Editor’s note: Today marks the birthday of artist Mark Lombardi (born in 1951) and is also the day after the 16th anniversary of his suicide or murder. To learn more about Lombardi’s life, art and the suspicious circumstances surrounding his death, please take a moment to listen to the Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast and/or read the transcript.
A story of banking, organized crime, intelligence, petrodollars and politics…all seen through the lens of innovative Art.
By Jeff Schechtman
Patricia Goldstone’s INTERLOCK is the first biography to explore the life and suspicious death of Mark Lombardi, a controversial artist whose drawings walked the line between art and information — and revealed the incestous connections between banking, organized crime, politicians, the FBI and the CIA.
His work highlighted such subjects as the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), the Iran-Contra affair, the World Finance Corporation, and the relationship between George W. Bush and Harken Energy Corporation. The mystery of Lombardi’s alleged suicide has yet to be resolved. On March 22, 2000, he was found hanged. Friends find it suspicious because Lombardi was on the the cusp of achieving the recognition that would crown his career.
Goldstone talks to WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about the full scope of Lombardi’s life and work.
Complete Text Transcript of Audio Podcast:
JEFF SCHECHTMAN: Welcome back to radio who-what-why. I’m Jeff Schechtman. In March of 2000 the acclaimed conceptual artist, Mark Lombardi, was found hanged in his New York apartment. It was ruled a suicide but Mark Lombardi was no ordinary artist. His work, ‘Interlocks’ as they were called, art was also information shining light on the Vatican, the Mafia, the Bushes, international financiers, and the CIA. In the words of his biographer Patricia Goldstone, his death transformed itself into the ultimate piece of conceptual art. In fact, after his death, Lombardi’s work drew the attention of the most influential art museums in the world as well as the FBI and the CIA. Patricia Goldstone has been a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and a bureau chief for Cablevision. She has written for the Washington Post, Maclean’s and The Economist Intelligence Unit. She’s an award-winning playwright and she’s just completed Interlock: Art, Conspiracy, and the Shadow Worlds of Mark Lombardi. It is my pleasure to welcome Patricia Goldstone here to radio who-what-why.
PATRICIA GOLDSTONE: Thank you for having me on the show.
JEFF S.: Great to have you here. First of all, who was Mark Lombardi? It’s not a name that a lot of people instantly recognize.
PATRICIA G.: That’s quite true. Mark was a conceptual artist, as you said, which means he essentially drew ideas and not water lilies. Some people considered him to be the first great artist of the 21st century. He is unique in the art world because he used interlocks to create his art. Now interlocks are basically a form of flowchart tracing overly cozy relationships between boards of directors. And they’re common in accounting and in some forms of litigation, but they’re very, very unusual in the art world. Mark used interlocks to draw what amounts to a continual visual history of the interconnections between intelligence and organized crime and corporations and governments in the shadow banking industry that we’ve heard so much about since 2007. He was particularly fascinated in tracing things like money laundering and tax evasion. He was actually way ahead of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange in releasing a very wide swath of extremely uncomfortable information to the public. What he created was a form of visual wiki-leaks. His own life is actually the missing strand and several of the shadowy visual narratives that make up his work. He died, as you said, a very mysterious death.
JEFF S.: Talk little bit about how Mark first got interested in the shadowy world that he would come to depict in all of these interlocks.
PATRICIA G.: Well, Mark’s research skills were well known in the Houston art world which was very progressive in its politics, at least at that time, through major patrons like the de Menils, who were the heirs to the Schlumberger fortune and the owners of the world-famous de Menil collection and the Rothko Chapel where Mark was married. Sissy Farenthold, a very prominent Texas politician who once ran for president of the United States, was on the board of the Rothko Chapel and she met Mark at a gathering around 1986. Farenthold introduced Mark to an informal investigative salon of young people, in her words, who included a number of lawyers and investigative journalists and prosecutors etc. She also introduced him to Bill White who was changing our Bath former business partner. White was engaged in a long-running series of lawsuits at the time so that the group was digging into interconnections of the Texas Savings and Loan scandals and the Iran Contra funding network. So Mark was tasked to draw out these interconnections in a readable way.
JEFF S.: To what extent was Lombardi simply creating this conceptual art, creating these interlocks from what was the assumed knowledge of the time, as opposed to doing additional work, additional research, to try and find connections that didn’t exist out there, in the popular press for example?
PATRICIA G.: That’s a very good question. Mark was actually very methodical and systematic. He worked very much like the way a historian works. He learned about the flow of hot money largely through published material by well-respected academics and journals. His library, which I ran through in the course of researching the book, consisted of hundreds of books on the financial debacle he drew, which he rigorously boiled down to bullet points of essentially academically and dictated information which he compiled in thousands of 3 x 5 index cards. He would arrange these in a narrative design on the floor next to the drawing he was composing, much like a film director uses a storyboard. But as I explained in the book, at that time he was given a very large stash of internal memos and other primary documents by one of the participants in the scandals. These are documents that were never previously published and would be a prize of any serious historian. At the time I discovered that he was taught how to do interlocks by the lawyer who deposed Richard Shelby who was one of the major middlemen in the Iran Contra scandal and in DCI. So his research was quite professionally grounded,
JEFF S.: Who was it that originally recruited Mark to really start doing this political work in Houston?
PATRICIA G.: Well, I would say it was Farenthold. And you know, he was already rather motivated personally to do it according to a note I found in his files which was apparently written by him. He had a personal run in with the Bushes and it was hard to put this story together because nobody really wanted to talk about it, not even Mark. But according to what I pieced together, Mark moved down to Houston straight out of Syracuse University to work as a curator at the Contemporary Art Museum of Houston, which was a very important job for such a young man. He was hired to do that by Jim Harithas who was the director of the museum and Mark’s college teacher and mentor. And from what I understood from a number of sources under pressure from the board, Harithas terminated him after a famous impromtu bread fight at a major art opening which turned into a major brawl when certain of the eminent guests, who were perhaps inflamed by alcohol, the naughty nature of the proceedings started ripping apart the installation and throwing it around. And a couple of unidentified artists sailed into the melee and started punching up the guests. Now Mark never spoke about this incident again and in fact his ex-wife told me that as the reason for his firing was introduced into a conversation he would actually get up and leave the room. But in his personal files I found this note which looks like it was written by him and it reads “In the late 1970s,” – which is when this incident occurred – “I was working as an organizer of art exhibitions in the Houston area. First International Bank, which was George HW Bush’s bank, barged into the scene at about this time effectively vetoing my participation in a large number of projects.” And Mark said in this note, which is an addendum to the journalism that he was attempting, that he embarked on his research as a form of revenge.
JEFF S.: Was there anybody specifically, a specific individual that he had had a run-in with from the Bush family that really precipitated this?
PATRICIA G.: No, again, this is shared conjecture on my part. From the way the note is put together, from the sounds of this, the Bushes might’ve been present at this gathering.
JEFF S.: What happened to all of Mark’s file cards after his death?
PATRICIA G.: Well, all of them is kind of a subjective number. Because I was told by one major collector of his work that there were as many as 40,000 file cards. And this collector had access to his studio. But what is archived at the Museum of Modern Art in Long Island, the number is about 14,000 cards, a considerably smaller number and when I went to use the cards, all but four on the financial activities of the Bushes, on whom he focused much of his attention, were missing. That really did strike me as extremely odd. I asked the chief archivist if they had archived the Bush material elsewhere, if I had missed it, and she couldn’t answer the question. She referred me to the security department instead.
JEFF S.: To what extent was his interest in these things driven by a desire to continue to uncover new stuff or really to continue to uncover new areas to expand his art and create more interesting interlocks essentially?
PATRICIA G.: I think that Mark was primarily an artist. I think in many ways he can be considered the heir to Marcel Duchamp who was the founder of Dada, one of the most important of the early 20th century art movements. Now Duchamp created his revolutionary art out of ordinary objects like the famous Urinal. Mark took another kind of ordinary object, the interlock, and he used it to pursue that to produce his main track of thought: how the political influence that he was essentially tracing took shape in flows of hot money. And those flows continually expanded and pooled together over the period of years that he was tracing them. So yes, he was constantly expanding his artwork. In fact, he linked all of his drawings together to form one continual drawing he called ‘the one continual drawing in my head’.
JEFF S.: To what degree did accuracy matter to Mark?
PATRICIA G.: A great deal. A great deal, as I said. He worked like a historian and the file cards are amazing because they are very much like what an academic would use in compiling the bibliography and index of a 600- page work. So I think he was very, very scrupulous in his research and he relied on primarily unpublished material but by academics and journalists.
JEFF S.: How was he seen in the art world, his early work, and as his work progressed?
PATRICIA G: He was a late bloomer. He turned out his initial body of work at white-hot speed in the mid 1990s when he was already in his 40s. And he garnered quite a bit of attention with this one body of drawings. He had a solo exhibit in Houston. And the amazing thing about these drawings was that they answered a lot of the questions that John Kerry’s Senate Investigating Committee on BCCI which was winding down at about the same time that Mark was turning out his work, he answered questions that if you read the Kerry committee report they said they didn’t have the time or the resources to pursue. And he was this artist sitting on the floor of a tiny studio in Houston pursuing them.
JEFF S.: How did the subjects of these pieces of art, those that he really reflected in this interlocking aspect of crime and as you say, ‘hot money’, how did they react to what he was doing?
PATRICIA G.: Well, with some discomfort, as you might expect. I was told a story by one of my interviews that one of Neil Bush’s friends came to Mark’s first solo show in Houston and he was looking at a painting on the wall. It was the Silverado painting in which Neil figures and he remarked to someone “Well, I’m going to have to tell Neil that he is represented here.”
JEFF S.: Talk a little bit about the evolution of his work. How did it progress? How were some his later works and later interlocks different from the early ones?
PATRICIA G.: Well, the work became much more complex as he progressed because it all interconnected. So the genesis of his work really was a huge bank called BCCI that some people may not remember. It was a bank that billed itself as Bank of America for the Third World but in fact it was the CIA’s first global money laundry and BCCI was very connected to the subprime crises of the 1970s and 1980s and it was officially closed down in the 1990s. But Mark really developed all of his drawings from his initial two boxes of research into BCCI and ended up in this immense continuum of drawings that makes up his work tracing the genesis of BCCI all the way back to a trove of stolen World War II plunder.
JEFF S.: Talk about the FBI and the CIA and their interest in Mark’s work.
PATRICIA G.: Well, the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Defense and the Office of Naval Research actually all had to study Mark’s work in the wake of 9/11 which wasn’t really made public until my book came out. They were looking for clues for two terrorist social networks. That’s a subject Mark covered in some of his drawings and also for traffic analysis tools which is kind of a funny story because although the NSA, which also studied Mark’s work, may be very good at collecting data on all of us but are not terrific in analyzing it. And when they feed it into a main computer, the visualization tends to come out looking like what they call ‘house of spagetti’. But Mark’s work is actually used in the computer science world to study traffic analysis because he spaced his players in a particular way that makes them very easy to read and sort of aesthetically pleasing and directs the eye in certain ways.
JEFF S.: Tell us a little bit about Mark’s personality . What was he like?
PATRICIA G.: He was a fascinating person. He was a workingclass guy from Syracuse, New York, who had nothing more than a bachelors in fine arts. And he was intensely ambitious, untrained in finance or anything like that but very, very quick intuitively. And his talent as an artist was to be able to apprehend a lot of visual information all at once and to get at the big picture that lies below the surface of things. I suppose many people would call him obsessive. People have tended to use Aspergers as an explanation for his ability to focus very intensely for a very long period of time. I don’t think that that is quite fair or true. Mark was very charming, very funny, exuberant, impish, intensely attractive to women, and very good socially when he wanted to be. And very good verbally. He was a shrewd communicator and a cunning player of the art game who never quite revealed what he was really up to. I mean nobody in the art world, for example, had a clue that he had actually created his work out of interlocks.
JEFF S.: Talk about what happened in March of 2000.
PATRICIA G.: Mark was in the process of opening a very important show at one of the iconic exhibition spaces in New York and everything seemed to be going beautifully for him. He was getting attention, he was getting a great deal of critical acclaim that people were lining up to buy his work, he was making money which had always been an issue for him. His personal life was a bit rocky but that was not unusual. He had recently broken up with a girlfriend depending on whom you talk to and I heard many, many different renditions of this story and in the course of interviewing over 80 people who knew him for over a 50 year period. Depending on whom you talk to he was either happy about that or unhappy about that but he was certainly seeing other women at the time. So he had had a suspicious flood in his studio about three weeks before the show opened. His masterwork, which was the third version of his BCCI series, was very badly water damaged, and this drawing is remarkable because he actually strung all of his previous drawings together on a series of timelines so that you can see exactly how all the scandals from the 1970s onwards sort of add up to this one huge scandal which is BCCI. That painting was almost, almost destroyed but it does remain readable today. So Mark re-created it in a mad workspace. He reconstructed the whole drawing in the space of about four days and some people say that the strain of doing that drove him into a suicidal depression. I don’t quite buy that because he did open the show very successfully with the drawing that he had re-created and people told me that he was quite happy with that drawing. Regardless, about three weeks later he was found hanged in his studio. And the police reports which I got hold of in the beginning of my research, were rather sketchy. A lot of things didn’t ring true. The time of death was never established, for one. Establishing death by hanging is a controversial area of forensic pathology, and the police based their very hasty verdict of death by suicide on the testimony of one witness who appeared increasingly unreliable during the interview process. I actually did track down the two cops who found him , one of whom was a rookie at the time, still very disturbed by the experience. He was a policeman who actually pushed open the transom which is how they got into Mark’s studio and there was Mark staring him straight in the face because he didn’t hang from a sprinkler pipe and he had an open bottle of champagne suspended beside him. Till today I have never really seen anyone take a drink on the way out.
JEFF S.: Talk about the flood. What is it that made it suspicious? What do we know about that?
PATRICIA G.: Well, it was a sprinkler flood. And a lot of rumor and conjecture exist in the art world about Mark’s suicide/death/murder. But one artist told me what sounded like a rather implausible story that he had tried to hang himself earlier, at the time of this flood from one of the sprinkler pipes, and that his weight is what broke the pipe and that’s what caused the flood. That’s actually very difficult for that kind of a factor to trigger a flood. I mean sprinkler pipes go off because of fire or they can go off because of a sharp blow applied to a pipe from an upstairs apartment to the gage, to the gage on the pipe line or to apply heat to that gage, that can trigger a flood in the downstairs apartment but someone hanging himself, no, not very likely.
JEFF S.: Talk a little bit about whether or not there was any history of depression or mental illness or anything else with respect to him.
PATRICIA G.: No, there was no critical history of depression. In retrospect certain members of Mark’s family told me that they felt he was depressed. However, his mother, who was really the closest person to call me before she died – she died in 2012 – she told me that she had talked to him a couple of days before he was found and he said he was absolutely jubilant at the success his work had brought him and at the prospect of moving in with his girlfriend. So, you know, a lot of this doesn’t compute.
JEFF S.: The police report after his death, and all the investigation was, as you talk about it, a bit sketchy. Talk about that and was that normal at the time in terms of police procedure or was that unusual?
PATRICIA G.: Well, the circumstances surrounding his death were really quite strange. He had no clinical history of depression and his mother to whom he was closest and to whom he spoke almost daily, told me that he had told her that he was actually very happy a couple of weeks, a couple of days rather, before he died. And I believe that because Mark was quite single-mindedly ambitious and he was getting the success that he had worked for, for decades by this time, to achieve. He may have been unhappy at the breakup of a relationship but he was extremely attractive to women and extremely attracted to women, and in fact he was seeing somebody else at the time. So I actually began my research by getting hold of the police report through a friend of mine in the homicide division in New York, and there were a lot of things that didn’t ring quite true. A time of death was never established for one thing and that’s very important in this kind of investigation and standard procedure and establishing death by hanging is a controversial area in forensic pathology. That and the fact that the police based their very hasty verdict of death by suicide to close the case today on the testimony of one witness who appeared increasingly unreliable during the interview process. I actually ended up tracking down the two cops who found him. One of them who was a rooky at the time and showed signs of doubt; that and the other pillar, that there are other pillars of evidence which was the absence of signs of struggle and the fact that the door was securely locked from the inside are also questionable as I explained in my book. But the exact nature of what’s in the drawing which can cause any number of people to want him dead.
JEFF S.: Is there anything in the drawings, all of them, that was what we would classify, I suppose, is original material? One of the things you’ve talked about is that in many ways he worked based upon academic reports, in journalism, and in all the material that he could get his hands on, and he was graded at bringing all of this together in these interlocks. But was there anything in this material that was revealing of anything that hadn’t been revealed anywhere else?
PATRICIA G.: Well, I did find in his files a large cache of internal memos and other primary documents from James R Bath Company Highway and some of these connections come up in in the George W. Bush Harken Energy Jackson Stevens drawing which was of interest to the FBI after Mark’s death.
JEFF S.: Did the FBI ever do anything with any of that to your knowledge?
PATRICIA G.: Well, it might be known that the FBI went to the Whitney after Mark died to look at one of his big BCCI drawings but the FBI was really interested in the relationship between how bin Mahfouz was anchored to the Saudi Royals and certain Islamic charities in Virginia that were allegedly funding Al Qaeda and that the FBI ended up raiding in 2002. And there are some clues to those interconnections in the Lombardi and the George W. Bush Harken Energy Jackson Stephens drawing which focuses on Bush’s oil companies. Now bin Mahfouz allegedly bankrolled Arbusto which was one of George W. Bush’s companies through James Bath who represented Saudi business interests in America; and one of the documents I did find in Mark’s files was a copy of the 1976 trust agreement between James Bath and Salem bin Laden who was Osama’s older brother and died in a crash a few years later. bin Mahfouz was also allegedly the real owner of that aircraft leasing company Skyways. Now interestingly, bin Mahfouz himself doesn’t actually appear in this drawing. However, Salem bin Laden and also Abdullah Taka Bakhsh who was a major Harken shareholder and CEO of a Halliburton subsidiary who had close ties to bin Mahfouz does appear as a central hub or connection along with James Bath and so does Fox’s representative on the Harken board, an influential business name, who opened the 2000 Republican national convention with the Muslim benediction on Bush’s behalf and later successfully protested the FBI raid on the Virginia charities in a private meeting with Bush’s treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill.
JEFF S.: If not suicide, where does your speculation, or where can speculation lead in terms of the cause of Mark’s death?
PATRICIA G.: Well, I have to point out that Mark was actually pretty equal opportunity in his finger-pointing. He did focus a lot of attention on the Bushes for the reasons I go into in the book and he did die during the presidential election in which at least one of his drawings might have had an impact. That he did a number of important drawings that focused attention on the Clintons and knowing a little group of Indonesians and the Riady family who were the sources of Chinese influence peddling during the Clinton administration. Also Mark Rich who is famously connected to the Clintons was one of the key middlemen that hooked Mark’s drawings together as is Jackson Stephens who funded both the Bush and the Clinton campaign, so you know overall Mark was really more like a social scientist and political partisan and that I believed his overwhelming interest was in getting this whole financial system done on paper for everyone to see. And in fact, he had reportedly been threatened in the late 1990s. He got a call from someone telling him to back off investigating the five major New York Times families who were the subject of a preparatory sketch he had been working on. He mentioned it to a Williamsburg publication and it was repeated after his death by a German freelance journalist. So there are a lot of names in these drawings. One of them told me that he wouldn’t know a Lombardi drawing from a Mona Lisa.
JEFF S.: In the material that you’ve uncovered since in your investigation and your work on this, does it lead anyplace in particular?
PATRICIA G.: Well, you know I have to be careful to point out that I don’t have anything like the smoking gun, that I don’t have the power to pin people and I have many, many different stories from almost everyone I talked to on this subject. But the heft of circumstantial evidence makes me feel that at the minimum a lot more questions should have been asked at the time of his death.
JEFF S.: And is your conclusion that didn’t really suicide just seem the most unlikely scenario?
PATRICIA G.: Well, it’s not my impression of Mark as a human being. He was tremendously vital and totally committed to his work. They said he was getting where he wanted to go and he was quite ebullient really, as a person, very high energy. Now of course, you know, I didn’t know the man and it’s always possible for certain personality types to be very volatile and from what people told me he was particularly, when he had been drinking, but no, it doesn’t stack up with where he was going in his life at the time. Because he was really on the verge of very major success.
JEFF S.: Is there any evidence that he was on to something or that he had made a connection, or that his research had taken him somewhere that was new and heretofore undiscovered?
PATRICIA G.: Well, that’s an interesting question. One of his drawings, one of his late drawings is called George
Bush Harken Energy Jackson Stephens and the drawing focuses on relationships that apparently – my source for this was a rather particular intelligence newsletter that came out in March of 2000 - said that the Bush campaign might run into trouble over the Bush relationship with Khaled bin Mahfouz who was anchored to the Saudi royals and very much a presence in Houston. This drawing that Mark had done focused on that relationship.
JEFF S.: What was the interest like in his work after his death?
PATRICIA G.: Well, his prices took off, certainly. One of his larger drawings recently went up for sale at one of the most prominent art galleries in the country priced at $450,000. He’s been quite avidly collected. The Whitney has a major holding of his works, the Museum of Modern Art has a major holding of his work. A number of eminent computer scientists collect his works. There’s Robert in Germany who I think owns four of the drawings. Robert, whom I interviewed, is engaged in trying to convert Mark’s drawings into hypertext, stringtext, which means you click on the name and it pulls up the whole history. Through the drawings of the problems he told me he had had in completing this, was that some of the drawings are not available to view because they are in private collections.
JEFF S.: is there any work that disappeared after his death that anybody is aware of?
PATRICIA G.: The George Bush Harken Energy drawing did migrate to Germany for quite a number of years but it’s back in the United States now. Some people that I interviewed said they felt that drawings had disappeared from his studio but his studio was not actually very well secured. But it’s after his death and impossible to substantiate that.
JEFF S.: Patricia Goldstone: the book is Interlock: Art, Conspiracy, and the Shadow Worlds of Mark Lombardi. Patricia, thanks so much for spending time with us here on radio who-what-why.
PATRICIA: Oh, thank you for having me on the show.
JEFF S.: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on radio who-what-why. I hope you’ll join us next week for another radio who-what-why podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share it and help other people find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to who-what-why.org/donate
Related article: Mark Lombardi: Global (Conspiracy) Network by Uri Dowbenko