The Artist Who Obsessed the FBI
Just after midnight on March 22, 2000, police crawled through the transom of the studio belonging to a 48-year-old Conceptual artist in Brooklyn. The police discovered the artist, Mark Lombardi, neatly dressed in a dark-blue shirt and matching pants and socks, hanging from a noose slung over one of his sprinkler pipes with an open bottle of champagne suspended from a string beside him.
A full bottle of Tylenol PM was in his shirt pocket, a half-smoked joint on his nightstand. According to the medical examiner’s report, several hundred Tylenols littered the floor.
Oddly, the police report, filled out at the scene prior to the medical examiner’s arrival, did not note the unusual display. Again oddly, standard procedure to establish time of death was not followed at the scene, but the medical examiner estimated from the distension and slight discoloration of Lombardi’s abdomen that he had been dead at least 24 hours. Neither the police nor medical examiner’s report indicates that drugs or alcohol played any role in Lombardi’s death.
An autopsy, performed the next day, noted levels of Tylenol, alcohol, and marijuana in his body despite the fact that, if he had indeed been dead for more than 24 hours, the active ingredients in both Tylenol and alcohol would have metabolized out of his body. For habitual marijuana users like Lombardi, testing can detect traces of THC, the most active chemical in cannabis, in the body for up to a week after use.
By coincidence, only days before, Intelligence Newsletter, a tiny publication with a sharp focus on the intelligence community, had reported that George W. Bush’s presidential campaign could run into trouble over the candidate’s association with Khalid bin Mahfouz, banker to the Saudi royal family. Bin Mahfouz, a Saudi national, was under investigation by American authorities for surreptitiously funding a terrorist organization called al Qaeda through his charitable foundations. He had also had extensive though indirect dealings with Bush during his oil days through Texas middleman James Bath, a subject Lombardi treated extensively in his drawing series on Bush’s oil company, Harken Energy.
Bin Mahfouz was only one focus among many hundreds of others in Lombardi’s increasingly celebrated drawings, some well-known, some obscure, dating back to the Nixonian heyday of illegal campaign finance and forward to the administration of William Jefferson Clinton.
Curiously, the police did not examine Lombardi’s work, merely noting from the large number of drawings in his studio that the deceased “appears” to have been an artist. Curious, because the artist felt the FBI had been following him since his youthful days in SDS. Shortly after 9/11, FBI agents showed up at the Whitney Museum of American Art to examine his masterwork on the subject of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) and asked to remove it (the museum refused).
Lombardi’s mother, Shirley, said, “It has always bothered me, just exactly how the FBI knew it was there.” According to the vivid recollection of Lombardi’s sister Laura, a “memorial” show at New York’s Drawing Center in October 2001 was closed by nameless security officials (Lombardi’s memorial show was actually held at Gallery Joe in Philadelphia in October 2000, which makes the story less dramatic, but Homeland Security did indeed visit Lombardi’s traveling retrospective at the Drawing Center in 2003).
In early 2002, the FBI’s Operation Green Quest raided the offices of several Virginia-based Islamic charities whose Saudi funders, including bin Mahfouz and prominent Bush backers, were highlighted in Lombardi’s work. Ironically, the FBI had been examining the wrong drawing. The information it sought was prominently displayed in Lombardi’s “Harken Energy” drawing, which was spirited away by a fellow artist to Germany, where it remained for some years.
Nonetheless, after a perfunctory investigation lasting two days that consisted of brief interviews with Lombardi’s girlfriend, Hilary Maslon, and Lombardi’s parents, the Williamsburg police declared the death a suicide. The studio door, securely locked from the inside, showed no signs of forced entry except for the transom the police had opened themselves. Lombardi’s body was not marked by struggle, and the hasty autopsy determined that his injuries were consonant with having hanged himself. Although there were substantial differences between Maslon’s account and that of Shirley Lombardi, who said her son told her just two days before he died that he was jubilant both about his rising success and the prospect of moving in with Maslon, that did not convince the police to keep the investigation open, even though it is standard procedure to do so when witnesses offer significantly different testimony.
The controversy might have perversely tickled Lombardi himself, a consummate showman as well as artist, whose business card read “Death Defying Acts of Art and Conspiracy.” Over the years, Lombardi’s death has transformed itself into the ultimate piece of Conceptual Art. He was fond of remarking to the younger artists he mentored that every exhibition is a well-baited trap, that by the time a show is ready to be seen, the artist must have already stirred so much buzz among his dealers, critics, and other connections in the art world that its success is a fait accompli. As his prices, boosted by the frisson of a murder-mystery, have since soared to a quarter-million dollars for one of the larger drawings (an astronomical sum for works on paper), it is easy to imagine him chuckling somewhere in the afterlife in his characteristic cigarette rasp not only at the length of the list of the people who might want to kill him but at their celebrity—the Vatican, the Mafia, the Bushes, the CIA…
But if he was not murdered, what still mystifies many of those who knew Mark Lombardi well is why an artist of his overwhelming ambition would kill himself just as he was tasting the fruits of the success he longed for above all else.
After years of struggle (New York Times critic Roberta Smith affectionately called him the “oldest emerging artist in New York”), by 2000 Lombardi had finally arrived, overcoming an inherent prejudice against works on paper with a sensational new form of Pop Conceptualism his new admirers described as “high-end tabloid.” His intricate, spider-web traceries of global flows of “hot money” from the 1950s heyday of both the American Mafia and the Cold War to the corrosive international bank scandals of the 1990s were selling like hotcakes—particularly to the newly minted moguls of the hedge-fund business.
What was perhaps of interest to financial cognoscenti was how Lombardi’s work graphically depicted the global commingling of two very different definitions of hot money: 1) Stolen money that can be traced back to the scene of a crime. 2) In the study of economics, funds that flow into a country to take advantage of a favorable interest rate and obtain higher return; a perfectly legitimate investment vehicle.
Lombardi’s “one continual drawing in my head” visualizes the pooling of clandestine funds into an exponentially increasing pool of black money whose genealogy he traced back to a $44 billion hoard of Japanese plunder known as the Black Eagle Trust sequestered by four of Truman’s closest advisers at the end of World War II to fight the global war on Communism to come. His fascination with Michele Sindona, a pioneer in the ingenious use of derivatives, resulted in drawings series like The Pope’s Banker. These drawings show graphically how black funds bonded with the legitimate banking system through the magic multiplier of financial engineering and how, with the aid of derivatives such as gold bearer certificates, they could invade other lucrative commodities like real estate, acquire major media holdings, and, ultimately, become large enough to trigger destabilizing crises such as the U.S. subprime crises of the 1970s and 1980s with which Sindona’s investments were intertwined.
Lombardi’s BCCI series shows how this malignant growth metastasized worldwide when covert funding was driven underground by the congressional investigations of the 1970s and NSC staff began organizing private money for covert American presidential projects. The third, damaged BCCI drawing shows the entrance of the Mafia’s chief competition, the Russian mafiyeh, flush with the oil, aluminum, and other plundered riches of the former Soviet Union, into the U.S. banking system in the 1990s.
Though like most artists he had plenty of characteristics that might qualify as psychopathology to the unimaginative, Lombardi was, above all, a cunning player of the art game—so intensely competitive that some of the younger artists he mentored say he cultivated them because he couldn’t tolerate making friends in his peer group. He is remembered, in the hothouse environs of Williamsburg, both as a Cheshire Cat who liked to hide his true intentions behind a highly articulate, almost self-parodying scrim of theory that served both as a subtle form of salesmanship and as a joke on an art establishment whose pretensions often infuriated him—and as a natural-born hustler who loved the hothouse and thrived in it despite its pressures. Lanky, athletic, and attractively demented-looking, with an intensity that made his eyes pop behind his thick, black Roy Orbison glasses, he was single-mindedly focused on making his late, great idea pay off. The notion that he might kill himself for love makes some of his male (and female) friends snort with derision.
For a potential suicide, Lombardi had an extraordinarily robust sense of humor. In fact, he was an imp—exuberant, funny, mischievous, and gregarious when not working, with a toothy grin and an endearing habit of blinking rapidly while he spoke, like an urchin telling an enormous whopper. His mother liked to recall the time he trailed an entire ball of string through an art exhibition to see if he could get away with it, and the prank is a good standing metaphor for his Conceptual work.
Lombardi once joked to his friend Andy Feehan that you could tell people the truth and few would really care. In that sense, his insistence that he was “only interested in creating traditional objects of beauty, available for contemplation without theoretical buttressing” seems tongue-in-cheek, an invitation to a prankishly exciting but dangerous game of hide-and-seek.
When he was asked, as he often was, whether he feared getting a bullet in the back of his head one day because of the sensational criminal networks he documented, he would reply with apparent seriousness that he took all of his research from previously published (and legally vetted) material and could therefore put it up on a gallery or museum wall without fear of reprisal.
The art world has bought this myth uncritically to the present day, but startling new evidence makes it clear that Lombardi hoarded precisely the kind of unpublished documentation that a private investigator or investigative reporter would use in his research. He acquired much of this primary documentation through his relationship with Sissy Farenthold, one of the most politically powerful women in Texas, who launched his extraordinary late-blooming artistic success on the wings of her own political furies. In what must be one of the strangest creation-stories in art history, the former Democratic Texas House representative and onetime vice presidential candidate engaged the then-struggling artist to map covert financial activities that, conveniently, included those of her political adversaries.
Through Farenthold’s introductions the artist obtained copies of a highly controversial 1976 trust agreement between James R. Bath, an aviation broker who functioned as the Bush family’s interface with Saudi business interests in America, and Salem bin Laden, Osama’s older brother, a businessman who died in a freak light plane accident in San Antonio in 1988. Among his other activities, Bath purchased and maintained aircraft in Texas for the use of the Saudi royal family, and close connections like the bin Ladens and bin Mahfouz, the Saudi royal banker.
The artist also retained records of the FAA codes that exclude such arrangements from its regulatory oversight, an issue of some controversy after Salem bin Laden’s mysterious death but even more so when the bin Laden family was spirited out of the United States in defiance of the flight ban immediately following 9/11. These records would have been cause for concern in Bush campaign headquarters in a closely contested election year.
Ironically, the son of the enormously influential Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen, who with President George Herbert Walker Bush was one of the two most powerful politicians to come out of Texas, was Jim Bath’s business partner, thus creating equal-opportunity image anxiety.
Lombardi was emerging not only as an extraordinary artistic talent, but also, potentially, as a high-profile threat. At least six months before his death and around the time that the Whitney Museum began considering the purchase of his major work for exhibition, he was making his research available to people in positions to bring indictments and prosecute corruption worldwide.
Marcel Duchamp, the father of Dada who used ordinary objects such as the famous urinal to create heavily ironic anti-artworks based in anti-bourgeois, antiwar politics out of literature, art manifestoes, art theory, political demonstrations, theater, and graphic design, was the artist that Lombardi admired most. Lombardi went far beyond Conceptualism to lay claim to Duchamp’s mantle. Brilliantly manipulating the scrim of art-speak as a form of protective coloration, Lombardi took as his “machine” quite another form of ordinary object—an arcane litigation tool known as an interlock search, a prosaic accounting device which art specialists, understandably, failed to recognize but which is immediately familiar to attorneys who often refer to it as a “flow-of-funds” chart.
Popular among trust-busting attorneys in the 1970s—the last time busting monopolies was itself popular—an interlock search is a form of flow-chart cross-referencing the boards of companies suspected to have overly cozy links. A direct interlock exists between two companies when one person serves on the boards of both, and an indirect one when members from their boards serve together on the board of a third company. The best examples of interlocks, direct and indirect, can be found between the five American members of the oil cartels and the seven biggest American banks in the 1980s, a favorite area of Lombardi’s research.
Lombardi called his interlocks “narrative structures,” suggesting they were visible narratives that can be read just the same as a newspaper story. Small circles in his drawings identified the main players in his scenarios—individuals, corporations, and governments—along a timeline, with arcing lines showing personal and professional links. The often-dramatic curvature also suggests what is known as the “arc” of a dramatic scene.
What remains of Lombardi’s “set of written instructions” is contained in over 14,000 three-by-five-inch notecards now housed in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art. They are for the most part a hybrid of standard historiography and filmic storyboarding, based on previously published sources, which he condensed into bullet points of essential information and then carefully alphabetized.
Once he had assembled enough data on one of his subjects, he began sketching by placing the relevant index cards detailing specific connections next to the drawing in process, then organizing them into larger networks using a horizontal timeline and a drafting instrument known as a French arc for the sake of what he called “compositional unity.”
The genesis of all Mark Lombardi’s “narrative structures,” according to his dealers, were originally contained within two boxes of file cards that focused on the rogue bank BCCI. By tracing the players in those two boxes, Lombardi discovered a chronology which began with the ring of American capitalists most interested in removing Castro from power in the late 1950s and progressed to the costly, campaign-finance-inspired political interventions in the regulatory process that began in the Nixon era and which greased America’s recurrent savings-and-loan crises of the ’70s and ’80s.
The artist then followed a pattern of corporate consolidation in the activities of CIA-connected flight capital specialists such as Bernie Cornfeld’s Investors Overseas Services, an elaborate mutual fund scam eventually taken over by the criminal financier Robert Vesco that assisted large amounts of the hot money those crises generated out of the country. In drawings such as “BCCI-ICIC-FAB” and “Inner Sanctum,” Lombardi walked up the intelligence food chain to the shadowy bankers who facilitated arms and drug smuggling, espionage, and guerrilla and economic warfare to service right-wing political agendas on a global scale, from the ill-starred Bay of Pigs invasion and the colonels’ junta in Greece to Iran/Contra and the arming of Saddam Hussein.
With his invaluable cumulative record of key players and their connections among themselves and with high-level government officials, Lombardi plugged the crater blown in investigative reporting budgets by shrinking circulation, corporate consolidation, and the Internet. He passed himself off as a reporter to obtain hard information from lawyers and bankruptcy examiners and farmed out his research to lawyers and to politicians. Friends said he sourced The Washington Post, but the cards show he was also in contact with the CIA’s overlord, the National Security Council.
Lombardi always claimed to be an outsider, but at times his knowledge—and timing—were nothing short of miraculous. In 1994, just as the Senate investigating committee led by John Kerry wound down its probe on how BCCI manipulated the commodities and securities markets by acknowledging that it lacked the resources to complete it, Lombardi produced, at white-hot speed and as if on cue, a series of eight drawings that were a laundry list of the leads the Senate said it lacked the resources to explore. These include the relationship between BCCI and Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, the large state-owned Italian bank that collaborated with U.S. and British intelligence to build up the Iraqi arsenal of the 1980s; between BCCI and the late CIA director William Casey; and between BCCI and S&L fraudster Charles Keating.
Herein lies the seam of conflict in Lombardi’s character, between his youthful ideals and a young man hell-bent on achieving fame. His claim that his drawings can be read like a newspaper is disingenuous: The information in them is too complex to be comprehended without either extensive knowledge of the underlying material or continual reference to his file cards. In his lifetime, Lombardi refused to exhibit the cards alongside the drawings because, he and his last dealer insisted, they were not actually his art but “a side element, a private code.”
As Sol LeWitt has pointed out, the great peril of Conceptual Art is that anyone with a set of written instructions can do it. As a cunning and competitive player of the art game, Lombardi must have known that if he had made his cache of information entirely public, his unique commercial value as an artist would have suffered, a prospect that probably scared him more than the possibility of retaliation. At the same time, he had the moral obligation to do so, and the prospect of even greater fame as the first artist to do metadata, the equivalent of a Julian Assange or an Edward Snowden. That tension certainly drove him in the last year of his life, but whether it was enough to drive him to suicide is a question that cannot be answered without subpoenas.
Lombardi’s “continual drawing” offers a clear view of an intelligence underworld where a small group of players have, for the past 50 years, metastasized their way into the world financial system. By a curious coincidence, his death occurred the same year that the Commodities Futures Deregulation Act, enacted by President Bill Clinton with virtually the same pen stroke with which he pardoned commodities mogul Marc Rich, enabled those same players by deregulating the trade of oil, agricultural products, and other commodities in the form of swaps and other over-the-counter derivatives. The most immediate result of the act was Enron, a debacle Lombardi’s friends and colleagues wish he had been alive to draw, particularly as he had marched in a protest on Enron chief Ken Lay’s Houston home as early as 1992.
In the final months of his life, Lombardi made at least two connections that might have derailed the course of the 2000 presidential race. He was just getting started on the cross-migration of “privatized” Cold Warriors into dominant corporate positions in the oil security business, and the related cross-migration of the Russian mafia into U.S. banking. No doubt the ironies of cultural exchange in the unique shadow world he was mapping elicited a cackle or two in the smoke-filled silence of his lonely studio. But the ultimate irony, as we shall see, is that the same intelligence community he spent his life studying is now studying him.