Emotional intent is often ascribed to a sensitively rendered line, but to what extent can we say other information – intellect, curiosity, politics – are being transmitted in that same line? Put another way, how much of the spectrum can touch occupy in imparting content to a work of art? The question comes to mind thinking about “Global Networks”, the Independent Curators International exhibition of Mark Lombardi’s work at The Drawing Center in Soho, where twenty-five major drawings by the late artist are currently on display.
Lombardi, for anybody who doesn’t know, made drawings of conspiracies. Not hypothetical or imaginary ones, but real ones like Iran-Contra and Charles Keating/Lincoln Savings. To do this, he pulled together hundred of facts from mainstream publications like the New York Times, Washington Post, and L.A. Times, cross referenced them on index cards – he had around 14,000 of them – and then laid out the schemes using carefully composed flow charts. His medium of choice: graphite on paper.
In a traditional artistic sense, Lombardi drawings eschew most of the draughtsman’s vocabulary. There is no shading or cross-hatching, no pentimenti or rendering, no foreshortening or perspective. It would be hard to attribute any romantic or expressionistic quality to the artist’s marks – quite the opposite, for their closest visual cousins would be scientific diagrams, power point presentations, or surveyor’s maps. Simplicity and clarity are the ruling aesthetic.
And yet, Lombardi’s drawings are overwhelming. When viewing the drawings and becoming caught up in their densely compressed narratives there is a tendency to attribute their power solely to their content. But the reality is actually far more complicated, as Lombardi was well aware. In fact, it was at the root of one of his ongoing struggles that, to an admirer looking back today, might seem strange: how to make his art work as something other than a drawing?
One doesn’t have to know a great deal about the art world to understand the real world factors that could make this question important to an artist. Unlike painting, sculpture, or video, works on paper are not considered by most to be a primary art form. As beloved as they may be by many collectors and curators, works on paper always have to fight the perception that they are merely preparatory studies and not complete artworks unto themselves. True, they often have departments at museums and magazines devoted to them, but in this way they are also, in a way, ghettoized. One need only walk through almost any museum to realize how rarely one sees a work on paper being exhibited in the main galleries. Make all the conservation arguments you want, it is obvious that in the view of curators, drawing can’t be an artist’s main work. At the end of the day, an artist whose work is restricted to paper faces an uphill battle for recognition.
An ambitious artist, this was something that Lombardi often thought about. As his dealer (I represented Lombardi from 1997 until early 2000, when I closed my gallery), we would often have conversations on the subject of how he might successfully move his content to another medium. At one point, Lombardi produced a large proto-type light box that presented one of his drawings in negative – white lines on black background. It was an interesting failure.
So Lombardi worked on the drawings. He experimented with the paper, switching from a cool, fairly standard butcher block white to warm, cream colored Arches for his 1999 show at my gallery. He changed the shape of the chart, moving away from the primarily linear and time based left to right earlier drawings to drawings comprised solely of arcs. And he found ingenious and beautiful ways to form these arcs into fragmented circles, spheres, and even insect like images, always with the effect of clarifying the underlying narrative.
In Lombardi’s cosmology, the little crooks, cons, and double-dealers revolve in perpetual orbit around the heavier CEOs, oil companies, and corrupt government officials. Ask yourself: What the giant, graceful lines forming a globe in a drawing like “World Finance Corporation and associates c. 1970 – 84, Miami – Ajman – Bogotá – Caracas (7th Version),” 1999, are curving around? The answer: international law.
But again, we have to ask ourselves why? If Lombardi’s work was so focused (some might even say obsessed) with simply creating flow charts of global conspiracies, why couldn’t it be translated into a range of alternate media? Silkscreen, web site, etched aluminum panel, lithograph – Lombardi contemplated them all and rejected them all as unsatisfactory. Everything other than the most basic tools of creation – pencil and paper – seemed to fall short.
If there is no obvious reason why an artist’s straight forward, if complex, narrative cannot be expounded upon in any other medium, then perhaps we are missing something essential about the narrative. Are we missing something about Lombardi’s content, something that the drawing is trying to tell us? Something that Lombardi as the artist might have been too close to see, though keen enough to sense hovering nearby and, consciously or not, stay true to.
As I pointed out at the beginning, Lombardi’s drawings, so devoid of Sturm und Drang is not typical of most artworks. But they are beautiful, and just as their narratives are somehow larger than first appearances, so too their beauty is not confined to their overall design, but inherent in the physical quality of their lines – the way Lombardi applied the graphite, the way he touched them. Looking at them, we can sense how deeply Lombardi cared about the subjects of the work (who was who) and about their purpose (the shape has to relate to the meaning). However, more than that, more than anything else, he cared about clarity – he wanted to understand, and he wanted us to understand, too. Can we doubt that this overarching desire for clarity is the reason that he shunned expressionistic or romantic markmaking? It must have been enticing to telegraph his outrage, shock, anxiety, depression, even, no doubt, his occasional bemusement at the high level hi-jinks he so carefully, lovingly illuminated- but he resisted the temptation to do so.
Iran-Contra, Lippo Group, Palmer National Bank, World Finance Corporation, Charles Keating: we can be overwhelmed and confused by the information in the drawings just as we were when we first attempted to wade through these stories in the daily press. But because they are drawings we can see the care and precision that went into them. Because they are drawings, a diary-like product of an individual who struggled to get things right, we feel not just that we are in intimate, caring company, but empowered as well; if Lombardi can understand this, then so can we.