high-end tabloid, and that's part of its punch." Here, again, Lombardi doubles back upon Conceptual examples. His patterns conceptualize narration, but also depart from the visually restricted, anti-pictorial grammar of high Conceptualism. What Viveros-Fauné calls "Pop Conceptualism" encourages the viewer to consider the implications of reading current-events as art, even as its geometric elegance appeals directly the eye. Presenting nothing but data and pattern, Lombardi reminds us that data is pattern; his use of media (paper and pencil; books and magazines) is so apparently simple that simplicity dissolves into itself, problematizing the very concept of "mediation." Simultaneously revoking and reinscribing sensuality, the marks of pencil on paper—basic tools of notetaking as well as draughtsmanship—purge the work of overt decoration in good Conceptual fashion. But they also insist upon tactility and gesture, an expressiveness not typically associated with Conceptualist strategies. Similarly, the index cards (again handwritten, on paper) accentuate the origin of the object in disembodied idea, but also stain that imagined purity with the sweat of hands-on study.
"It's a human being mapping human activity, and it's beautiful, even if the facts are hideous. People respond to that," says Greg Stone.
Significantly, these "real-world" responses often involve law enforcement personnel, corporate-style institutions, and journalists—the very professionals whose information vocabularies Lombardi "pillaged." Stone tells, for example, about the time he brought a friend who wrote for the Wall Street Journal to see George W. Bush, Harken Energy and Jackson Stephens.
Painter David Brody invited his cousin, a private investigator, to see the Pierogi show. "He was fascinated because, as he told me, 'This is exactly the kind of thing I do when I'm on a case.' " Joe Amrhein, meanwhile, recounts the story of an unnamed corporate art collection whose enthusiasm waned suddenly:
Most spectacularly, Whitney curator Lawrence Rinder, who brought BCCI-ICIC-FAB… into the Museum, reports that "one curious event involving this piece occurred recently when, following the September 11th attacks, the FBI requested permission to examine it." Rinder does not discuss the agents' findings. But the picture of federal authorities trooping through the Whitney to read Lombardi's rendering of history blurs the always wobbly art/life line into an infinite regression, a situation Lombardi would undoubtedly have appreciated.
In this hall of mirrors it is important to bear in mind, however, Lombardi's insistence that his work was always aesthetic, never investigative. "I asked Mark," Stone remembers, "'How would you feel if some shady character bought your work just to hide it from the public and shield himself from nasty revelations?' 'I could only hope I'm that important,'" Lombardi replied. Maslon recalls,
For Cartin, Lombardi was compelling, both as a friend and as an artist, precisely because of this blur, which in his view extended from the social phenomena of banking and government to the interior structures of personal psychology.
What went wrong for Mark Lombardi? "People were lining up to meet him. His whole life was about to change," says Greg Stone. "He had what every artist is looking for; it was all happening." Most acquaintances agree that, as Stone asserts, "He was ambitious. Mark wanted to be a famous artist. No doubt about it." Fewer saw the tension that the ostensible gratification of this ambition seemed to cause. "Joe said to me a couple of times, 'I think there's really something wrong with Mark,'" remembers Amrhein's partner, Susan Swenson. "But he always seemed so together." "He got caught," Stone says.
"Mark was obviously very obsessive," says Maslon.
Like Amrhein, Christian Viveros-Fauné now wonders if he should have heard a warning in Lombardi's request that his gallerists take work out of his studio. "It sounded reasonable at the time. Now it seems like he might have been prepping himself for something. But a lot of this is just Monday-morning quarterbacking." Such speculation is, of course, inevitable in community where there has been a shocking loss. "There has been a lot of collective soul-searching," Viveros-Fauné continues.
Both Maslon and Swenson quote one of Lombardi's sisters who told them, in Maslon's words, "that she felt, when he moved to New York, that it was the beginning of the end for him. I think she sensed that Mark liked to have a safe, controlled environment, and New York City is the antithesis of that." Several friends refer cautiously to bouts of excessive drinking and other addictive habits, and close observers admit that in spite of his success, as Golden puts it, "there's no doubt that Mark was going through a rough patch." His truck had been totaled while parked on the street; he talked of leaving New York for Australia. Maslon states frankly that when she returned from a trip to Brazil immediately after the "Greater New York" opening, she found that "he was acting very strange—very manic, very erratic. It looked like he hadn't slept in a week."
Those who noticed this apparent sleep-deprivation and knew about its cause return to the circumstances as a possible catalyst for Lombardi's breakdown. Some ten days before the "Greater New York" opening, a sprinkler system in his live/work space malfunctioned. Rusty water destroyed a number of drawings, including the version of BCCI-ICIC-FAB… that Christov-Bakargiev had already selected for P.S. 1. "Mark's studio and apartment was, literally, a dark hole," as Golden describes it, and at the time of the sprinkler accident, both the culminating expression of his current body of and a mock-up for a new formal experiment were packed into this inner sanctum.
"Mark knew 'Greater New York' would be huge for him, and he stayed up for days in a row redoing the BCCI drawing. I don't think he ever recovered," Greg Stone declares. Still, Stone acknowledges that Lombardi was pleased with the remade piece. Amrhein agrees on both counts.
"A flood doesn't add up to hanging yourself from the rafters," Viveros-Fauné points out, and for Golden, "The destruction of the BCCI drawing was bad, but I wouldn't call it catastrophic. No doubt, it bummed him out. Still, his new one was even better, and I know that Mark thought so as well." Lombardi did not stress the importance of the incident to Maslon, and neither Fred Tomaselli, an intimate friend with whom he often discussed studio practice, nor Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, who worked closely with him installing at P.S. 1, knew about it until after his death.
"He told me he had been taking sleeping pills," Maslon recalls.
Maslon called the police. Her profile of Lombardi's mental state and habits were sufficient to convince them to force the door of his apartment; they found his body, alongside a champagne bottle that he had opened, apparently drunk from, and suspended from the ceiling.
Invariably, when people who know the substance of his work hear of his death, they wonder if Mark Lombardi could have been murdered. His own story seems to eerily overlap the red-pencilled codas in his drawings, "…found dead in his hotel room…" "…apparently assassinated…" Tempting as such conspiracy theories are, however, no evidence argues for them. "I asked the detective involved in the case if he thought Mark might have been killed," Maslon explains.
Susan Swenson recounts similar conversations with the police regarding forensic and psychological indicators. Along with Hilary Ann Maslon, Swenson and Amrhein were the first friends to arrive at Lombardi's apartment, and in the days following his death, they arranged with his family for the collection and storage of all the artwork and research matter that remained there. The index cards, testament to thousands of hours of Lombardi's time, were taken back to Syracuse by his parents; their agreement with Pierogi offers to make the files available as specific curatorial or research needs arise. Meanwhile, Amrhein and Swenson have stored Lombardi's library and other ephemera recovered from the studio, and Swenson has attempted to construct a complete curriculum vitae and catalogue raisonné.
Nevertheless, Amrhein acknowledges that he does not have a complete catalogue of Lombardi's output.
The sketches Lombardi showed Amrhein laid out plans for a new series, distinct from the other unrealized idea to display the network-style drawings in light-boxes. Tantalizingly, these works may have suggested a coming-together of the "narrative structures" work with the abstract painting Lombardi had pursued for years in Texas. Amrhein recalls,
If an artist's reputation survives because he or she has been inserted into a canon (if not the canon), then postulating art-historical precedents for Mark Lombardi's work becomes a primary task facing his supporters. It is a testament to the subtlety and flexibility of his drawings that the question "Whom do you see as Lombardi's forerunners or key contemporaries?" elicits such a wildly variegated field of comparisons. Plotting the formal and theoretical relationships among the assorted names mentioned would create a diagram of influence and reflection not unlike the images themselves. And, like his images, the matrix of relationship in which his colleagues place him itself describes a portrait of the larger community.
Here again the lineaments of Conceptualism arise repeatedly, only to be unraveled or complicated almost past recognition. Robert Hobbs, for example, gives equal weight to the term and to its ostensible opposite, the lyric. Lombardi's images "hit me very hard," Hobbs says.
Curator Richard Klein, who included Lombardi in his thematic exhibition "Art at the Edge of the Law" at the Aldrich Museum in Connecticut this year, likewise identifies a mix of neo- or post-Conceptualism with a contradictory or leavening ingredient. In Klein's view, the crucial alloy appears as a populist or entertainment-oriented code of ethics.
Novelistic coherence and sprawling scope also arise in Deven Golden's mind, through comparisons to social satirists like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. Garrulous, mimetic, and moralizing as these writers may be, in the context of Lombardi's interests they do not fall as far from Conceptual models as one might think. For, as Fred Tomaselli points out, the Conceptual stereotype of dry intellectualism is belied by a covert investment in the very qualities Klein highlights. After all, the whodunit and the document of art-as-idea share a questing after ultimate truths, first causes.
Not surprisingly, when asked what kinds of images Lombardi had collected in his studio, Hilary Ann Maslon refers to "a book on alchemy, full of graphs and charts, the aesthetics of ancient maps, etc." The rhizomatic, fantastical, fractal-architectural forms suggested by such sources posit a world where order and disorder fuse and cross-pollinate—from this perspective, one could argue for a zeitgeist shared by many of Lombardi's Brooklyn peers. Fred Tomaselli, Greg Stone, David Brody, and Beth Campbell (among others) might all be said to play with elaborate spatial constructs that justify themselves in abstract terms, but also read as maps of social information and personal activity. These are not the heroic meditations of Ab Ex, but a compulsive, pastiche-oriented, cartoon-inflected inscription of overload. Tomaselli continues,
This stylistic sub-set or cohort—like the artists ranged within Christian Viveros-Fauné's "Pop Conceptualist" rubric, or the so-called "chart art" of Campbell, Danica Phelps, or Janet Cohen—accept Conceptualism's challenge by interrogating the philosophical premises of art. But they also take obvious pleasure in surface and good-looks. "It's not eye-candy," as Viveros-Fauné says. "But at a certain level, it is."
From the Williamsburg nucleus, Lombardi's associative genealogy goes on, looping from hermetic-humorous visionaries like Alfred Jensen, Oyvind Fahlstrom, or Matthew Ritchie, to abstract diarists like Hanne Darboven and Roman Opalka, to practical intellectuals like Robert Smithson or Gordon Matta-Clark. Greg Stone, meanwhile, offers two names—Francisco de Goya, and Jackson Pollock—rarely connected in a single arc.
Circling back upon itself like the spheroid tracery of his later drawings, the hypothetical sociogram of Lombardi's art historical affinities might finally branch in two directions. On one hand, a statement by curator Susette Min (who included him in "Errant Gestures: Visual and Verbal Correspondences" at Apex Art in 2000) summarizes the multifaceted appeal of his enterprise.
On the other hand, Greg Stone wipes the slate clean, returning the multiple chains of association to their origin in Lombardi's mind.
Distilled from a welter of dis- and misinformation and refined from dense archives of aesthetic experiment, Lombardi's "narrative structures" demonstrate a Cheshire understanding of the reciprocity between factual solidity and mutable appearance. In a media culture where few sources report the fine print on collusion between financial markets, political operatives, and corporate entities, and few commentators acknowledge how fluidly form and content, being and seeming blend, his work both emphasizes and redresses the lack of coherent analysis from journalistic and governmental experts. But perhaps more importantly, it obeys Joseph Kosuth's assertion that "art…fulfills what another age might have called 'man's spiritual needs.'" Like John Baldessari, Lombardi culls from the annals of pop culture to make life's mediatized fragments speak back to themselves as art; on a profound level, Lombardi's drawings, as Baldessari says, "want to re-enchant and re-mythologize." A comparison with Hans Haacke's "Untitled Statement" (1966) becomes suggestive:
For the natural, phenomenological, and sensory terms here, read social phenomena in Lombardi's realm: the "environment" is geopolitical; "indeterminacy" is informational; "light and temperature" "air currents" and "the forces of gravity" are expressed as market currents, degrees of risk, secrecy, and the force of law—or lack thereof. The spectator is asked to "play with" and "experience" time as packaged by communication channels, to articulate the perhaps-natural, perhaps-entirely-manipulated "somethings" of greed, coercion, and media attention—or its deficit. As Haacke puts it, "the viewer now becomes a witness. A system is not imagined; it is real."
"Real," but redolent of fantasy and cerebration, Lombardi's images have the delicacy of snowflakes; they are a "plan that implies infinity," as Sol Lewitt says. It could be argued that nothing is more rational than a reporter's step-by-step untangling of money-trails. But Lombardi is a visionary as much as a reporter, and his work is "mystic rather than rationalist" in that it seeks to comprehend incomprehensible scope, to graph in condensed form the power that quite literally rules the world. His drawings satisfy because they address a human need for coherent order drawn from chaos. Such a need, however, is bound to be frustrated. Instead of blueprinting perfection, the works' aura of mastery arises in the context of a sprawling dystopia. Their fragile wholism is poisoned by the sinister and cynical events that they describe—acid rain erodes the snowflake; the pattern is upset; inquiry must be renewed. As stories about reality, Lombardi's drawings offer a kind of wish-fulfillment for the confused but conscientious citizen—"Can you show me how this works?" In a way, he can. But on a deeper level, of course, it is not that such concerns about democracy and disclosure, pleasure and design, are ever answered. Rather, Lombardi inscribes a surface on which public happenings and their corollary thought-structures can be indexed. His drawings delimit a field in which aesthetic, geopolitical, and epistemological concerns are not mutually exclusive, where their self-mirroring identities are tabulated and given two-dimensional form. Or, to reverse the equation, in these drawings, the free play of geometric mark-making is imbued with forceful narrative significance, without becoming any less abstract, any less free.
Notes & Sources
Interviews cited in this article took place in person and/or by email between May and November, 2001.
Many thanks to those interviewed, and to others who have contributed conversation and observations, including:
Joe Amrhein, David Brody, Beth Campbell, Mickey Cartin, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Alan Gilbert, Deven Golden, Kirsten Hively, Robert Hobbs, Yun-Fei Ji, Becky Kerlin, Richard Klein, Hilary Ann Maslon. Susette Min, Sina Najafi, Kristin Prevallet, Larry Rinder, Deb Singer, Greg Stone, Susan Swenson, Fred Tomaselli, & Christian Viveros-Fauné
For general information, images, and memorial reminiscences about Mark Lombardi, see www.pierogi2000.com
For information regarding James R. Bath and his connections with George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Sheik Salim bin Laden, and Osama bin Laden, see (among many others):
On Jackson Stephens, see www.freerepublic.com/forum/a37d95a0809ce.html
1 Joseph Kosuth, "Art After Philosophy" (1969), in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings, ed. Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, (Berkeley, CA: UC Press, 1996), p. 847.
George W. Bush, Harken Energy and
Click to see a larger version of the whole drawing. Below are details from the same drawing. For more detail, see Cabinet magazine (immaterial.net/cabinet), Issue 2 (Spring 2001) which included a foldout print of the drawing.