Drawing a Line: Towards a History of Diagrams

Jessica Law
In the age that denies that very existence of society, to insist on the scandal of the world’s increasingly grotesque ‘connectedness’, hidden merciless grinding away beneath the slick superficial liquidity of markets, is akin to putting oneself in the position of the ocean swimmer, timing one’s strokes to the swell, turning one’s submerged ear with every breath to the deep rumble of stones rolling on the bottom far below. To insist on the social is simply to practice purposeful immersion.[1]

In April 2016, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ) published their year-long report on the leaked documents known as the ‘Panama Papers.’ The leak, which came from the database of the Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca, revealed a systematic and seemingly covert global network of offshore tax havens for the world’s wealthiest. Throughout the weeks that followed, international news circuits attempted to synthesize the mass accumulation of data by tracing the financial flows and mapping the points of exchange. The ICIJ themselves set up a search engine in order to provide the public sphere with a more flexible means of retrieving information.[2] Distinct from the media platforms that focused on the searchability of the leaked files, Greg Grandin, in his article for The Nation, sought to examine the report’s broader political implications of the specificities of its content by shifting emphasis to a more comprehensive point of view. Grandin, of course, was not alone in his approach to the Panama Papers. The intriguing aspect of Grandin’s article, however, hinges on the first line: ‘Oh, were Mark Lombardi alive today!’[3]

From 1994–2000, American artist Mark Lombardi created a series of diagrammatic drawings titled Narrative Structures that map the nebulous connections between powerful individuals, transnational corporations, and government institutions. While ostensibly about the recent investigation into global network of tax avoidance and evasion, Grandin’s mention of an aesthetic practice––a practice that precedes the release of the Panama Papers by nearly two decades––raises key concerns regarding the reception of Lombardi’s Narrative Structures both at the moment of the series’ production and against the contemporaneous calls for economic transparency. Reception, in this instance, has less to do with pursuing an examination of the series’ public life than it does with proposing the more unadorned question of why? Why does Grandin turn to the series of drawings as a vehicle to contextualize the release of 2.6 terabytes of data? Is it Lombardi’s content or is it the way in which the artist draws these connections? That is, does the formal arrangement of a diagram offer some sort of totalizing perspective of the shadowy and grotesque connectedness of late capital?

Indeed, we might accept that the more compelling motivation behind Lombardi’s citation is based on the content he explicitly brings to bear through each of the drawing’s titles. For example, the entanglement of nodes, text and lines in BCCI, ICIC, FAB, c. 1972-91 (4th Version) (1996-2000) visualizes the dense financial networks of the Bank of Credit & Commerce International; its Cayman Island counterpart, the International Credit & Investment Corporation (ICIC); and the First American Bank (FAB) in Washington, DC. In reference to the second version of his drawing, Lombardi noted: ‘Beneath the veneer of legitimacy BCCI, in conjunction with ICIC, its shadowy ‘black’ banking unit founded in the Caymans in 1976, plied quite another trade––handling “hot,” “black,” and ‘dirty’ money’.[4] The eventual illumination in 1991of the shadowy myriad of financial dealings with international arms dealers, drug traffickers, political officials, intelligence agencies, and money launderers led to BCCI’s closure as well as the headline ‘The World’s Sleaziest Bank’ on the cover of Time magazine.[5] Yet, despite the apparent parallelism between the content of the drawing and the content of the 2016 leak, it is important that we not displace the central question raised by Grandin’s citation for an inquiry that fails to extend beyond that which is pronounced by the drawing’s title. What binds the literature on Lombardi’s practice is the motivation to describe his diagrams as a ‘visible invisibility’. The consideration of Lombardi’s subject matter has generated discussions of what is depicted, but rarely has it asked why—that is, why is the diagram a suitable form for the content of Narrative Structures?[6]

Mark Lombardi, BCCI, ICIC, FAB, c. 1972-91 (4th version), 1996–2000.  Graphite and colored pencil on paper, 52 x 138 in. Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Image courtesy Donald Lombardi and Pierogi Gallery. Photo Credit: John Berens.

Mark Lombardi, BCCI, ICIC, FAB, c. 1972-91 (4th version), 1996–2000. Graphite and colored pencil on paper, 52 x 138 in. Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Image courtesy Donald Lombardi and Pierogi Gallery. Photo Credit: John Berens.

The assumption that Lombardi simply gives form to the types of economic and sociopolitical conditions that the Panama Papers exposes limits the possibilities for examining Narrative Structures by foreclosing on the inner dynamics embedded within artistic practice. This essay isolates the strategic tactic of drawing a diagram in order to explore the relationship between Lombardi’s content and his process. Such an approach is not only motivated by the sustained relevance of Narrative Structures, but also by the need to obviate aesthetic diagrams––a formal motif composed of relational lines on a surface––from being construed as an image. This is most evident in how diagrams are reified into elementary pictures of bureaucratic structures; horizontal communication systems, such as the internet; or, in this particular instance, the dark depths of global finance.[7] What is at stake is the legibility or potential lapse into what Paul Virilio calls ‘visual dyslexia’: a condition that describes how the immense proliferation of images have altered the capacity to critically analyze visual imagery and thus have rendered modes of cultural production meaningless.[8] The slippage into a state of visual dyslexia occurs when diagrams are treated as a pseudo-aesthesticism because the schematic form seemingly looks like technological or economical infrastructures. The more we situate diagrams in reference to current conditions such as data-mining and global finance, or use them as graphic tools to connect the dots, the more invisible or translucent the structure will become. In considering Lombardi’s work, the argument could be made, of course, that his diagrams are a basic analogy for global finance and not necessarily a picture of it. But a diagram as an analogy runs a similar risk of neutralizing practice in that form is construed as a corresponding expression of particular context. The burden of reflection will prevail in our examination if Lombardi’s content is the singular underlying cause for the drawing’s form and his overall practice. In this sense, I think it is reasonable to suggest that reading a diagram as a kind of realistic illustration of data-mining or globalization runs the risk of provoking the same historical baggage associated with classical theories of mimesis––a diagram as a rehearsal of the Albertian ‘window onto another world’, only this time it is an attempt to construct a window onto a world, as Allan Sekula so astutely describes, ‘merciless grinding away beneath the slick superficial liquidity of markets’.[9] Under the acceleration of perpetual collection and dispersal of information, it is imperative to shift our examinations to how diagrams materialize at the level of practice in an effort to avoid being seduced by the promise of an illusionistic world picture.

Before turning to details of Lombardi’s project, a brief conceptual history of the term ‘diagram’, I hope, will suffice to demonstrate how diagrams are not simply a condition of globalization or the information age. This also gives us a glimpse into the historical distinction between diagrams and networks.[10] Recalling the original etymological meaning of the term—to mark out with lines—my argument adopts a broad understanding of what constitutes a diagram. In their text The Culture of Diagram, John Bender and Michael Marrinan note an early use of the term in the context of musical notations and during the period  between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, diagrams appear in reference to scientific experiments and mechanical innovation.[11] Within logic or mathematics, diagrams are formal devices used to demonstrate the process of reasoning. Diagrams have no meaning in and of themselves, as meaning is derived from the relations manifested on the surface of inscription, like a piece of paper. Taking up this problem-set at the level of form, drawing a diagram instantiates an adaptable space for information within a singular plane without depriving the mathematician or scientist or artist of the capacity to experiment. To draw a diagram is to explore a problem, and the material or formal diagram, as an afterward of that exploration, corresponds to the problem by relation. The formal diagram is not a part of that initial problem. If diagrams are a mode of representation, then what is represented is the thought process itself.

This general conception alludes to the complexity and recurring instantiations of diagrams as representational systems throughout the history of the term, and in turn makes writing a history of almost inconceivable. In an effort to move towards a concept of diagrams within artistic practice, so that the history of art might tell us something about Lombardi’s practice, I would like to extract the common threads dispersed amongst the historical and disciplinary fields: these threads being the relational and procedural elements that inform each definition of a diagram. A generalizing or abstract understanding, however, should not be misconstrued as a proposal to universalize the definition. It goes without saying that neither form nor practice occurs in a vacuum. This holds especially true for aesthetic diagrams. Distinction, then, must be located within practice.

In his book on Francis Bacon, Gilles Deleuze characterized the diagram as a ‘middle-way’.[12] The diagram strategically connects two distinct moments, the end of one process with the beginning of another, while simultaneously framing the transitional or ‘suggestive’ space between. The diagram, Deleuze claims, ‘ends the preparatory work and begins the act of painting’.[13] Preparatory work, for Deleuze, can include either sketching or the cognitive process prior to picking up a brush. His emphasis on the diagram indicates the importance the philosopher gave to the term and its operation within the two discursive fields of art and philosophy. Deleuze equated the role of the artist with that of the philosopher.[14] This notion was adapted in the format of his text itself as the original French version of Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation was meant to be read in conjunction with a second volume containing reproductions of Bacon’s paintings. With the books side by side, one puts forth concepts in words and the other puts forth concepts in paint. Through his analysis of Bacon’s paintings, he concluded, ‘The diagram is thus the operative set of asignifying traits and nonrepresentative lines and zones, line-strokes and color-patches’.[15] The concept of the diagram and the distinction between preparation and action, as he conceived it, fully manifests within the material process of painting. Deleuze situates an aesthetic diagram in-between figuration and pictorial abstraction: ‘It is as if, in the midst of the figurative and probabilistic givens, a catastrophe overcame the canvas’.[16] Through random lines, strokes and patches, the prefigured, orderly coordinates of the composition collapse and the artist’s hand asserts its autonomy over the pictorial conventions, such as perspective or chiaroscuro, that ‘reign over’ the canvas. He warns, however, that the hand’s liberation must be contained within this abstract zone and not be permitted to ‘eat away at the entire painting’.[17] Pointing to Abstract Expressionism, Deleuze argues it is imperative that the moment of chaos on the canvas be expressed without completely surpassing the preceding order. For example, Deleuze understood Pollock’s drips as foreclosing on the middle-way in both composition and process. But perhaps Eva Hesse articulates Deleuze’s warning best when, speaking about Pollock’s painting, she stated: ‘What is more chaotic than those drips, but he made his order out of that, so it was the most ordered painting’.[18] Diagrams must remain controlled and operative within the middle in order for the experimental process to succeed. According to Deleuze, the role of the diagram within artistic practice is to create the possibility for something ‘new’ to emerge from the painterly process. Newness cannot be identified if it morphs into an order itself. Deleuze’s theory of the diagram, as Jakub Zdebik has noted, strings together key components of his corpus.[19] The painterly diagram as the path to new possibilities links up with its conception in Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia: ‘The diagrammatic or abstract machine does not function to represent, even something real, but rather constructs a real that is yet to come, a new type of reality’.[20] What is important here is how the state of in-between, both formally and conceptually, afforded Deleuze the capacity to adopt the diagram into his own project while also shifting emphasis to the material procedure of creating the diagram.

Liberation, for Deleuze, was conceived through the experience of tension on the surface or in the act of painting. Tension signals the moment before chaos. One could argue, nonetheless, that the painterly tension Deleuze considered imperative to the diagram’s functionality is present within several other pictorial strategies throughout the history of modern art. The avant-garde’s experimentations with form signaled the radical break with traditional mimetic codes and perspectival space at the turn of the twentieth century. Up against the conventions that, to use Deleuze’s words, ‘reigned over’ the canvas, tension was embedded within new modes of expression. The Cubist technique of collage antagonized the distinction between figure and ground in that line was no longer a tool of description delineated on the blank page of support. Through the manual operation of cut and paste in Picasso’s papier collés, no longer did line determine form, but rather the form (the cut paper) determined line. The act of cutting certainly marks the intervention of the hand and indicates process without devouring the entire composition. The modernist trope of the grid, although seemingly mute of tension, also signaled a rupture by ‘breaking the chain’ with the painterly past, as Rosalind Krauss has argued in her influential essay on modernist grids.[21] The materiality of the grid, as a system of rational lines on a two dimensional plane, partly overlaps with our broad definition of a diagram. Yet, although related in some capacity, the modernist grid is the antithesis to a diagram. Pointing to another historical example, Mondrian, in an attempt to abolish hierarchal order in Western painting, aimed to eliminate the difference between figure and ground. Through the formal structure of the grid, line shifts from the traditional figure and ground relations to a dialectic of marked and unmarked surfaces. The grid subsumes the particulars, the difference between figure and ground is dissolved, and a totalizing system extends to the edge of the frame. To again refer to Krauss: ‘If it maps anything, it maps the surface of painting itself’.[22] The process of creating a grid is homogenizing while the act of diagramming retains a level of heterogeneity by connecting pictorial elements—figure and ground—through line.[23] The grid remains in an internal stasis of devouring itself, while a diagram affords the possibility of gesturing elsewhere. By rationalizing the entire surface through its inner logic, the grid, as Deleuze might say, is a ‘digital’ operation, ‘not in direct reference to the hand, but in reference to the basic units of a code’.[24] As opposed to turning painting into a code, diagrams in practice indicate a manual operation and support the possibility for newness to emerge from within the visual whole. Through the artist’s own inscription, painting is, for Deleuze, the ‘analogical art per excellence’.[25]

Both Deleuze and Lombardi provide us with a glimpse into how diagrams, as a distinct tactic, are manifested within artistic practice. In the early 1990s, Lombardi began writing and archiving information from published media sources such as newspapers, webpages, and books onto three-by-five index cards. The information compiled on the cards consisted mainly of names or titles and brief descriptions of the various financial subjects. Overall, Lombardi created over 14,000 handwritten cards. In 1994 he began reshaping and recontextualizing the data collected onto paper. As noted in an unpublished exhibition proposal, Lombardi stated that drawing ‘provided a new focus to my work; [it] tended to support the same goals as the writing—to convey socially and politically use [sic] information; and confirmed 100% to my aesthetic inclinations—minimal, understated and somewhat iconoclastic.’[26] Shifting the paper onto the floor and placing the pertinent index cards on the surface, Lombardi proceeded to draw out the connections. When asked why he did not generate his diagrams through a computer program, the artist stressed the importance of tactility of both materials and physical presence on the surface of the paper.[27] Using a device that had been manipulated to desired curvature to guide his hand, the artist sought to make organic connections, claiming that right angles restricted the lines flow. Like Deleuze, Lombardi draws attention to the artist’s authorial gesture. The hand intervenes in that which is already given before the act of drawing. For Lombardi, that is the information written on the index cards. In an interview, Lombardi remarked on his inability to mentally visualize the connections he had consolidated in the database of index cards, stating that drawing, for him, was a form of memory.

Without yielding to Deleuze’s more discrete reading of the diagram, I would like to extract the commonality between Deleuze’s theory of the diagram and Lombardi’s practice in order to articulate the kinds of diagrams I am concerned with in the present text. As indicators of both form and process, diagrams, in some capacity, appear to involve the hand in relation to line and the procedure of creating those lines. What else would have prompted Deleuze to declare, ‘Save the contour—nothing is more important for Bacon than this’, or Lombardi to use the medium of pencil?[28] But, unlike Deleuze’s painterly diagram, Lombardi’s hand is not fully liberated from order, as he still presses his pencil up against an apparatus. What makes Lombardi’s diagram distinct is the recognition that to draw a line is always already mediated by a set of external constraints.

In considering how Lombardi maintains the in-between element of a diagram––on the one hand refusing liberation and on the other delaying the total erasure of his gesture––I describe his mode of drawing as a practice of mediation. Lombardi’s diagrams mediate a material and cognitive practice of consolidation and dissolution of information. This borrows from Fredric Jameson’s claim that mediation is a strategy to ‘analyze and articulate two quite distinct types of objects or “texts”, or two very different structural levels of reality’.[29] Mediation allows for an examination of how the many registers of daily life and the historical developments of capital correspond beneath the level of appearances by demonstrating that ‘they were never separate from each other.’[30] To uncover what is beneath the ideological surface, according to Jameson, we must construct a terminology ‘of reification, of fragmentation’ in order to adequately describe the levels of reality at once. The nuance in Jameson’s approach is that the strategy of mediation facilitates a language that characterizes the relations of late capital while at the same time describing how that same language is used as a revolt against the experience of alienation.[31] Lombardi’s Narrative Structures series is not about late capital; rather, the series’ content inhabits his process of drawing. And as a form that is manifested in multiple disciplines while simultaneously operating as a description of global connectedness, his diagrams offer a more profound diagnosis of a particular sociopolitical moment over the production of ‘newness’. Lombardi, in reference to his own process, claimed, ‘I am not introducing new information’, but rather rearranging it to map the ‘political-social terrain in which I live’.[32] This strategy of mediation shifts Deleuze’s notion of surface tension onto the tension between artistic practice and the movement of history.

The general definition of a diagram as an exploration of a problem through a set of material and immaterial processes, and the broad conceptual history of diagrams as a disparate term with no singular point of origin, indicates that mediation is already a quintessential characteristic of a diagram. Nonetheless, tension between form and content and contradictions between gesture and structure have a long history in twentieth-century artistic practice. And Lombardi is certainly not the first artist to use a diagram as a form of mediation. Before returning to a discussion of Narrative Structures, a select route through the history of diagrams within the discursive field of art is necessary.

In addition to the aforementioned practices, the dissolution of perspective and the radical methodologies of the avant-garde provided the condition for painting’s entanglement with structural methods outside the conventional pictorial construction.[33] As art historians Briony Fer and Molly Nesbit note, within the first few decades of the twentieth century, formal diagrams began to proliferate within art production. In borrowing from techniques of drawing associated with commodity production, artists, particularly those associated with Russian Constructivism, as Fer points out, deployed diagrams as an alternative form of figuration to conventional practice. Speaking to the French avant-garde’s use of mechanical or geometrical drawing, Nesbit has referred to the formal techniques of commodity design within artistic practice as the ‘language of industry’.[34] Under the education reforms called the ‘Guillaume method’, named after its creator who was also the director of the Beaux-Arts, students in the French national school system were taught the geometrical building blocks of design in conjunction with other fundamental learning skills such as reading and writing. To quote Guillaume: ‘This is the drawing used by architects for their plan, elevations, and cross sections: with this engineers make their trace projections whose lines give the final word in precision, impossible to obtain with subjective drawing. It is, in a word, that which is used by all the crafts and professions in order to direct labour of the worker’.[35]

The utilitarian mode of representation was embedded in the school system by the end of the nineteenth century. The more rational or geometric forms of drawing were subsumed by the Guillaume method in order to establish a universal language that could prepare the French student body for a future on the factory floor or other sectors of the market. Figure drawing was left alone.[36] The method is an ideal example of Foucault’s concept of the disciplinary society, as it demonstrates how knowledge is formulated as an instrument of control—more specifically, to drive the performance of wage labor.[37] Through the mechanical ritual of analyzing objects inside and out as a set of relational parts, schematic line drawing combined examination (via the drawing drill each individual student was subjected to) with the repetition found on the assembly line. It was a mode of linearity or diagram that aimed to eradicate the authorial gesture of line from the medium itself through the specialization of various modes of technical and objective drawing.

Marcel Duchamp, Coffee Mill (Moulin à café), 1911. Oil paint and graphite on board, 330 x 127 mm. Collection of Tate. ©Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / SODRAC, Montreal (2017)

Similar to Fer’s analysis, Nesbit claims that Duchamp alternated conventional painting for the language of industry within his practice as a way to interrogate the commodity and the ‘tyranny of shop window.’[38] This, in turn, led Duchamp straight to the readymade. I am, however, more interested in how Duchamp instantiates diagrams within his practice as an operation between aesthetic drawing and industrial drawing, or, rather, as a challenge to the autonomy of both art and industry. Duchamp made his experimentation with diagrams apparent as early as 1911. Referencing the composition of his painting Coffee Mill (1911), Duchamp stated:
I did a coffee grinder which I made to explode; the coffee is tumbling down beside it, the gear wheels are above, and the knob is seen simultaneously at several points in its circuit, with an arrow to indicate movement […] The arrow was an innovation that pleased me a lot—the diagrammatic aspect was interesting [...] It was a sort of loophole […] It was there I began to think I could avoid all contact with traditional pictorial painting.[39]

Avoidance, for Duchamp, proves to be slightly contradictory. Duchamp’s exploration of diagrams, on the one hand, allowed him to use the same formal language to analyze both art and industry; on the other hand, the loophole afforded Duchamp the path to circumnavigate the metaphorical baggage attached to the tradition of pictorial painting. While he had been taught the language of industry through the lines of Guillaume, he continued to express an interest in the classical order of painting. A few years after the production of Coffee Mill, Duchamp began studying at the Bibliothèque Saint-Geneviève and, as a note from the White Box (1967) suggests, spent much of his tenure at the library reading perspectival treatises. Through these treatises one would read and see a series of illustrations on how a system of relational lines provides an armature for artistic innovation on the surface. When void of illusionism, perspective, in its skeleton-like form, is open to experimentation. It is a type of diagram that is not so different from those valued in industry production. Duchamp later stated: ‘Perspective was very important. The “Large Glass” constitutes a rehabilitation of perspective, which had then been completely ignored and disparaged. For me, perspective became absolutely scientific’.[40] In his work Large Glass, Duchamp overlapped the perspectival lattice onto the ‘diagrammatic aspect’ he discovered with his Coffee Mill.  Swapping one device for another, he executes this on a chocolate grinder rather than a coffee mill. Duchamp considers Large Glass to be ‘the sum of experiments’[41]; and his materials of glass and wire explicitly render the two schematic forms transparent.

What makes Duchamp’s diagram distinct from the many kinds of diagrams—aesthetic or mathematical or otherwise—is that while he situates the form as a mode of figuration within the discursive field of art (his own practice or the history of art), he demonstrates at the same time how diagrams are a method of description for realities external to his practice. Unlike Duchamp’s contemporaries, a diagram was not a formal method of substitution or a means to an end for the problems of modernist painting. There is no single referent for a diagram in his Large Glass or even in his oeuvre. Taking into account his education in the French public school system and his fascination with perspective, Duchamp’s diagram was modernist self-reflexivity by other means. Through contradiction, like the one between his use of perspective and desire to avoid traditional painting, his experiments express critical resistance as much as his works symptomatize commodification.

The recursive route to the early twentieth century is not to suggest Lombardi’s work is a repetition of the problems inherent to modern art; rather, this account is an attempt to call attention to the historicity of diagrams within cultural practice. As a historical precedent, Duchamp’s practice provides a conception of a diagram that challenges the common assumption that the form is a reflection of the capitalist modes of production. It is no coincidence that within Lombardi’s notes we find reference to Duchamp’s ‘hermetic, process’.[42] Despite this connection, Lombardi’s strategic tactic of the diagram is most often positioned within the existing literature as a derivative of the late 1960s and 1970s post-Minimal and Conceptual art practices. In comparison to the work of artist Hans Haacke, Lombardi’s practice rethinks the relationship between art and information without taking an explicit statistical approach to the problem-set of displaying information visually. For example, Haacke’s installation Harry Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (1971), which outlines the relationships of privately owned low-income housing in New York City between 1951 and 1971 and how they were controlled to maximize profit, was censored from Haacke’s solo exhibition at the Guggenheim due to its contents. While the work on the one hand struck a ‘financial’ nerve in the museum’s board by unveiling the economic support of the institution, it also—through the use of vernacular photos, maps, and real estate listings—critiqued conventions of traditional pictorial construction, or, in other terms, the art object itself. Line in Haacke’s installation is a referential gesture, pointing to the art institution’s connections with the market-driven realm of real estate. These administrative forms of Conceptual art, as Benjamin Buchloh has argued,
truly become the most significant paradigmatic change of postwar artistic production at the very moment that it mimed the operating logic of late capitalism and its positivist instrumentality in an effort to place its auto-critical investigations at the service of liquidating even the last remnants of traditional aesthetic experience. In that process it succeeded in purging itself entirely of imaginary and bodily experience, of physical substance and the space of memory, to the same extent that it effaced all residues of representation and style, of individuality and skill.[43]

By evacuating artistic expression, again most notably through the negation of the artist’s own hand, Haacke delivered an outright documentary presentation of his content to disarticulate the work of art and unveil the institutional and economical structures that had contained it.

Although Lombardi’s practice is indebted to Haacke’s work by retaining an informational mode, his practice supersedes such bureaucratic rigor. At the same time that line connects the elements on the picture plane, it also mediates the conditions that determined Lombardi’s own mark. A legend found in his unpublished notes indicates how each type of line embodied a monetary value––an arrow with a dotted line signified the flow of money, loans or credits, while a squiggle a sale or transfer of an asset. The legend, however, remained within Lombardi’s notes and was not meant to accompany his work. In its absence, the operation of the line doubles as a formal means to connect and as a materialization of an abstraction. Or rather, Lombardi’s diagrams describe the movement of exchange, which is itself a mediation of value, which is itself a form of mediation.[44] Against Buchloh’s description of Haacke’s practice, Lombardi does not purge his practice of imaginary or bodily experience through the mimicry of late capital. While the logic of capital informs the drawing’s shape, Lombardi’s act of drawing differentiates from Haacke’s referential straight line. Recalling Lombardi’s own remarks about tactility and memory in addition to his adherence to drawing, his diagrams maintain remnants of aesthetic experience. As Sekula claims, to insist on the world’s scandal is akin to the position of the ocean swimmer. Through the materials of note cards, pencil, and paper, Lombardi times his strokes in an effort to resist the potential subsumption of the swell.

In conjunction with the comparison to Haacke’s visual mode of statistical information, another recurring tendency within the discourse has been to label Narrative Structures as ‘conspiracy art’ as though it was Lombardi himself who foreclosed on the dark underworld of BCCI.[45] Public exposure to the unseen depths of the capitalist world system, whether it be drawing a line or leaking a document, has, historically, only reaffirmed the existence of ‘the world’s increasingly grotesque “connectedness”’––to channel Sekula again here. Returning to BCCI, ICIC, FAB, c. 1972-91 (4th Version), the dates included within them not only bookend the rise and demise of BCCI as a financial institution, but also underscore decisive turning points within the history of finance capital. Following the fiscal crises of the 1970s, the world’s largest economies propagated policies of privatization and deregulation across the global stage and, in effect, sanctioned corporations or other business organizations to operate as central brokers in the accumulation of foreign and domestic capital. Broadly speaking, competition between private and public money inevitably intensified with the withdrawal of the state, forcing institutions in both spheres to lower their ‘standards’. The question of ethics under the emerging neoliberal policies was transferred onto the marketplace itself with the notion, as David Harvey has argued, that ‘the social good will be maximized by maximizing the reach and frequency of market transactions’.[46] Operating within a geopolitical context that ‘seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market’, BCCI became, as the cover of Time magazine declared, ‘a one-stop shopping center for criminals and spies’.[47] The narrative of BCCI is but one example of the rapid growth and dissolution of financial institutions during this period. It is also only one example within the series Narrative Structures itself. After his recalling of Lombardi, Grandin goes on to suggest that the release of the Panama Papers is not a discrete event but the very logic of neoliberalism. This notion was echoed by Luke Harding, a journalist involved in the Panama Papers investigation, when he stated, ‘Previously, we thought that the offshore world was a shadowy, but minor, part of our economic system. What we learned from the Panama Papers is that it is the economic system’.[48]

Detail: Mark Lombardi,  BCCI, ICIC, FAB, c. 1972-91 (4th version), 1996-2000. Graphite and colored pencil on paper, 52 x 138 in. Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Image courtesy of Donald Lombardi and Pierogi Gallery. Photo Credit: John Berens.

Lombardi’s diagrams mediate the hinge between aesthetics and information at the fundamental level of drawing and, in turn, renew the contradictions inherent to the Duchampian diagram. Those who position Lombardi’s art as a kind of conspiracy theory fail to see the contradiction between the drawing’s point of view and the impenetrability of the diagram’s connections. Up close, the reductive text, nodes, and lines in Lombardi’s Narrative Structures are painstakingly clear, allowing the viewer to engage with the paper’s surface. The clarity of his mark-making also indicates his own interest in graphic design. Lombardi’s notes and papers include copies of the charts found in Edward Tufte’s 1990 book, Envisioning Information, a text that attempts to articulate how principles of design can escape the issue of flatness. The elements of systematic visual organization, discussed by Tufte, aim to establish the viewer’s role in the perception and subsequent control of information. Through the clarity of horizontal and vertical lines, Tufte proposes that control is ‘given over to viewers, not editors, designer, or decorators’.[49] In the first comprehensive exploration of Lombardi’s work, Robert Hobbs posits that Tufte’s notion of visual communication was a significant influence on the artist. While Lombardi may have drawn from the precision afforded by Tufte’s illustrations, he simultaneously refused the notion that control could be a property of the viewer. From a distance, the particulars of the drawing are subsumed into the diagram. If anything is to be communicated, it is the dense entanglement or interconnection of the system of capital itself.

Hobbs’s emphasis on coherent visual schemas underscores the frequent associations of Lombardi’s drawings with the drive towards the transparency of information. In addressing issues around the ‘readability’ of Narratives Structures, I find it useful to elaborate on a remark made by writer George Pendle in a 2009 article for Frieze. In this article, Pendle compares Lombardi’s diagrams with the pictorial technique of pointillism, arguing that while up close the work is nearly invisible, from far away it reveals the system to the viewer.[50] If we were to look at the work of Seurat, within his pointillist system the individual graphemes are broken down into units of color to then be synthesized in the viewer’s eye. From a position close to the canvas, the technique of the painting is rendered tangible; by shifting back, the viewer can comprehend the underlying logic of its production. This systematic approach to the medium of painting allowed visual penetration of the work of art by offering a subjective position in front of the canvas. A symbolic autonomy was established through the ability to see the painting as a totality. The historical motivation behind Seurat’s system was to afford the viewing subject the logic mimetic to that of the factory floor in the hope that the proletariat might invert the logic behind their alienation.[51] This remained a symbolic act, as these utopian aspirations were only resolved within the creative process and not actualized in political sphere of nineteenth-century France.[52]

Lombardi’s drawings are the inverse of this form of critical abstraction. Such utopian aspirations are not offered in the reception of Lombardi’s practice, because the inability to synthesize the visual field is a demonstration of the drawing’s always already limitations to grant an autonomous position in front of the picture plane. The further back we shift, the larger our view of the entangled lines as a system itself; but we are never rewarded with a sense of control over the organization of the picture plane through our own perceptual labor. Lombardi’s diagrams are a dispersal of data connected through line, yet never quite unified in the work’s reception. As a result, we are never free of the mediation of his diagrams. This comparison proves fruitful by emphasizing the contradictions that both artists brought to the surface through their respected practices. Each arrived at the same result despite their differences in form. Through the technique of line and the structure of a diagram, Lombardi’s drawings refuse to offer the myth of the rational, controlling subject or the symbolic relief of socio-political tensions inherent in the series of drawings. Both Seurat and Lombardi through strategic pictorial techniques elicit the effects of capitalism (either industrial or late) by mediating the struggles for the resolution between appearances and real conditions of one’s own existence.

Jameson has argued that the dissolution of spatial boundaries under late capital has resulted in the impossibility of thinking globally. Lombardi’s process coincides with Jameson’s call for ‘cognitive mapping’, a concept first presented at the Marxism and Interpretation Conference in 1988. In his paper, Jameson delivers an articulation of three types of space. The first, market capital, is exemplified by the logic of the grid––a space of homogeneity that is contained within its own limits. In the second space, monopoly capital or imperialism, the structural coordinates of the grid break down as the workers’ lived experience is further separated from the means of capitalist production. The rise of imperialism widens the gap between individual experience on the ground and capital’s totalizing structure, to quote Jameson at length:
At this point the phenomenological experience of the individual subject—traditionally, the supreme raw materials of the work of art—becomes limited to a tiny corner of the social world, a fixed camera view of a certain section of London or the countryside or whatever. But the truth of that experience no longer coincides with the place in which it takes place. The truth of that limited daily experience of London lies, rather, in India or Jamaica or Hong Kong; it is bound up with the whole colonial system of the British Empire that determines the very quality of the individual's subjective life. Yet those structural coordinates are no longer accessible to immediate lived experience and are often not even conceptualizable for most people.[53]

Through imperial capitalist frameworks of labor and resource extraction, the individual, in either London or the colonies, was confronted with the inability to conceptualize the system in its entirety. This sets the stage for late capital or the ‘postmodern’, a historical moment, for Jameson, in which the dissolution of spatial and visible barriers becomes the very condition of every life and formulates the division between what is lived and how things appear to be. The proposition of cognitive mapping is an aesthetic one, as it is a call to visualize the contours of current unimaginable conditions of the here and now. Lombardi appears to answer the proposition to give shape to the contours of global capitalism at the same time that he signals cognitive mapping’s inherent limitations. Or, drawing on the comparison with Seurat’s technique based on visual synthesis, Lombardi’s diagrams demonstrate the impossibility of such cognitive perception in the age of global capitalism. The diagram offers a grasp of a minimal formal schematic framework and its maximum dissolution. It is both made—through the construction of the data filled index cards––and unmade––through the continual execution of lines on the page. The series of drawings is a cognitive process mediated by his own inscription, yet it ceases to add up to a comprehensive structural model of the conditions of his own experience.[54] Jameson does not account for mediation in his own call for cognitive mapping, but what Lombardi’s practice makes clear is that any attempt to map the here and now will always involve the practice of doing so. Returning to Sekula’s claim at the beginning of this essay that ‘to insist on the social is simply to practice purposeful immersion’,[55] we might swap the term immersion for mediation.

The unmasking or aestheticization of scandal further obscures our understanding of the systems of control that govern such exposure. Or, as Jameson wrote, ‘Conspiracy is the poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age; it is the degraded figure of the total logic of late capital, a desperate attempt to represent the latter’s system, whose failure is marked by its slippage into sheer theme and content.’[56] Both Lombardi and the Panama Papers reveal the very logic of late capital, and not a corrupt exception to the rule. The act of drawing a diagram is less about exposing or revealing the truth than it is about mediating the political or economic system motivating the need to draw a line. Suggesting here in my own drawing of a line that diagrams within practice, as strategies to mediate the relationship between process and the historical developments of capital, mark the decisive turning points within the longue durée twentieth century.

* A version of this essay was first delivered at the Universities Art Association of Canada’s annual conference in Montreal, QC, 27–30 October 2016. I am grateful to Jakub Zdebik for organizing the panel ‘Art as Information’ in addition to his feedback.



[1] Sekula, Allan. ‘Between the Net and the Deep Blue Sea (Rethinking the Traffic in Photographs)’, October, 102, Fall, 2002, 7.

[2] Offshore Leaks Database, https://offshoreleaks.icij.org, accessed 12 January 2017.

[3] Grandin, Greg, ‘The Panama Papers Are Only the Beginning’, The Nation, 5 April 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/the-panama-papers-are-only-the-beginning/, accessed 1 May 2016. I must thank Kyla Foster for sharing this article.
[4] Hobbs, Robert. Mark Lombardi: Global Networks (New York: Independent Curators International, 2003), 96.

[5] See front cover, Time magazine, 138:4, 29 July 1991.

[6] Within art historical discourse, Robert Hobbs and Jakub Zdebik are the exception. Hobbs focuses more on the drawings as portraits of corruption than he does the structure of the diagram itself. However, he does align Lombardi’s ‘graphs’ within a structuralist paradigm in which individuals in the drawings are defined by the governing form of the diagram. He also briefly cites Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concept of the rhizome. Zdebik perhaps picks up where Hobbs left off, expanding on how Lombardi’s drawings illustrate diagram’s function in relation to the Deleuzian concept of the diagram. Although we take different routes, we might end up at a similar conclusion: that is, the importance of the diagram itself in Lombardi’s work. See Hobbs, Robert. Mark Lombardi: Global Networks (New York: Independent Curators International, 2003), and Zdebik, Jakub. ‘Networks of Corruption: The Aesthetics of Mark Lombardi’s Relational Diagrams’, Racar, 36:2, 2011, 66–77.

[7] I must again give credit to Jakub Zdebik for organizing the panel ‘Art as Information’ and raising the issue of network fetishization. Considering the overlapping formal characteristics of a network and a diagram and with this question of the fetish in mind, I use the term reified in reference to Georg Lukács’ analysis of Marx’s commodity fetish: ‘Its basis is that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a “phantom objectivity”, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.’ See Luckás, Georg. ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics,  https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/hcc05.htm, accessed 5 September 2016.

[8] Virilio, Paul. The Vision Machine, translated by Julie Rose (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), 8–10.

[9] Sekula, 2002.

[10] For a discussion on the conceptual history of the term network see, Jagoda, Patrick. Network Aesthetics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[11] Bender, John, and Michael Marrinan, The Culture of Diagram (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 8. In addition to this text, another expression of gratitude must be given to Jeff O’Brien for pointing out the connection between diagrams and musical notations.

[12] Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, translated by Daniel W. Smith (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 96.

[13] Ibid., 83.

[14] See, Rajchman, John. The Deleuze Connections (London and Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000).

[15] Deleuze, 2002, 83.

[16] Ibid., 82.

[17] Ibid, 89.

[18] de Zegher, Catherine. ‘Drawing as Binding/Bandage/Bondage or Eva Hesse Caught in the Triangle of Process/Content/Materiality’, in Eva Hesse Drawing (New York and New Haven: The Drawing Center and Yale University Press, 2006), 105. This notion was also echoed by Greenberg as he emphasized the notion of control in the work of Pollock.

[19] Zdebik, Jakub. Deleuze and the Diagram: Aesthetic Threads in Visual Organization (London and New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012), 2.

[20] Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi (London and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 142.

[21] Krauss, Rosalind. The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernists Myths (London and Cambrideg: MIT Press, 1985), 10.

[22] Ibid.

[23] In the drawing of a diagram, the hierarchal structure of the picture plane is eradicated by shifting the blank page of support from a background to an open space. And as a space of possibility, ground becomes another element or part in the diagram. For a discussion on the essential features of drawing see, Baidou, Alain. ‘Drawing: On Wallace Stevens’, in The Age of the Poets: And Other Writings on Twentieth-Century Poetry and Prose, translated by Emily Apter and Bruno Bosteels (London and New York: Verso, 2014).

[24] Deleuze, 2002, 94.

[25] Ibid., 98.

[26] Hobbs, 2003, 16. The exhibition Mark Lombardi: Global Networks was held at The Drawing Center in New York City and featured twenty-five works from the series.

[27] Lombardi, Mark. Andy Mann Interview: Houston, TX (1997) (New York: Pierogi Gallery), DVD.

[28] Deleuze, 2002, 89. Although Deleuze focuses on the medium of paint, his emphasis on line, and in particular contour line, makes his theory of the diagram correlate to drawing. And to this point, Lombardi used the term version in most of his drawing’s titles. This suggests that he did not see them as preparatory sketches for his larger works.

[29] Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 40.

[30] Ibid.

[31] In Althusser’s Marxism only one structure, the capitalist modes of production, exists. Jameson notes, ‘This is the sense in which ‘structure’ is an absent cause, since it is nowhere empirically present as an element, it is not a part of the whole of one of the levels, but rather the entire system of relationships among those levels’. The distinction between Jameson’s concept of mediation and Althusser’s structuralism is that while the latter is a form of mediation, Althusser bases his concept on the differences between social elements. Solidifying a language that can be used to describe multiple levels at once, as Jameson argues, allows for cultural production to also be interpreted as a revolt. Jameson, 1981, 40-42.

[32] Lombardi, 1997.

[33] Fer, Briony. ‘The Language of Construction,’ in Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art between the Wars (New Haven, Connecticut and London: Yale University Press 1993), 107–108. Also see, Gough, Maria. The Artist as Producer: Russian Constructionism in Revolution (Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press 2005).

[34] Nesbit, Molly. ‘Ready-made Originals: The Duchamp Model’, October, 37, 1986, 59–60. Also see Nesbit, Molly. ‘The Language of Industry’, in De Duve, Thierry, (eds). The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp (Cambridge, Massachusetts and Halifax, Nova Scotia: MIT Press 1991).

[35] Nesbit, 1991, 358.

[36] Ibid., 354.

[37] See Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books 1995).

[38] Ibid., 64.

[39] Cabanne, Pierre. Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, translated by Ron Padgett (New York: The Viking Press 1971), 31–32. Also quoted in Nesbit, 1986, 60.

[40] Cabanne, 1971, 38.

[41] Ibid., 42.

[42] Hobbs, 2003, 34. Here, I would slightly alter Lombardi’s note to read Duchamp’s immanent hermeneutic process so that the function of mediation not be confused with a kind of simplistic hermeneutic circle: the whole is understood in relation to its parts and each part can only be understood in relation to the whole. From the outset of his text, Jameson demands a new hermeneutic model and compares his concerns with those taken up by Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of interpretation, in particular, the Oedipus complex. See, Jameson, 1981, 20-23. Deleuze and Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (London: Penguin Books, 2009), 51–103.

[43] Buchloh, Benjamin. ‘Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions’, October, 55, 1990, 143.

[44] And taking into account Marx’s argument that the notion of value in a capitalist society is never constant and always changes form, the levels of mediation continue to enfold. See Marx, Karl. ‘Chapter Three: Money, or the Circulation of Commodities’, in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1, translated by Ben Fowkes (London and New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 188–247.

[45] See Patricia Goldstone’s recent text, Interlock: Art, Conspiracy and the Shadow Worlds of Mark Lombardi (Berkeley: Counterpoint Publishing, 2015). Goldstone offers a comprehensive collection of interviews, police reports and journalistic inquiries. She begins with a claim that Lombardi ‘is one of the first, if not the first great artists of the 21st century’ and goes so far as to suggest his death as the ultimate Conceptual art piece. Goldstone’s account rarely engages with the discourse of art history, and when she does, it is surface level at best. In 2011, there was a documentary film about Lombardi’s work and the speculations around this death. However, I have been unable to obtain a copy. See Mark Lombardi: Death-Defying Acts of Art Conspiracy, directed by Mareike Wegener (Germany: Rise and Shine, 2012), DVD.  Also see, Neary, Lynn. ‘The “Conspiracy” Art of Mark Lombardi: Late Artists Swirling Diagrams Chart Scandalous Relationships’, Arts & Life, NPR broadcast, 1 November 2003; Yuliano, Dean. ‘The Gallery: An Artist with a Taste for Scandal—Terror’s Money Trail Peeks From Between the Lines; Now the FBI Is Interested’, The Wall Street Journal (Eastern Edition), 1 May 2002; Kimmelman, Michael.  ‘Webs Connecting the Power Brokers, the Money and, Ultimately the World’, The New York Times, 14 November 2003; Heartney Eleanor. ‘ART; The Sinister Beauty of Global Conspiracies,’ The New York Times, 26 October 2003; McClister, Nell.‘Mark Lombardi; Drawing Center’, Artforum International, January 2004.

[46] Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 3.

[47] See front cover, Time magazine, 138:4, 29 July 1991.

[48] Rusbridger, Allan. ‘Panama: The Hidden Trillions’, New York Review of Books, 27 October 2016,  http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/10/27/panama-the-hidden-trillions/, accessed 5 May 2017.

[49] As quoted in Hobbs, 2003, 43. Hobbs suggests Lombardi ‘heeded’ to this advice. See Tufte, Edward. Envisioning Information (Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphic Press, 1990). As well as Tufte, Edward. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphic Press 1983).

[50] Pendle, George. ‘The Numbers Game: The Intertwining of Business, Finance, Art and Numerology’, Frieze, 3 June 2009, https://frieze.com/article/numbers-game?language=en, accessed 1 September 2016.

[51] See Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perceptions: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1999), 149-280. Also see Nochlin, Linda. ‘Seurat’s Grande Jatte: An Anti-Utopian Allegory’, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies vol. 14, no. 2, 1989, 132-153.

[52] Here I again rely on a notion articulated by Jameson in his Political Unconscious, 1981. For Jameson, the symbolic act, which is borrowed from Kenneth Burke, refers to how political contradictions can be resolved in the creative (imaginary) act despite whether or not they can be realized in the field of the real. The importance of the symbolic act is that it brings underlying contradictions to our attention and acts as a form of resistance to dominating structures. Both Seurat’s and Lombardi’s technique maintains this contradiction, thus proposing a means of resistance: one through form not content.

[53] Jameson, Fredric. ‘Cognitive Mapping’, in Nelson, Cary, and Lawrence Grossberg (eds). Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana, IL & Chicago: University of Illinois Press 1988), 349.

[54] This is not only demonstrated in the entanglement of line on the surface but in the continuity of the series production. Lombardi adjusted each subject accordingly, actively attending to the media circuits. If new data was collected, a new card was made, and the artist would in turn, create a new drawing as opposed to altering a previous one—a process that resulted in multiple versions of each subject over the duration of the project, as indicated in the several drawings of BCCI shown here. This narrative, we can assume, would have continued to unfold and materialize had it not been for the artist’s untimely death.

[55] Sekula, 2002.

[56] Jameson, 1988, 356.

Jessica Law is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History, Visual Art & Theory at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver). Her research investigates the political status of schematic forms of figuration within modern and contemporary art in an era of increasingly mediated visual experiences and communication. Law’s most recent publication is the essay “Marcel Duchamp’s Problems and Demonstrations” included in the anthology Beyond Given Knowledge: Investigation, Quest and Exploration in Modernism and the Avant-Gardes (December 2017).