Weird how art communicates deep or secret things about its maker. The first words I said to Mark Lombardi when I met him on November 19, 1998, the day before his New York debut opened, were "You're not crazy or going to kill yourself, are you? Should I be nervous?" He gripped his Styrofoam coffee cup, took a rapid drag off his cigarette, grinned, gave me a funny sidelong glance, and chuckled, "No." Sixteen months later, on March 22, 2000, Lombardi hanged himself in his Williamsburg loft. Friends said he had been "stressed out." Hinting at a darker side, some reported that he had been "warned" not to exhibit work tracing the political and financial doings of several mob families.
Lombardi was obsessed with conspiracy. To make his art -- big, lacy, seemingly innocent ornamental diagrams that resemble flow charts, star maps, blueprints or subway plans -- he lived, breathed and slept conspiracy. (Two of these color-coded beauties are featured in the New Museum's current "Inside the Grid"; two more can be seen in "High & Inside" at Marlborough Chelsea.) And boy, did he research it. Lombardi maintained a file of more than 12,000 index cards listing facts and figures associated with various scandals, culled during hours spent over books and periodicals. His subjects ranged from the familiar to the obscure to the sinister and included the savings-and-loan crisis, the arming of Iraq, Whitewater, the Iran-Contra affair, and the Vatican Bank scandal. Names like George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger, Meyer Lansky, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden pop up. As do cartels and companies like Lockheed, JP Morgan, BCCI and Drexel Burnham. There are also a host of shady bankers, CEOs, spooks and criminals. A line labeled "75 million dollars" might connect to a circle with the name Richard Perle that leads to another labeled Kissinger. Oliver North and Pat Robertson are linked together, as are the pope and Margaret Thatcher. Pretty soon you find yourself fixated on conspiracy, too.
Needless to say, our post-9-11 age would have been Lombardi's glory days. I don't mean this lightly. We need him. It's heartbreaking that he isn't here to help diagram everything that has happened lately.
Pierogi's show of 37 of his small preparatory drawings, all made in the seven years before his death, and all executed in his spidery scrawl, provides a fascinating glimpse into the configurations Lombardi experimented with before making his super-neat final drawings. It's also a poignant reminder that Lombardi's story doesn't happen much in New York anymore. In 1996, at the urging of Fred Tomaselli and the late Colin de Land (both of whom saw his work in Texas), and at the relatively late age of 45, Lombardi moved to Brooklyn from Houston, where he had operated his own gallery, Square One. Once here, things happened fast. He fell in with a group of artists. His work got out. Writers took notice. Collectors started buying. By 1998, with the help of Joe Amrhein, the Williamsburg gallerist-patron saint who runs Pierogi, Lombardi's star was on the rise.
That year he had his first New York solo show at Pierogi. "Silent Partners," that compelling exhibition of complicated diagrams and a few raw preparatory sketches, was followed by an even more impressive outing, "Vicious Circles," at the now defunct Devon Goldin Gallery in Chelsea. In 2000, he was a standout in "Greater New York" at P.S.1. Everything was going Lombardi's way. Then he was gone.
His work smolders on. Stylistically, Lombardi owes much to conceptualists like Mel Bochner and Sol LeWitt. But he also connects to oddballs like Kim Jones, Dennis Balk and Nicholas Rule, and to newcomers like Benjamin Edwards, Elizabeth Campbell and Julie Mehretu. Lombardi called his drawings "narrative structures." In fact, he never tells overt stories. He just provides names, dates, amounts of money and governments. This, combined with the extreme polish of his large drawings, can make his work seem vague or detached. The preparatory sketches, while smaller and looser, can blend into one another. But there's something mad and absorbing about all of them.
Lombardi is more than a conceptualist or political artist. He's a sorcerer whose drawings are crypto-mystical talismans or visual exorcisms meant to immobilize enemies, tap secret knowledge, summon power and expose demons. The demons Lombardi concerned himself with, however, weren't otherworldly. He was after real people who were either hiding in plain sight or who had managed to fade into the woodwork. Lombardi was on a mission: He wanted to right wrongs by revealing them. Instead of critiquing the system, like so many contemporary conceptualists, or journeying to other psychic dimensions like shamans, Lombardi assumed the personas of the grand inquisitor, the private investigator, and the lone reporter. He followed the money.
I loved the way his mind worked. But it was his wildly suspicious imagination and his maniacal attention to and ultra-distrust of the status quo that made me think Lombardi was ill-starred. He was a rangy, whimsical, articulate guy, prone to fidgetiness and discomfiture, and if you asked him anything about his work, you'd get a way too detailed answer. But these garrulous explanations always came with a crooked smile and an expectant look that seemed to say, "I know this is strange, but it's all true."
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this review first appeared.