Michael Bierut | Essays

Mark Lombardi and the Ecstasy of Conspiracy

Detail, Mark Lombardi, George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens, ca. 1979-90 (5th version), 1999

With the 40th anniversary of the assassination of JFK freshly behind us, our abiding romance with conspiracy theories seems more ardent than ever. And one of the most remarkable expressions of that romance is on view at The Drawing Center in New York, "Global Networks," an exhibition of the work of Mark Lombardi. In an age where we all dimly sense that The Truth Is Out There, Lombardi's extraordinary drawings aim to provide all the answers.

Although Lombardi's work has combined the mesmerizing detail of the engineering diagram and the obsessive annotation of the outsider artist, the man was neither scientist nor madman. Armed with a BA in art history, he began as a researcher and archivist in the Houston fine arts community with a passing interest in corporate scandal, financial malfeasance, and the hidden web of connections that seemed to connect, for instance, the Mafia, the Vatican bank, and the 1980's savings and loan debacle. His initial explorations were narrative, but in 1993 he made the discovery that some kinds of information are best expressed diagrammatically.

The resulting body of work must be seen to be believed — an admittedly oxymoronic endorsement of subject matter of such supreme skepticism. Lombardi's delicate tracings, mostly in black pencil with the occasional red accent, cover enormous sheets of paper (many over four feet high and eight feet long), mapping the deliriously Byzantine relationships of, say, Oliver North, Lake Resources of Panama, and the Iran-Contra operation, or Global International Airways and the Indian Springs State Bank of Kansas City. Because the work visualizes connections rather than causality, Lombardi was able to take the same liberties as Harry Beck's 1933 map for the London Underground, freely arranging the players to create gorgeous patterns: swirling spheres, hopscotching arcs, wheels within wheels.

Lombardi was indeed an enthusiastic student of information design, a reader of Edward Tufte and a collector of the charts of Nigel Holmes. But if the goal of information design is to make things clear, Lombardi's drawings, in fact, do the opposite. The hypnotic miasma of names, institutions, corporations and locations that envelop each drawing demonstrates nothing if not the inherent -- the intentional -- unknowability of each of these networks. Like Rube Goldberg devices, their only meaning is their ecstatic complexity; like Hitchcockian McGuffins, understanding them is less important than simply knowing they exist.

Lomardi, who was born in 1951 and died in 2000, did not live to see today's historical moment, where his worldview seems not eccentric but positively prescient. His drawing BCCI-ICIC & FAB, 1972-91 (4th version) was studied in situ at the Whitney Museum by F.B.I. agents in the days after 9/11; reportedly, consultants to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security previewed the current show at the Drawing Center. One wonders whether he would have felt vindicated or alarmed by this kind of attention.

The catalog for the exhibition, which was organized by Robert Hobbs and Independent Curators International, cannot possibly do the drawings justice. But it may be worth it for the extended captions alone, each one of which could serve as an outline for a pretty decent John leCarre novel. And in what other art catalog could you find an index where (under the Cs alone) one finds Canadian Armament and Research Development Establishment; capitalism; Capone, Al; Castro, Fidel, and conceptual art? And it is in the catalog that one finds, tossed away almost casually in a footnote, the following fact: "The police report cited suicide by hanging as the reason for Mark Lombardi's death. The door to his studio was locked from the inside." That last detail is an all-too-common device in mystery novels, where it inevitably raises the same question: yes, that's how it seems, but what really happened? Mark Lombardi's work tries, valiantly, to answer that very question.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Politics, Technology

Comments [9]

"Its model is not so much a straight line as a real galaxy where everybody can draw unexpected connections between different stars to form new celestial images at any new navigation point."

Reading Eco on The Future of Books (and hypertext, et al) and thinking about Lombardi and his beautiful, ineffable, melancholy drawings.

I can only wonder what "repressive lessons" Eco might discover in Lombardi's cryptic systems of memory...

(And thanks to metafilter for the Eco link).
Hal Siegel

On reading Eco's Foucault's Pendulum and seeing that, upon very close inspection, everything is related in some way.

Why, oh why, don't I live in New York? Thanks, Michael, for the envy-inducing review.

Holy rhizomes! The feds' interest makes total sense — I can imagine a room miles underground somewhere with a bunch of suits trying to fit similar data into tree-like graphs and not being able to figure out why it isn't working. It's also interesing that this show is running about the same time as the Guggenheim's Rosenquist retrospective — his F-111 tries to plot out some sinister connections, only his method is the irrational opposite of Lombardi's.
andrew shurtz

Note to designers: make art, not sense. Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times disses Lombardi's work in his review:

"Let's skip the specifics, which are complicated and can be gleaned from the show's catalog, by Robert Hobbs, the curator. They are not really what make Lombardi's work compelling anyway. Or, to be more precise, Lombardi's art, while scrupulous and eye-opening, is not really about specifics, although it can first appear to be because his drawings look so meticulously made. When you look more closely you realize that the charts are hard to decipher and short on details. This is a failing only for those people who mistakenly expect Lombardi to be an investigative reporter, not an artist."

Kimmelman does go on to praise the content as well as the form of Lombardi's work, but always with the same undertone of dismissal.
Harry Saddler

I'd like to continue this discussion and focus on Michael Kimmelman's comment in The New York Times that Lombardi's "charts are hard to decipher and short on details." Lombardi's charts are beautiful, but what makes them newsworthy? The cynic in me wants to say it's because of his tragic end (artist kills self after information overload). That his drawings project a rather one-note visual vocabulary is not such a good story. Kimmelman is clearly struggling with these tensions.

Having watched the extensive videotape interview with Lombardi viewable at the exhibition, I am also perplexed. On one hand, his training and orientation as an artist makes his intent clear: he was a nut who wanted to make beautiful drawings. On the other hand, he was a hack biblio-cataloguer, taking 3-4 readily available texts on a given subject, digesting the indexes, and creating thousands of notecards of possible conspiratorial connections. Despite the FBI seeking out his work after 9.11 to illuminate Osama bin Laden's financial network, no one has suggested that anything new or original has been discovered by looking at a drawing by Mark Lombardi. His networks are mostly known connections or pure conjecture. This may be their real appeal: they give us a means to "see" corruption we suspect.

The designer in me wants to ask: what would we make of the same drawings if they were rendered in Illustrator? In other words, what happens if the same drawings were "merely" charts — the same content rendered differently? What if these charts were then published in The Nation or The New Republic or The Guardian? Would not the criteria shift from artistic impression to journalistic discovery? These questions asked, I believe the mystique of Mark Lombardi unravels rather quickly.

In the catalogue for this exhibition, curator Robert Hobbs cites work by artists Hans Haacke and Gordon Matta-Clarke as models for charting various (real estate) conspiracies. He also makes an unconvincing argument that Lombardi's work is based on, and extends, "History Paintings" of the 18th and 19th-century -- especially of the panoramic genre. In other words, really long paintings are equal to really long charts. In any event, these citations give Lombardi the necessary art world pedigree.

More convincing is Hobbs's observation that Lombardi's true inspiration can be found in news charts: Robert Kennedy's map of the Teamsters union in 1957; Oliver North's chart of the financial network supporting the Iran-Contra affair published in 1987; a Spy Magazine article on the relationship between Hollywood actors and directors; advertisements for Toyota cars and Hennessy cognac; and, of course, the findings of Edward Tufte, whom he studied closely. (What is confusing is that Lombardi turned to charting as his methodology after giving up on a several-hundred-page manuscript on the politics of drugs under the Reagan administration; he was a failed writer before he became an information designer.)

Mark Lombardi did something new, but his work is ultimately one-dimensional in both its scope and its execution. It is only in its neurotic obsessiveness that really succeeds. (For obsessive conspiracy theory, I prefer the literary complexity of John LeCarre, but that's just me.)

These drawings are the work of a man who wanted to be a journalist, an art historian, and an artist. Ultimately, I believe, the work fails because it does not communicate new information. Faint suggestions of wrong-doing in red lines drawn in delicate French-curves on a beautiful large-format drawing are not enough. In a world filled with real conspiracies, the drawings are renderings of easy and shallow content. If Mark Lombardi wanted to challenge us, he should not have killed himself. The artist should have told us something new.

[My critique aside, I have been carrying the Mark Lombardi catalogue with me everywhere. I urge Design Observer readers to order a copy. It is also well designed by Bethany Johns.]
William Drenttel

It is only in its neurotic obsessiveness that really succeeds.

That's actually my definition of art. Anyone can, for instance, glue styrofoam cups to a board and it is meaningless, craftless, and immaterial. But if you spend 10 years doing that obsessively, it becomes art.

It doesn't matter if he was a hack biblio-cataloguer, or if his charts are not particularly helpful in deciphering his conspiracy theories. It's actually the obsessive act that is artistic. It can't be judged from a design perspective or a comprehensive conspiracy objective (which is why the FBI's interest is so funny). That's why art is so damned great--the artist is the most important ingredient.

In the final analysis, the effect of Lombardi's work (whether you call it information design or art) is not to explain anything, but rather to dramatize the purposeful obfuscation of information, not to unravel it but to condemn it. The photograph in the catalog that Bill refers to -- Bobby Kennedy before a blackboard diagramming the Teamsters' financial transactions -- is a good example. The relevant lesson is not, for example, that Fruehauf Trailer paid $175,000 to Brown Equipment in 1957, but that the overall web of connections and payoffs is so crazily baroque that an average person can tell at a glance that, damn it, guys this sneaky must have plenty to hide.

Lombardi's drawings impart the same message. Their oddity is that Lombardi's craftsmanship is so exquisite that one senses him helplessly luxuriating in the very complexity that he claims to find so suspicious.
Michael Bierut

On Lombardi: I love this guy and don't really care how serious his effort was. Certainly one could draw up a literal map of the employment connections of the Perles and Cheneys and Triremes and SAICs of the world that would resemble his.

The show has been travelling the country for a while.

I'm amazed there is no conspiracy theory that says Lombardi was done away with, like Danny whatisname, the journalist.

I've also been fascinated by Lombardi and the way that paranoid conspiracy maps and maps of real interlinkings in gov and biz resemble each other.

The flying saucer folk talk about the mythical Majestic or MJ 12 committee and seek out documents that are said to prove their existence.

As I discuss in Dreamland, this group, which was ostensibly charged with responding to and hiding the arrival of ETs on earth in the form of the Roswell saucers is very much like other real secret committees of the day---such as the Killian Commission, chartered to deal with Soviet nuclear threat. One responds, well, yes, if Truman and Ike had had to deal with saucers and alien bodies this sure seems the way they would have done it.

My point is that the saucer paranoids were reflections of Cold War fears—larger shadows, cast film noir style, on the wall.

A more recent example is the group called the Jasons, a committee of scientists who vet the prospects of extreme cutting edge technology for the Pentagon. This group is close to the equivalent of the Defense Policy Board in the "black world" or classified realm is called at the Pentagon. Despite the Robert Ludlumesque name, the group is real enough for the NYTimes and Wall Street Journal to have done stories on them.

Lombardi's networks also provide an interesting implicit commentary on the way we hunt "terror networks" with all this talk of "sleeper cells." We design the enemies we need.

The history of the Cold War, we see now, was really the history of overestimating the Soviet threat—all those bomber and missile gaps. This was good business.
Except that some times we UNDERestimated it---the point of McNamara's discussions of the Cuban Missile Crisis: there were nukes in Cuba, ready to go, far more than anyone in the US government—CIA or Pentagon included-- thought, and an invasion would indeed have

The very real connections among agencies and contractors mean they mirror each other. From gov: NSA, the DIA and NRO, DARPA. From private sector: SAIC, EG&G, Trireme etc.

Lombardi's charts are less tangible than the literal maps of office locations that mark the defense networks.

In many parts of the country, the defense contractor net has physical form in buildings, something like the "supplier parks" around car plants with mini factories making seats and shock absorbers. You can see these networks laid out on a map in Pentagon City, Fairfax, and around Dulles airport. You see it in the LA area and in LV, where contractors in the Howard Hughest industrial park represent the same companies.

Lastly, for us design folk it is worth imagining what a Lombardi treatment would reveal of the design community---the links between design firms, press, publishers, museums, magazines and corporations!
The same might obtain in the world of orthodontists and actuarials I suppose—any business? Maybe any area of activity has something like the interlocking directorates of corporate boards of Fortune 500 companies of the sort Ralph Nader will show you or as Ida Tarbell would have shown you, back in the muckraking days.

In government, however, the problem is that the barrier between procurement and contractor has become totally porous. The guy selling the weapons one day is the guy buying them the next and vice versa. Since the whole system is a monosopy—a market with a single buyer and the suppliers an oligopoly heading toward monopoly as companies consolidate we are getting pretty close to socialized weapons procurement. It means stuff that costs too much and doesn't work well and puts soldiers at risk. It means high tech at the expense of low tech—lots of missiles, no mine sweepers. Anti missile systems that don't work and cost billions but no inspections of shipping containers. Useless supersonic fighters and hangar queen Apache helicopters but too few of the A-10 Warthogs that really did the job in both Iraq wars.

PHil Patton

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