Great Artists Steal: An Interview With Art World Provocateur Alfredo Martinez
Alfredo Martinez is a New York City-based artist who famously served time in federal prison for selling forgeries of Basquiat drawings to prominent collectors. He recently held a master class in forgery as part of The Downtown Biennial's "Warm-Ups" series. Cell Vision correspondents Miguel Gomez and Osvaldo Jimenez attended Martinez’s workshop and sat down for an interview with him to talk about his career, his artwork, and the art world.
Once in a while, we pause and question the workings of the art world, this system that is more opaque than the stock market, and just like the stock market, we have no real grasp of who the participants are or of the influence they exert on the art market and on our careers. We hear about collectors and their collections, the secondary market dealers, and the critics rubbing elbows with museum curators, and it all becomes overwhelming at times because there is no detailed guidebook to understanding artworld dynamics and one’s place in it. Most of the time, it feels like everyone is freestyling and floating in an ocean, swept away by whirling currents with no real direction. We mostly rely on our convictions fueled by confirmation bias to lead us down a path we hope will give us a chance at success, however one defines it. Some artists carve for decades toward commercial success, while others self-destruct and implode with infamy. Yet, there are a few who hardly follow a known path and just play it like the game that it is, giving us a sigh of relief that it ain’t that serious.
Alfredo Martinez is a provocateur. He is someone who has deliberately poked at the art world, paid for it, and looped back around to poke some more. In 2002, Martinez was sentenced to 21 months in Brooklyn Federal MDC for wire fraud after selling a number of forged Basquiat drawings to prominent collectors. While incarcerated, he continued to make artworks using the materials available to him, works which were then slipped out of prison to feature in a sold-out show in downtown Manhattan with an up-and-coming art dealer, James Fuentes.
Since then, Martinez remained focused on exploring the idea of authenticity by copying and fabricating hand-held weapons from discarded and broken gun parts, thus creating new forgeries. His art practice combines a range of media and disciplines, from painting and drawing to sculpture and installation. Most recently, he held a forgery master class at NeueHouse, “a private social space for creators” where guests were able to see IRL how the master-forger makes his Basquiat fakes, all while listening to his tirades. Great Artists Steal, part workshop and part artist talk, was part of the Warm-Ups series of happenings curated by The Downtown Biennial, a new artist-run organization. We attended Martinez’s workshop and sat down for an interview with him to talk about his career, his artwork, and the art world.
All artwork and images by Alfredo Martinez except where otherwise noted.
CELL VISION: You had an art show while in prison. I grew up in an era where rappers would record their verses in jail and release a whole album while serving time. Did any of your fellow inmates or allied COs know of this? And if so, how was this amazing feat received? Extra snacks in the commissary? More gym time?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: This was received with a bit of respect; no one really f***** with me after that.
CELL VISION: According to your interview in The Village Voice, you had a hunger strike for 56 days to protest the warden not allowing you any art supplies. That interview detailed the prison-cell-made tools you used in order to create your works for that show — mainly coffee beans, acrylic floor wax, Kool-Aid, and homemade paper constructed from letters sent by friends. Is it the duty of a true artist to suffer for their work? How important is sacrifice to the overall production and presentation of your pieces?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: People have done more under worse circumstances. There were artists who made art in Auschwitz. My activity was basically a publicity stunt taken to the 9th degree.
CELL VISION: The article wasn't clear on if the protest was successful. Was it, or did you just adapt to the circumstances?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: Unofficially, the guards came to me after my second hunger strike, saying they would personally not interfere with my work. They said they feared for my life, and I later learned that after a certain time, you just die from a hunger strike.
CELL VISION: If you gave me the tools you had in jail and I was forced to create something with it, I'd be one dead MacGyver. If necessity is the mother of invention, then is innovation also an art form?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: Crisis tends to concentrate the mind; also, the warden had the misfortune that my favorite movie was The Great Escape.
CELL VISION: What was your last meal before your hunger strike, and what was your first meal after the strike ended?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: I would often say when I was imprisoned that the prison food reminded me of bad school cafeteria food that was left in the refrigerator for three days. Everyone's favorite meal in prison was the baked chicken; to this day, I can't really have chicken.
CELL VISION: Wait, so you did two hunger strikes? With one of the main reasons being the authorities feared that your gun paintings would incite a riot?! Personally, I can't remember the last time a SoHo gallery show burned down a Target. Also you weren't doing cartoons of Muhammed, which eventually led to the terrorist attack on Charlie Hedbo (the often inflammatory publication in France, 2015). In your mind, what do you think was the rationality of their decision? That you might form a prisoners’ union and have an uprising against the guards?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: They just did not like being embarrassed and made fools of. Bureaucrats do not like to lose or look like they're losing. I surprisingly had no problem with the guards really, just the administration.
CELL VISION: Do you believe that your art possesses that power? Or any art for that matter?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: A friend of mine once said our art’s audience is not now but two hundred years from now.
CELL VISION: Do you consider your works political?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: After a fashion, I think the thing that makes people uncomfortable is its ambiguity.
CELL VISION: I read a little about your time with an arms dealer in Belgium. What was that like? What “Linkedin” even gets you that job?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: One of Sarkis Soghanalian’s charms was that he encouraged people’s curiosity, and he was extremely gregarious and friendly. I was basically like an office intern, and I got the job through an introduction [from American art dealer] Tony Shafrazi.
CELL VISION: I would personally like to ask, why the x-ray/blueprints of the gun?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: I care how they work.
CELL VISION: Can I build a gun using your illustrations?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: Maybe, but you would probably lose a finger.
CELL VISION: Would you say these technical drawings are a trace of your life and experiences?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: A diagram for a complex and complicated life? I will use that in my next interview...
CELL VISION: Great Artists Steal. As someone who has done time for that crime, how does this ethos fit in your own personal dogma?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: Plan B?
CELL VISION: Would you recommend this path to the youth? What does the fact that your forgeries are also highly sought-out works of art say about the modern collector community as a whole, one where originality and scarcity are the foundations of their economy?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: I think forgery is going to become rarer and more difficult. The art world is becoming more professional now; it reminds me a bit of how the mob was pushed out by the corporations of Las Vegas...
CELL VISION: Does your notoriety make you laugh and rub your fingers together like a supervillain, or does your success leave room for concern in terms of the integrity and future of the art world?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: Well, basically, my path is not sustainable. My career now would be more established if I didn't waste my time with forgeries.
CELL VISION: Is your end goal to inspire, to inform, or annihilate?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: Brag/warn off...
CELL VISION: You also stated that you weren't a huge fan of Basquiat. I've definitely been to a few shows where the company I was keeping at the time would exclaim, "I can do that, my five-year-old nephew can do that!" But if you give it to some art history buff, they are going to sell you on the intricacies of each of his chaotic brush strokes and the weight of the acrylics on the paintbrush or some other shit, when we as downtowners know that, "Oh, he fell asleep on the painting while high on dope." So was this your own personal challenge, or crusade, to go behind the wizard's curtain in OZ, see what the art world is really about, and make a few bucks in the process?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: My personal take is perhaps Basquiat was doing a bit of a gag, because his early work was more cartoons, so he wanted to make things for the "art world," so his idea was to copy Picasso, who was copying Black art from Africa.
CELL VISION: How loose, detailed, or invested were you in reproducing his works? Did they take a bunch of time and effort?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: With the right equipment and supplies, about half an hour.
CELL VISION: Did you ever try to recreate one under the influence?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: No.
CELL VISION: Has the estate ever contacted you regarding this, and are you invited to the proverbial family cookout?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: I have been asked to help identify and authenticate works by third parties, so I started to make reproductions again so I can reverse-engineer what I did and see if I left any sign of forgery.
CELL VISION: Describe a typical morning in your NYC.
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: Coffee.
CELL VISION: Indoor or outdoor seating when you eat?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: Home cooking.
CELL VISION: Do you prefer the manicured chaos of Brooklyn and all of its street art or the loquacious legacy of the behemoth that is downtown Manhattan?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: I prefer my studio the most.
CELL VISION: Do you still love New York City?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: Only in the way you love ex-girlfriends.
CELL VISION: Will you still love it if the plan to make New York state an open carry state succeeds? And if that does go through, what are you packing?
ALFREDO MARTINEZ: A cell phone.
Check out future events for The Downtown Biennal’s Warm-Ups series via the link below.