November 2015

Jessa Crispin


An Interview with Patricia Goldstone

The body of artist Mark Lombardi was discovered hanging in his studio soon after his big New York debut in 2000. The circumstances were suspect, almost immediately. Why would he kill himself immediately after his entry into the New York art world, now that he finally seemed to be getting everything he ever wanted? Why was there an empty bottle of champagne also hanging from the ceiling, near Lombardi's body, despite him hating champagne? Then there was his paranoia before his death, that he was going to be assassinated by government agents, that he was going to be just the latest in a series of unexplained deaths.

It sounds like delusions of grandeur, that the government would want to take out a struggling artist, and yet the subject matter of his artwork could have gotten him killed: he documented the connections between the Bush family and groups that financed terrorism, as well as the heads of corrupt international banks and the CIA, all outlined in "interlocks," intricate flowcharts with meticulous notecards explaining each connection.

Having not heard of Lombardi before, I basically came from the conspiracy and stayed for the art. And Goldstone is a deft guide to her subject, managing to write up all of his conspiracy research without making him sound like a loon, while also providing a thorough examination of the art scene in Houston and New York. She also makes a tricky, loud, ambitious, pushy man... if not sympathetic than at least charismatic enough to overlook his flaws.

I exchanged emails with Patricia Goldstone about her book as we were both shuttling around the world, catching up in hotels and airports.

My first question, which is lazy I admit but I am totally really interested in this question, is why did you choose Mark Lombardi as a subject for a biography?

Actually, that's a great question because the answer shows what tiny things books can grow out of. I read a piece about Lombardi that came out in the Wall Street Journal a year after his death, in 2001. The Journal does those droll little pencil sketches of its subjects and there was this portrait of this goofy-looking artist with one of his drawings raying out behind his head. The drawing caught my eye and I realized it was an interlock, a form of flowchart tracing overly-cozy relationships between boards of directors that's used in both accounting and anti-trust litigation. I had been a business writer for some years and I thought to myself, hmm, how curious. Here's the Wall Street Journal, one of our preeminent business publications, and nowhere in this piece does it even mention that Lombardi created his art out of interlocks. That's certainly unusual for the art world, and if I had been writing the piece it would have been my lede. I collect oddities, so I clipped this one and carefully filed it away. I was working on another book, Aaronsohn's Maps, and didn't take it out again until 2007, when the financial tiles first started falling off the roof. I had done some reading up on Lombardi meanwhile and found myself wondering about how the connections he had made related to the current crisis. Those questions just nagged away at me and that's how this book began.

Yes, one of my problems with many biographers is the closed-off nature, this relentless focus on the individual (part of the Great Man myth of individual genius, as if they were sort of out of time and place), and not enough on the era, the community.

That's absolutely right, and why, if I have to classify myself, I would say I'm a hybrid, a biographer/historian. Writing this book also involved an odd kind of deja vu for me. Since Mark and I are contemporaries, I was revisiting experiences I had lived through myself and yet not fully lived through. His grasp of what was going on under the surface was so acute that I felt that I was educating or re-educating myself by writing about it as fully as I could within the constraints of writing just one book and not two or three.

Would you even consider this book, given its long sections on the conspiracies he was following and the political nature of a lot of it, strictly a biography? I will say that one of my favorite things about it was its refusal to conform to the expectation of the biographical template.

Another very good question. I actually look for lives like Mark Lombardi's and Aaron Aaronsohn's, partly because they are under-discovered and partly because they offer a prism to look at history from an alternative angle. I love what Barbara Tuchman, who is one of my favorite historians, says about history being like a kaleidoscope: when the cylinder is shaken the countless colored fragments form a new picture and yet they are the same fragments that made a different picture just a moment earlier. Her biography of General Joseph Stilwell, which is subtitled "The American Experience in China," guides the reader through a vast panorama of World War II, Japanese, Chinese and Southeast Asian history by using the narrative of Stilwell's life as a frame. I saw Mark's life as a great vehicle for discovering our own turbulent present -- which, as Harold Rosenberg reminds us, is a very difficult thing to do.

By "strictly a biography," I assume you mean strictly the story of Mark's life, but Mark, as well as being an artist, was also a socially and politically engaged intellectual who said himself that his work was his way of coping with the times in which he lived. His life is hard to separate from his work, which is part of what made the book so challenging to write. The seven decades of largely clandestine financial history -- a term I prefer to conspiracy because most of what he was following was quite well documented in published material -- he linked together in his drawings are both tremendously complex and convoluted. He said himself that he had tried to put it all together in a book, but couldn't keep the narrative in his head. I hit upon the idea of using his own life as the uber-narrative because he lived through so many of the decades his work describes, but when I wrote the first draft I found that the exposition needed to introduce each financial scandal was so dense that I lost track of Mark for pages on end. When I discovered that the drawings in fact all linked together to form a continual narrative of their own, my editor, Charlie Winton, suggested that I try pulling that narrative into the second half of the book. Those points which intersected directly with Mark's own life -- notably getting into a fight with the Bushes and being engaged by Texas politician and art patron Sissy Farenthold to track the Iran-Contra scandal -- I left as guides in the first section of the book, which is more strictly biographical. So I would say that the form of the book is organic, and came out of the material itself.

When it comes to the connections that Lombardi was working out, between Saudis and Bush being the most obvious one, how much did you already know about or assume, and how much did you have to research?

There has been quite a bit written on this topic already, notably Joseph Trento's Prelude to Terror, Craig Unger's House of Bush, House of Saud, and Russ Baker's Family of Secrets. I was already familiar with those, but much of the research I had to do to try to capture the granular detail (i.e. names) in Mark's work, much of which has disappeared into private collections and is unavailable to view consecutively, was to read almost everything in his library. Fortunately there are bibliographies published in two catalogues, so I was able to reconstruct much of the narrative behind the drawings. It was quite a shock, though, to go into his personal files and discover he had raw memos from Bush associates about the Saudis. That became an important part of the story which, strangely, no one in the art world had remarked upon before.

Because it sounds simultaneously crazy and yet obvious. Of course there is this corruption, of course there is this filthy influence of money in politics and these oppressive regimes, and yet I think we prefer to think of this things as being outlandish and absurd, simply to think we live in a just world. Did the scales fall from your eyes or were they already gone?

Well... like Mark, I came of age in the 1970s. In fact, we're almost exactly the same age. It was an odd era, curiously like the one we're living through now. In fact, I just came back from Washington and the Double Exposure investigative film festival where we listened to Edward Snowden chatting via satellite with the group of "anonymous burglars" who broke into an FBI office in 1971 and stole hundreds of files that led to the discovery of Cointelpro, the Senate investigation of the FBI, and the defrocking of J. Edgar Hoover. There was a good deal of chuckling, in the audience, onstage, and even from Snowden himself, at the outlandishness and absurdity of surveilling American citizens for political activity. But I think the laughter was a means of creating a moral distance, a self-protective mechanism. Of course we would all prefer to think we live in a just world. I wouldn't describe myself as a cynic by any means. But you can't believe in justice naively, or take it for granted. You have to protect it. The fact is that repression moves in cycles, and we're stuck in a repressive cycle now, which is why I think we're seeing such a lot of pushing back across the country, both in politics and in the streets.

We have a Bush running for president again. How cold does that make your blood run after researching and writing your book?

It doesn't exactly come as a surprise. Political dynasties are powerful in this country, even though I don't feel that the Bushes are as strong as they once were. Unfortunately, the Clintons don't come off too well in my narrative either. I think what actually dismays me most is the feeling that the deluge of hot money Mark's work describes has been so pervasive and so corrupting. Oligarchs across the world can buy candidates, national munitions industries, perhaps even entire governments. I think Bernie Sanders is being honest with his constituents when he tells them that it will take more than one administration, or change of administration, to put things right again here. If indeed they can be put right, without the intervention of a financial collapse even greater than the ones we've already sustained. That might hurt the real bad guys enough to slow them down for awhile, but it will hurt everyone else too.

I was interested in your brief assessment of the art world in the '70s, where violence against women was considered just kind of routine. Or, at least not shocking. There was a cluster of male artists and writers -- Norman Mailer stabbing his wife in the chest, Roman Polanski raping a teenage girl, Carl Andre's maybe murder of his wife Ana Mendieta etc -- in that time that were behaving outlandishly and being immediately forgiven. You suggest in the book that this behavior was maybe actually expected from great male artists. What do you think was fostering that kind of atmosphere during that era?

An interesting question, and on to which answers occur on all sorts of levels. First, the 1950s, when the Abstract Expressionists were in their heyday and Mailer's literary career was launched on The Naked and the Dead, was also the height of the postwar boom in America and thus an era of excess in many ways. America was flexing its muscles in Europe by exercising the Marshall Plan and all its derivatives at the same time that the Abstract Expressionists were being encouraged to display the "big macho American virtues" to distinguish themselves from effete European artists and maybe the second was a manifestation of the power politics of the first.

Why we should persist -- even well into the 21st century -- in bringing up our young men to be cowboys is a large and open question but who knows. Maybe the CIA's patronage had something to do with nurturing a new image of the artist as tough-guy. Certainly the Abstract Expressionists were the rock stars of their day, and their antics probably satisfied the fantasies of their more buttoned-down buyers in much the same way. Mendieta's death occurred quite a bit later and in a different era, in 1985, although the zeitgeist was just as ego-driven. People attributed her fall from the 34th floor apartment she shared with her husband, Andre, to a drunken brawl over the fact that she was selling more than he was -- that's progress, of a sort, I suppose. Andre was acquitted of all charges in 1988, but the rumor persisted that powerful forces in the art world circled the wagons and even intervened in the justice system for commercial reasons -- an experience I was reminded of while writing Interlock.

You could argue that a system that values money and/or celebrity over human life supports all kinds of bad behavior. That was certainly a factor on the Polanski case in 1977, when an ambitious mother was Polanski's means of gaining access to the child thus allowing her to be doubly victimized even though she herself said many years later that she was a product of the more relaxed mores of the 1970s. If we're talking about Texas in the 1970s, when Mark first moved down there, we're talking about a genuinely redneck if not a genuinely cowboy culture where a bunch of East Coast art world city slickers were trying to horn in and, as usual, were overdoing it. If there's one thing I've noticed about males in corporate settings, it's that they are pitifully eager to conform in what they perceive as the dominant culture.

With Lombardi, you write that there were public, occasionally shading into violent, arguments with his girlfriend, which was part of this culture. I have to admit, at the beginning of the book, I had to fight some repulsion to Lombardi (I stuck with it despite my discomfort because of the conspiracy, I love shadowy government stuff). You describe him even as a child of being kind of an intellectual bully, of dominating his space, and I kept thinking of, you know, all those dudes I have known. I am going to just go ahead and assume you are a feminist, so did any of this exasperate you, too?

You know, I suppose I have to admit there's a certain erotic component to writing biography, which is that you have to be a little bit in love with a person to follow him --or her -- around for three years. I felt the same way about Aaron Aaronsohn, who had some characteristics in common with Mark Lombardi. There are a lot of points during that three years, or however long it takes to write it, when you start falling out of love, which is to say you become disillusioned as you learn more about the object of your affections -- which is to say that at certain points you say to yourself, Is this guy really a jerk or what?

But, as in love, you also, over time, do your sums and add up your subject's good points against the bad and try to come out with a balanced portrayal. I'm a great believer in warts-and-all biography. I think the most interesting people are often the most flawed, and that the tension between their flaws and their gifts is what drives their talent. I can't write -- or read -- hagiography in any form. I think it's a form of betrayal. But I think, in fact, that what really kept me in Mark's corner was a strong sense, which became stronger over time, of how painfully he had to struggle to invent himself, how that always underlay the bullying and the domineering, and how the level of frustration he felt for years at not being able to reach the very high goal he set himself often sparked his outbursts. He didn't come from privilege. He didn't have much technical facility to speak of. With the exception of his mother, his family did not support him. But he wanted to be an artist more than anything else. In the course of making himself into one, armed with nothing more than a bachelor's in fine arts and an extraordinarily tenacious will, he managed to beat both a Senate investigating committee and the best artificial intelligence labs in the country, with all the bells and whistles at their command. That's really an amazing ride for a working-class guy from Syracuse, and it's the real story to me. It doesn't excuse him from -- occasionally -- being an asshole, but even that makes him less of a Great Man and more of a human being.

Thank you for sticking with the book. I've known my share of those dudes, too. God knows there are enough of them out there. But I don't think he was one. If he was, I wouldn't miss him.