The first thing that catches Alfredo Martinez’ attention outside Beijing’s hulking Military Museum is a 400-foot-long Scud missile on a trailer to the right of the entrance. “The Russians didn’t have GPS, so these are just guided by gyroscopes, which means they’re ‘guided’ in the sense that they’ll land anywhere from two to five miles from their target.” A quick discourse on gyro synchronous orbits comes next, followed by an anecdote from the two and half years Martinez spent at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, for forging Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings, among other things. While incarcerated he met a Georgian who’d been the first mate on a Russian nuclear submarine before becoming a Brighton Beach mobster. In the navy the Georgian had been an overachiever and wanted to get everything shipshape so he examined the housings of the missiles only to find out the crew had siphoned off the alcohol from the gyroscopes and replaced it with urine and seawater. What would have happened if the missiles had been launched? “It would have looked like a Roman candle.”
Climbing aboard a nearby Chinese copy of a Russian PT boat equipped with roughhewn Exocert water skimming missiles that resemble a high school metal shop project, he’s quick to point out a Type 90 twin-35mm anti-aircraft Chinese copy of a Swiss Oerlikon Bofors gun with a feed way for three bullets. “It operates like a gigantic zip gun, the spring wraps around the barrel, and you have to crank it to cock it. It’s all hydraulic.” The gun’s chair is small, Chinese size, and makes the 6’3” Martinez look monstrous, especially compared to the diminutive Chinese children running around the boat. A former Army corporal, convicted felon, instigator of and participant in
-like junk jousting tournaments in New York’s Joseph Petrosino Square in the early 1990s, and an artist who fabricates working guns, he has been curating shows and making new art in China for a year. A dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker who’s decamped to the People’s Republic partly for its psychic resemblance to the more chaotic and rougher New York of yore, he has a sophisticated cosmopolitan aspect to his character that belies his childlike obsession with guns. He’s also sarcastic and ironical, two decidedly “Western” rhetorical strategies that sometimes seem utterly foreign in China, as well as possessed of a cutting, occasionally extremely corny wit. When asked, “How’d you get to China?” he deadpans “On a plane” and when told a French friend had enthused that some Martinez drawings he’d seen in Paris were “hallucinant” and “amazing” he says, “Me and Jerry Lewis, big in France.”
I ask him if he was into
reference book as a kid and he rolls his eyes to indicate the question is so obvious it’s undeserving of an answer. “I first saw
when I was seven, around the time I started drawing. I never progressed to drawing naked girls.” Besides
, how does he know so much about guns? “I grew up in a bad neighborhood.” Sunset Park, where he later ended up serving time. There were also the rewards of Reading, Pennsylvania, the comparatively idyllic community to which Martinez moved with his family as a teenager. A man who worked for Lyndon LaRouche was investigating some overdue military reference books from the public library that had disappeared, leading him to 16-year-old Alfredo. They became friends, and with that came the gift of a huge collection of gun magazines.
Martinez looks around the deck the PT boat, studying details and musing, “This is what the U.S. is worried about, these kinds of boats attacking shipping. It’s 1950s technology that still poses a danger and they’ll still be dangerous in one hundred years. They’re cheap, tough to spot, and it’s easy to train the crews. It’s the naval equipment of a pistol—you can still assassinate someone with a pistol and you can take out an aircraft carrier with one of these.” Martinez seems fascinated and amused by all the “old technology dangers” in the world that are just as terrifying and destructive as the more spectacular ones governments tend to emphasize.
Inside the museum’s grand hall, the centerpiece is an upright V-2 that doesn’t appear very different from the Scud outside. Arrayed around it are sundry fighter planes, tanks, and other military vehicles, all appearing a bit worse for the wear. Their shabbiness is striking considering this is the country’s biggest military museum. We inspect a Chinese equivalent of the M1 tank, a modernization of the Russian T-72. “These have a larger turret. Everybody hated how small the T-72 turret was. Have you ever seen a tank soldier? They’re like four feet tall. That’s a T-62, like the tank from the famous Tiananmen Square photo.” Then it’s on to some rumination on the problem of Explosively Formed Penetrators defeating the M1’s armor. “They’re a copper disc shaped like a lens in a can with plastic explosives, about the size of a can of baked beans. A doorbell chime beam sets it off and the explosion forms a core of molten copper that slices through the cobalt armor like butter. The army lost over one hundred tanks in Iraq, and now they all stay on base. The appeal of the Striker Brigades is they’re much cheaper than tanks but they still have a gun that’s big enough to fuck with people. My main fixation is anything that has a gun.”
But it’s not all adolescent obsession with and fetishization of killing machines with Martinez; acumen and informed insight about the geopolitical realties of today’s world constantly pour forth from his mouth. Surveying the surplus of decommissioned military hardware he says, “All the war planning here is for invading Taiwan, so this tank is designed to fit into a landing craft. And the helicopters, well, they tried to do the same, but gave up and bought heavy-lift helicopters from the Russians.” The planes around us are all based on MiGs, which leads to stories about redheaded Russian pilots seen by Americans during the Korean War and how when Third World countries buy Chinese aircraft they often come with a Chinese crew. “They’re mercenaries, along with all the unemployed Belarusians and Georgians.”
An attempt to steer off into his artistic career brings us right back to where we’re at: “In 1992 one of my gun pieces got accepted into a group show called ‘Agent Artist’ at PS1, and the next call was my friend asking if I wanted to go to Sierra Leone to fix weapons systems on helicopters.” That leads Martinez to the notoriously notorious arms dealer Victor Bout (“Nice guy—good tipper”) and how the Picasso defacer and art dealer Tony Shafrazi hooked Martinez up with a job working for an almost equally infamous Armenian arms dealer named Sarkis Soghanalian in Florida, who had pictures of himself with his arm around Presidents Nixon, Ford, and the first George Bush on the walls of his office. As Chinese tourists line up to pose for photographs in front of the MiGs, there’s this bit of military aracana: “The Pakistanis sold an F-16 we’d sold them to the Chinese, and we were like ‘What the fuck?’”
As we pass a SAM 18, a rocket launcher resembling a bazooka, a Katyusha unguided rocket, and a recoilless rifle, it’s time for another tale of military mishaps. This one is courtesy of a journalist friend who’d been in Somalia, and is about rebels who invaded an air base and stolen missiles off the planes, then welded them to their pickups. “The pylons only work if they’re upside down, like on the planes, so when they launched the missiles they actually shot the pickup into the front lines.” Up the grand staircase on the second floor above the planes and tanks are countless vitrines of guns and more guns. Contemplating them Martinez observes, somewhat self-evidently, “All these guns could be sculpture.” Then, “This label is wrong,” pointing at what is identified as a Chinese copy of a Japanese type 38 6.5 mm heavy machine gun. “It’s actually a Chinese copy of a Japanese copy of a French gun.” What’s your favorite magazine? I ask. The answer comes without a millisecond of hesitation:
Small Arms Review
Thanks to his magazine patron, the still-teenage Martinez worked as a stringer for fascistic anti-Semitic crackpot/libertarian savior Lyndon Larouche’s
Executive Intelligence Review
magazine in Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, where his extensive knowledge of guns came in handy, as did his Spanish. Though there had been evidence of prodigious artistic talent since childhood at that age Martinez thought that his own art didn’t have anything interesting or important to say. It was around the same time though, that he started doing his first serious forgeries of Keith Haring’s work.
“The Harings were easy,” Martinez tells me, “It was right before he died. He would give art to lovers and tricks and they would go straight to Tony Shafrazi [Haring’s dealer] to try and sell them. Sort of ‘Suck my cock, I’ll give you a drawing’ type of deal. The thing is you can’t get sex back, but you can get a drawing back.”
Hanging around the East Village art scene at Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery he met and then worked at Astor associate Bill Steeling’s 56 Bleecker Street Gallery, which happened to be conveniently located right around the corner from Haring’s studio. “These guys would come straight from there and try to sell us Harings. One day a guy came in with a Haring mask and when they wouldn’t buy it for $100 he broke it. After he left I went outside and gave him $50 for it. It was broken, but it was still a Haring.” Before that he’d been selling amethysts and crystals he got from Pennsylvania on the street at an “incredible markup,” so his entrepreneurial spirit was sufficiently developed that looking at the Harings he thought, “I can do this.” And he did. And what made them more interesting than mere copies or “fakes” is that he took varied elements from different Haring drawings to make composites. To get technical about it, only the signatures were forged, so in a sense they weren’t fakes but originals like the great forger Elmyr de Hory’s “original” Matisses, Modiglianis, and van Dongens of the 1940s and 1950s.
Shortly after he began forging in earnest, Martinez encountered the Grey Organization, a British “anarchic” art group consisting of three suit-and-tie-wearing members who took him under their wing. “They taught me everything I know about conceptual art, from Beuys to Chris Burden. They were mentors. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have become an artist. I wanted their respect.” He helped them with their artwork, mostly gratis, and went overnight from being a committed punk rocker to wearing Yohji Yamamoto suits. Concurrently he was still doing forgeries, which on one level can be considered a type of conceptual art prank. He’d started by selling through intermediaries but in time took on a couple of trusted accomplices and with them and a fax machine, he was off to the races and making a lot of money. At one point he sold the London dealer Anthony d’Offay some Basquiats of his own devising for 250,000 pounds. When those were found out and d’Offay sent over “some IRA muscle,” Martinez’s response was to pay him off with a forged Calder.
The move from contemporaries to Alexander Calder had come about by chance. While playing with the idea of forging Picassos (but leery since there were already too many of them around) a propitious meeting occurred with an “Eastern European babe with the morals of a snake.” The babe had a stolen Calder from an older gentleman and hoodwinked Martinez into trying to sell it without mentioning its criminal provenance. There ended up being no sale and the Eastern European disappeared, but Martinez did get to meet Calder’s grandson and see a lot of real Calders up close. “Mine were really, really good,” he says, without any false modesty. There was something undoubtedly genius about forging Calder—it was the last thing anyone expected from a guy known for faking Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Martinez joined the army in 1989 at the age of 22. Serving most of his time in Germany and Belgium, he was disappointingly never deployed in the first Gulf War, and ended his stint languishing at Fort Meade in Maryland. There he was discharged partly for selling slightly damaged machine gun parts that had been sent back to be scrapped at gun shows. Things really went sour when he started operating as a Milo Minderbinderesque loan shark.
“This was when they had just issued Kevlar helmets,” Martinez says, “They were really rare and expensive, so I collected them from the other soldiers as collateral. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs or cavort with whores, so I was the guy. I had all the helmets. Then I got found out and threatened with a radar post in the Aleutian Islands with the angry penguins.” Returning to New York he hung around the fading LES hardcore scene with Murphy’s Law, Cro-Mags, and the rest while trying to avoid falling back into the forgery trap. Eventually he met an artist named Jeff Gompertz who asked him to curate a show at 13th Street and Avenue A. There he made the acquaintance of Anthony Haden-Guest (who would write about Martinez’ prison hunger strike years later in
magazine) and started to feel he’d become part of the art world and actually done something. Parlaying his success into an association with internet impresario Josh Harris, he organized the first exhibition at Harris’ much talked about and documented Pseudo space. One reason that show was noteworthy is it included work by then-young Connecticut transplant Tom Sachs, a friend and junk-jousting partner whose subsequent artwork has often borne more than a passing resemblance to earlier Martinez creations.
Sierra Leone never panned out, and Martinez stayed on in New York. “I wasn’t concerned with an art career because I could always make a fake.” Part of his ambivalence to the concept of a career might have been the difficulties of being a Hispanic artist who isn’t “Latin” or “political” enough, but there’s also the age-old problem with the art world and its attendant vagaries: “It’s like a female hamster on crack—it eats its own. Artists now can’t usurp the previous generation so they have get permission to go forward. By being assistants, by being part of the institutional system instead of rebelling against it. Plus, art is a losing proposition for 99.9 percent of people.”
Nevertheless, Martinez keeps at it and has now sworn off forgery to concentrate on his intricately detailed gun drawings done freehand from memory, and making guns by looking at them from the outside and coming up with a simplified version that works and shoots blanks. He shows at the Proposition gallery in New York and has been curating and making new sculptures with Canadian collaborator Byron Hawes, with whom he recently completed an incredibly realistic thirty-foot long Harrier drone called “Rat Bit” out of metal, steel, plastic, and wood. They are also fabricating work for an exhibition in November in Beijing entitled “Weapons-grade Apophenia.” Its main premise is the idea that the tide has shifted from design in popular culture aping military aesthetics to the other way around. The military uses video games to train soldiers and guns and other hardware have started to incorporate a modern, rounded iPod look. “It’s gone from
Escape From New York
to super slick. The weapons are more appealing, like new products you’d see in
magazine.” Apophenia describes the experience of perceiving patterns or connections in random or meaningless data, and in “Weapons-grade Apophenia” that unmotivated seeing of connections will be physically displayed in the form of iPod-like guns, private jet fighters, and a satellite dish all built to scale. Reflecting the new paradigm of computer-generated, excessively polished, blob-like design, the works have the sleekness that has overtaken the coarseness evident in the Exocet missiles outside and so many of the guns inside the Military Museum.
With all the digressions and stories tales talking with Martinez can be an exhausting, but there’s a sincerity and straightforwardness to him that’s refreshing—a disarming quality that prompts a you-can’t-help-but-laugh and did-he-really-just-say-that reflex. Like his response to Beijing’s
when asked for his thoughts on the local contemporary art scene: “Nothing in the galleries here has made me wanna fart lightning.” There’s also something intrinsically New York about Martinez that is highly unusual in Beijing and adds color to the cultural landscape. New York comes up often, as in his notion that “New York after September 11th reminds me of the parents of the kid who died and the mom starts cleaning everything obsessively. New York isn’t dealing, it didn’t mourn properly.”
He then launches into a story, another story, about living in Bushwick across from a church that set up speakers that blasted gospel music at ungodly hours. “You know what’s wrong with black people? Baptist churches. They’re really bad for the community.” There’s a seriousness to the remark and an underlying understanding of a complicated situation balanced out by provocative humor as he relates how he shot out the speakers from different rooftops, eight or nine times, and each time they got replaced until finally he won.