An artist’s obsession with drawing the connections between Swiss banks, global terrorists, and U.S. politicians
The artist Mark Lombardi is by no means a household name, which is why it’s surprising that he was known to the FBI.
Agents showed up at the Whitney Museum of American Art after the World Trade Center towers went down and asked to see one of Lombardi’s drawings. The agency was interested in Osama bin Laden and his associates, and one of Lombardi’s precise hand-drawn flow charts was useful for this. Perhaps the agents were hoping to see something—a connection, a warning sign, a new name—they had missed, hoping that Mark Lombardi hadn’t. It wouldn’t surprise me if they found what they were looking for in Lombardi’s art. He had an incredible way of seeing how the world fit together.
Lombardi committed suicide in 2000 at the age of 48. He spent his last six years making intricate drawings that from afar look like clouds, ellipses, sea creatures, or constellations. Step closer, however, and you realize the shapes are telling stories. In George W. Bush, Harken Energy and Jackson Stephens, c. 1979-90, 5th Version we see the moment Harken Energy buys the Bush-operated Spectrum 7 Energy Corporation and then trace the many profitable connections that follow until we arrive at the moment “Bush bails out with profit.”
In his drawings, you find the names of banks, senators, sheiks, popes, gangsters, presidents, and real estate holding companies, and see the connections and monetary exchanges between them all. As you might imagine, Swiss banks show up a lot.
The drawings have the precision of blueprints but the flow of nature. Sometimes Lombardi centers them on a timeline, with years running along a horizontal axis and names arcing off. Sometimes he organizes the drawings around more elliptical relationships, with one person becoming his or her own little center of gravity while the connections spiral out. These latter drawings take my breath away.
They were originally intended as aids for written pieces, but Lombardi quickly realized that they worked perfectly on their own. In his art shows, Lombardi presented his drawings along with a legend, which helped further the narrative. “Some type of influence or control,” it explained. Other lines represented “Sale or transfer of an asset,” or “Flow of money, loans or credits.”
All of the information he visualized in his drawings came from the public record. Lombardi read four or five newspapers a day. He’d write notes on three-by-five index cards; there were more than 12,000 at the time of his death. Once he started in on the drawings, he’d turn on the stereo full blast with white noise and lay out groupings of cards and piece together the interrelationships. He would work two to three days without sleeping.
When Lombardi first started working on the drawing series, he found himself paranoid about the information he was synthesizing. These were, after all, powerful relationships. And while everything was drawn from sources you or I could find, the simplicity and clarity of the drawings made the relationships feel so bare. It’s one thing to read about George W. Bush’s personal connections to people who supported Osama bin Laden; it’s a completely different thing to see their names connected with a flurry of short, arcing arrows. Here’s how Oliver North got money to the Iranians; here’s the information about money, arms, and nuclear weapons the United States gave to Saddam Hussein during the same period; here’s the support given to Osama bin Laden; here are the banks and shadow corporations set up to do this; here are the politicians, public figures, and businesspeople who profited.
I have to be careful when I examine his work because it changes the color of the world for me. Belief in coincidence fades. Here’s a note I wrote to myself quickly one night while reading about Lombardi:
“How’d the FBI know?” Originally it was just a reminder to look it up later. But after examining BCCI-ICIC & FAB, 1972-91, 4th Version, the drawing the FBI came to the Whitney to see after 9/11, I began to see the world as a sinister organization. This drawing dissects the bank that, beneath a sheen of legitimacy, funneled money to “a panoply of international gangsters, arms dealers, bagmen, corrupt foreign officials, drug smugglers, tax evaders, money launderers and agents of influence, not to mention elements of the intelligence services of the U.S., U.K., Pakistan, U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia,” in Lombardi’s words. It’s the organization of this information that makes Mark Lombardi’s work so seminal. He was operating long before internet searches made connections second nature to us, long before visualized data were commonplace on the front page of The New York Times.
Dr. Robert Hobbs, the curator of a 2003 retrospective of Lombardi’s work at the Drawing Center in New York City, told me that people traveled from out of state to see the pencil-drawn work. Part of the reason was that the drawings don’t reproduce that well; the graphite lines are not camera-friendly and the pieces are quite big. But the main reason, he said, was that they’d come to see a complete rendering of “the global community of power.” The world isn’t a bunch of molecules randomly bumping into each other; it’s organized. And even though it’s often organized in ways that are pretty unappealing, Lombardi's work gives this information structure, narrative, and ultimately grace.