by Joe Heaps Nelson
Alfredo Martinez is a pirate.
Guns and bombs are his thing, and they seem to never go out of style. His art and thought process seem relevant to me in this era of continuous wars, riots and mass shootings. It's tough to separate his creative output from the biographical narrative. Honestly, I feel like Alfredo doesn't go looking for trouble, but he's willing to meet it halfway. Alfredo's career has encompassed as much drama, scandal, chaos, violence and insanity as any artist since Caravaggio.
I like to say I'm not really an art writer, I'm an interviewer, and it's the easiest thing in the world, as long as I interview people who know how to talk. Alfredo knows how to talk. We met in the basement of the alternative art space White Box, on Broome Street, and the conversation went on for over 2 hours. Alfredo has the best stories. He speaks freely and frankly.
At the age of 12, he strapped his little brother to a rocket engine. In April of this year, he allegedly died of heart failure (on Facebook), and a day later he was miraculously resurrected. While doing Oliver North/Soldier of Fortune type stuff in Guatemala in the 1980s, he was shot in the leg by a notorious death squad. He made a gun and shot his dealer at an art fair in the Gramercy Park Hotel in the 90s. In China, he was arrested and tortured in a secret prison, and came home with a disgusting bacterial infection in his leg, which he describes with absolute glee. There are also stories of art forgery and money laundering; our man shares some choice insights into the dark side of the international art world. He's been involved in some shady stuff, but he did his crime and he did his time, with a 55 day hunger strike when he was denied art materials.
Is he larger than life? I don't know about that, but I bet he's larger than you!
Joe Heaps Nelson: Alfredo, a lot of your work, over a lot of years, has been about guns. What is the fascination with guns?
Alfredo Martinez: I kind of prefer handling them and taking them apart and seeing how they work to actually firing them. I used to have a job training people how to handle them, and it’s kind of really nerve wracking because it’s very easy to mishandle them and hurt someone. Even firing blanks, these firearms are quite deadly. With the recent shootings, how much I know about firearms makes it worse for me when I hear about a shooting because I know specifically, in intimate detail what someone can do with those kind of things. I have a very clear idea of what those things do, especially like recently when this guy went and shot up all those kindergartners. I’ve seen what a blank can do to a cabbage, instantaneously just turn it all into cole slaw. Imagine what a real firearm with live ammunition can do to a child.
Heaps: You’re a gunsmith yourself, are you not?
Alfredo: Yeah, I did some gunsmithing. At one point I was feeling – I think every artist gets this feeling, they want to get away from being an artist because it doesn’t feel so much like something they’ve chosen, it’s something they’re afflicted with! Working with film felt like a way to get away from being an artist, and eventually you just get pulled back in.
Heaps: So much of your early work, and I’ve known you for near 20 years – the first time I remember meeting you is when you had that loft in Bushwick that used to be a lingerie factory. I came there seeking studio space, and I thought, this guy’s sketchy!
Alfredo: (Big laughter) I kind of had that Unabomber aesthetic going on!
Heaps: As it turned out, then I knew you and I was aware of your work, and I remember things just improvised out of found materials. Motorcycles, robots, and a lot of drawings of guns.
Alfredo: Those grew out of my trying to build them. All my work, even the drawings relate back sculpturally. The sculpture relates back to film because I was very interested in film.
Heaps: The drawings are like plans.
Alfredo: Yes. From very young I was definitely interested in movies like Star Wars, and sci fi, and in the 70s they did a lot of knockoffs of both Star Wars and Mad Max and what I loved is how they made the props out of mostly found objects, and they would paint them, and make them look rough, like they were worn. They’d call it a laser gun, but it was actually some camera parts with a handle.
Heaps: Same with the spaceships too.
Alfredo: Yeah, there was a style of building models called kitbashing. It was done on a professional basis, like the giant star destroyers were just pieces of plywood with lots of model kit parts glued on top, and holes drilled through with optical fibers strung through the holes for lights. It turned into a sculpture of a spaceship. They’re very photogenic, but when you see these things in person – well, it’s not a letdown for me, because I could see exactly how they made them and how they did this. So that heavily influenced my work and how I approach making things. In my mind, all my sculptural things are just the same thing I did as a little kid, just on a larger scale.
Heaps: Didn’t you start out with a rocket engine?
Alfredo: Oh yes, I used to be one of these kids who would go scavenging for things because I was trying to make films, unfortunately those films are lost now, you know, from moving. I lived near Flushing Meadows Park, and it’s great because it’s a ruin of the World’s Fair. The World’s Fair was there, but it’s completely deserted, usually, especially during the week there was no one there. People would use about 10% of the park. Maybe 10 minutes away from the parking lot they would set up a barbecue; we were deep in the park where almost no one would be and we would climb into all these abandoned structures and we started scavenging in there for materials for our little projects we were trying to do. One thing we found in the abandoned rooms of the Hall of Science, there were all these rocket engines. Now they have restored that area, but when it was unrestored you could just climb through a hole in the fence. We stole a 9 foot rocket motor. It was 3 ½ feet wide. We’re 2 little kids, like 12 and 11. We had 3 dollies and we strap it in and start rolling it down the street, along the 7 train line, back to where we lived. A police car drove by and sort of saw what we were doing, and we sort of leaned against it, whistling, like nothing was wrong, and they just slowed down, couldn’t identify what was going on, and just drove on. Back when I was growing up in the 80s in New York, if you weren’t literally waving a gun, shooting at someone, they wouldn’t even bother you.
Heaps: So, you boosted a rocket engine and brought it home.
Alfredo: Yeah, we tinkered with the thing. I tried to hook up propane tanks. My friend’s parents were getting divorced and the father left behind all his tools for working on his car. We had a full shop of all these tools. I started hooking up a propane tank, and I got it to puff a little flame out the back. It was a giant Bunsen burner, basically. I remember when we first started out, we turned on the propane and we’re waiting for it to come all through all the pipes, and we didn’t realize we left I on a little bit too long and then a huge, (fwwwwsssssshhhhhhh!!!!!)
Heaps: Which way did you have the engine pointed?
Alfredo: Pointed out the garage door, but it was pretty impressive, because it’s coming out all these nozzles at once. Then we took it out into the street, and I talked my brother into sitting in a child safety seat, strapped to the top of it. I said, get in, so we can take your picture! We strapped him in, and then I put one of these Star Wars looking helmets on his head, and he said what are you going to do? And I said, we’re going to launch you down the street! He said, what do you mean? And I said, well, you’ve seen the Road Runner cartoons. He said what’s going to happen? How am I going to stop? And I said, you’ll hit something. But, that’s dangerous! Someone will get hurt! I said, we’ll be fine, we’ll be behind this wall.
Heaps: Did you do a whole countdown and everything?
Alfredo: We did a whole countdown, and I took a giant cannon fuse. You could buy cannon fuse at the hardware store; I don’t know what industrial use cannon fuse would have, but they had a big coil of it and they’d sell it to you for a dollar a foot. So we got like 4 feet of it, and put it on the back, and we lit it and then we see this thing burning down. You know little kids, they’re like, fuse, I’m on a rocket engine, pointed down the street, (wheezing laughter) he started screaming, and then I’m like, ahhh, I guess it’s a dud. He was completely traumatized.
Heaps: Ah, bless his heart.
Alfredo: He was a sweet little kid; he’s completely out of control now.
Heaps: So, he was so mad, that, what is it, 30 or 40 years later, he fakes your death on Facebook.
Alfredo: Yeah, usually around my birthday, I avoid the internet, and Facebook, because everybody’s wishing me a happy birthday, and da da da da, and if people see you on Facebook, and you don’t respond, they get really pissed off. You know exactly. And for a week I avoid it, I was busy, I had been sort of perfecting my 3-D Mac skills, I was very intent with working on my computer graphic skills. So, I find out that my brother has faked my death by my sister coming in the room, and she says, the New York Times is on the phone and they asked me how you died. They’re calling me for an obit. I said what? And she said, he’s in the other room, you want to talk to him?
Heaps: Meanwhile your friends thought you were dead.
Alfredo: Yeah, and like 3 women professed their undying love for me, you know, to emails, and Facebook posts, of who they assumed was dead.
Heaps: And everybody was putting condolences on your Facebook page. It’s almost like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn attending their own funeral. You found out that people say nice things about you when you’re dead!
Alfredo: It was so embarrassing!
Heaps: And then, everybody thought it was you.
Alfredo: Yeah, then, explaining that, you can’t just send off, I’m not dead, relax, that doesn’t work. People just get angry when you do that. It was like walking into a combination house fire and food fight. Like you go in your house, and suddenly all your friends are there having a food fight, and the house is on fire. And a lot of my friends were like, why didn’t you keep on letting it go on, until you did get an obit in the New York Times, and no, your first reaction is to try and tamp down all the flames, and get people to stop throwing things! One friend of mine did write a beautiful soliloquy on me, and I remember Facebooking back, oh that was beautiful. When I do die, would you please write the obit for me? And then I explained to him, and he’s like what?! I said, oh my brother, he did this, and he knows, me. He said tell your brother I’m going to beat him with a cod.
Heaps: Well, I’m happy you’re not dead.
Alfredo: YOU’RE happy?!!!!!!!
Heaps: I confess there was a little bit of skepticism at first, but when I saw posts from Enger and Josh Harris…
Alfredo: A couple of my friends just beat the flames higher.
Heaps: Were they in on the joke?
Alfredo: No! But they own my work, and they were thinking oh, it’s time to cash in on this! There’s nothing a collector likes to hear better than one of his artists has a bad cough!
Heaps: My first thought was, I’m sorry he’s dead, and then my next thought was, oh God, the funeral’s going to be horrible! How many artists’ funerals have we been to? And my third thought was, damn! I never got that interview! (laughter) So, here we are now!
So, after I knew you, I would run into you in Soho or someplace, and you’d tell all these crazy stories about Central America, and gun running and stuff, and I kind of thought you were full of shit. Is all that stuff true?
Heaps: Tell the world!
Alfredo: Well, I used to, when I was very young, I lived in New York all my life except the last years of high school, when I moved to Reading, Pennsylvania, because I was getting into punk in New York and my family were disturbed by that so they moved me to Reading, Pennsylvania to get me away from that scene. Not knowing that I hardly knew anyone into punk. When I lived in Brooklyn I was like the only punk rocker in all of Brooklyn. You move me to Reading, Pennsylvania, it’s all white kids, they’re all punks! I think the part of American culture where kids are like – I like to call it the Meanwhile Back In The Basement Culture, where people are tinkering on things that maybe they shouldn’t be tinkering with in their basements. They’re usually harmless, you know, people are trying to make bombs, but they don’t mean to blow anyone up, they’re just curious! This is before Mythbusters, and all this stuff. Before, it used to be very hard to find any of this knowledge. You had to go to the public library. And how I met someone who would become my future boss is that I stole a book from the library. By ripping out the reference only… there was a book called Jane’s Small Arms of the World. It’s like the size of 2 phone books. It’s a reference guide to all the firearms in the world. I said I must have this, and there’s no way to try and go buy it, I’m a high school kid, I don’t have the money to buy one of these things. So I took a reference book that was very similar, in terms of size. So I took the cover off that, and put the Jane’s cover on that one. I think it was a cookbook or something, that you could take out. I put the cookbook cover on that, and ripped out the reference only page, and put in the “Can be taken out of the library” card, and I took it out, and they swiped it through, and I took it out.
Heaps: And, never gave it back.
Alfredo: Yeah. Until someone knocked on my door. This guy named Roy Frankhauser, who was the local right wing kook. One day he wanted to research something about a firearm, and he pulled out the Jane’s Small Arms of the World, and he got a cookbook, and he was very annoyed! He came over, and he’s very curious, who would take this book out of the library? He knocked on the door, it was like, I’m here asking about a book from the library that’s gone missing, and he looks like a cop, first of all. I was shaking in my boots, uh, what are you talking about, sir? Trying to play it off, so, yeah, I have the book, I’ll bring it back. He says, Why in the world would you need the Jane’s Small Arms of the World book, and I said, well, there was this long article in there about the HK 23 that I was interested in, and his jaw just dropped, he was like, this kid’s spouting technical details about firearms, it was incongruous to him that some pimple faced teenager in a Dead Kennedys t-shirt and a mohawk knows as much about firearms as he does. And then he said, so kid, do you want a job? And he worked as a private investigator. I brought the book back to his place, and this guy was the epitome of a bad influence. He had this gigantic collection of right wing memorabilia, Nazi paraphernalia, and he used to paint toy soldiers, one of his big things was making a recreation of the Nazi Nuremberg rally.
Alfredo: With all the SS guys holding the triumphs, you know, like the eagles that the Romans were carrying. I remember my comment at the time was, “So are you going to make the Albert Speer eagle in the background?” That was accessible, that stuff, I used to read, I’d sponge in all this stuff about military vehicles, and I was one of those kids that if I had something in front of me that could be taken apart, I’d take it apart. My mother was afraid of getting a cat because she thought the first thing he’s going to do is try to take it apart. My dad had a junk store and occasionally someone would sell him a gun. And he’d have it for a while, he’d want to keep it, then he’d get nervous about having it and sell it again. Every time they went through there, I would take it apart, on the claim it’s broken so I’ll fix it! Not a lot, but a few firearms came through. My father bought a Thompson submachine gun, an M1 bolt action rifle, a Mauser pistol, those are the ones I was interested in. The older the firearm was, the more interested I was in it. You know, Army/Navy stores in New York used to play it fast and loose with the stuff they would sell in their stores. They used to sell guns that were all rusty and crudded up, a bolt action rifle from World War I they would sell in the store because they just had them as hanging decorations but if you’d clean those up, you could actually fire a round. After September 11 the saddest thing to me that happened was there used to be Army/Navy stores and they would have these bins that were mostly there for decorations but I would go through there and clean out real firearm parts. I’d sometimes find a magazine, clip for a gun, or a barrel, or some other parts.
Heaps: So, you taught yourself to make functional guns?
Alfredo: Well, it’s just a machine. I’m good with cars and planes and boats. Guns are more convenient in terms of something to work with. Also, guns are very intimate. There’s tactile pleasure in just handling one.
Heaps: You used to tell me these crazy stories of things that happened in Central America; I remember guys getting pushed out of planes, and stuff like that?
Alfredo: I do not recall any of this. But I remember one time I was with my friend Gary, who was a bush pilot in Guatemala. He hired me to work with him because I knew both English and Spanish and at that time I dressed very clean cut. There was a uniform at that time, if you would wear it, basically you dressed like a Mormon with combat boots, oxford shirt buttondown, just the top button unbuttoned, khaki pants, combat boots, tucked in.
Heaps: Military advisor.
Alfredo: Yeah, it’s really funny, I remember I accidentally got shot. In countries where the power’s not – if there’s a blackout, the store usually hires off duty policemen or something, who bring their own guns with them to guard the store. So if there’s a blackout, they ask everyone who’s shopping to come to the front, because usually it’s 5 minutes and the power will go back on. They don’t want people running around the store with no power on. So we’re waiting for the power to come back on and then a car backfires, and one of the guys, by nervousness, let off a round out of his rifle. It ricocheted, and hit me right here, in the thigh. I can show you the scar.
Heaps: Son of a bitch!
Alfredo: Yeah, that’s exactly what I said. It was a bad place to get hit because that’s real close to the femoral artery. I remember there was a little kid helping me with the groceries. I rode there on a motorcycle, but he followed me on a bike. I told him to go get Gary, and tell him what happened. So he ran off, and these guys were talking, we’re taking you to the hospital, like they call, and a Jeep shows up, and then Gary shows up on his motorcycle, and he’s like what the fuck’s going on, do you know who this guy is, and he takes the youngest one, and he says, you’re gonna drive us to the airport right now. And he said why, and it’s cause I’m telling you, and you don’t want to know who he is. (Laughter) I didn’t understand why he was being like this, I said these guys were just gonna drive me to the hospital, he’s like, NO, they were gonna drive you out in the woods and shoot you in the back of the head and dump your body because it’s a lot easier to do that than to explain what happened to you at the hospital! He said these are the same guys who killed nuns! They had this patch on their shoulders, they weren’t actually police, they were off duty soldiers, their patch said Mata Madre, they were the national guardsmen who had the WORST reputation!
Heaps: What country was this?
Alfredo: Guatemala. You heard of the Mata Madre Brigade? Mata Madre means mother killers. That’s the name of the unit. So he drove me right to the airport, where he had this plane, we bundled in and he brought me right to the Pan American military hospital there and they stitched me up.
Heaps: So, you are good for dramatic exits from foreign countries.
Alfredo: (Laughter) It’s starting to be a habit!
Heaps: I want to hear about the original art fairs at the Gramercy Park Hotel. At that time Kenny Schachter was putting together these pop up shows. He kind of invented the pop up show as we know it.
Alfredo: That’s because he was too broke at the time to rent a space permanently.
Heaps: Yep. He put on some interesting shows, and you were often a part of it. Gramercy Park Hotel, what REALLY happened?
Alfredo: I was on the phone with Kenny, and I was arguing with him about what kind of work I should make for him, I said I really want to show more of these gun things. He’s like, no, Tom Sachs has taken over all that, you can’t, everyone’s just going to refer to Tom Sachs every time you show one of those things.
Heaps: That was the same time Tom Sachs got Mary Boone arrested because he was giving out live ammunition.
Alfredo: That was more Mary Boone’s fault than Tom’s, I have to defend him on that. Mary Boone treated the police officers like the complaint department at Barney’s (laughter), and you don’t do that to New York City police officers.
Heaps: It was terrific publicity for Tom Sachs.
Alfredo: Tom told me that as soon as she was gone, her staff started singing “the witch is dead, the witch is dead!” I was stuck in an elevator once with her, going to openings in Chelsea, no, it was in Soho, in those old, rickety elevators these flatiron buildings have, and that was not pleasant. She started screaming, “Let us out! Let us out! I don’t give a fuck what happens to everyone else, just let me out!”
Heaps: Don’t panic.
Alfredo: I was just glad we weren’t on a lifeboat! She’d take off one of those Prada heels and kill somebody!
Heaps: So, you didn’t like that Kenny was comparing your work to Tom Sachs’?
Alfredo: Yeah, and he said your stuff doesn’t really shoot. And that was fighting words, doesn’t really shoot? Doesn’t really work? What do you mean? I remember he was referencing, sometimes you make something, and it works all the time, and then as soon as you display it to someone you just get a click, at the worst possible moment. And so I quickly got off the phone with him, made something in about 20 minutes, got on the subway, walked in the Gramercy, I had a newspaper over my arm, and then pulled it out and shot at him with a blank. With this handgun I just built in 20 minutes. All his friends ran out of the room, which showed how much, no one decided to tackle me or something like that! Because that’s what I assumed would happen. Everyone just ran, like every man for himself. He claimed that spilled white wine on his crotch. But then he’s like, wow, that’s really impressive! How much? And he bought it from me on the spot.
Heaps: It’s the stuff of legend. It just goes to show you the way rumors get changed around. All these years I’ve been telling people you made a gun out of cardboard and shot him with a paper bullet.
Alfredo: How’s that even physically possible?
Heaps: Beats the hell out of me, but everybody says, Alfredo’s a genius, he could do it! Well anyway, so, that’s the real story. Were you still in the lingerie factory at that time?
Heaps: I remember hearing that you spent more time working on Halloween costumes for the neighborhood kids than you spent working on your art.
Alfredo: I did make some Halloween costumes for some kids, but my plan was to film them. But then they all ran off, and I never got anything back.
Heaps: What did you use? Did you make them into some kind of giant robots or something?
Alfredo: You know, I just, some junk. But, you know, it wasn’t anything I paid for anyway. The terrible thing about making art with found objects is you have to have huge piles of found objects, so you end up living life like a hoarder. I’m trying to find some way to minimize that and just collect stuff for a specific project.
Heaps: I remember that giant motorcycle sculpture was like 10 feet long. I think I saw it a couple different places.
Alfredo: To create that, to have all the parts to make something like that, you need a room the size of this room… like just full, where you can’t walk through it, full of stuff, to have all the detail parts you can pull out. You know the really funny thing is, I couldn’t really do that in China the way I used to do, where I could just drive around the street and pick up some things, like in one night, pick up everything I needed. Because in China, you drop a used napkin, and some mama-san would pick it up and recycle. I would have to go to the dump and buy the junk I needed. I was building this big sculpture, and I had all this plastic junk and there would be these ladies coming around with their little tuk-tuks. They were bicycle pedaled, not motorized. And they’d collect stuff to recycle, and I came back to my studio, and all the junk I had piled in one thing to start working on my sculpture, they were loading into the tuk-tuk to drive off! I started screaming at them, and I overturned one of the tuk-tuks to dump all the stuff back out again. And one woman came back with her son because I was so abusive to them, I explained through my assistant, that’s my stuff! They were taking my stuff! I didn’t give them permission to come in my studio and take this stuff!
Heaps: They went in?
Alfredo: Yeah! They just saw through a gap there was all this plastic junk in a pile, in this big empty studio, and they decided, oh, it’s garbage, let’s clean it out.
Heaps: How long were you in China? And how’d you get the idea to go to China?
Alfredo: Some friends of mine were doing an art project out there where they were curating a show, and they had a partnership with an artist to set up art residencies there. They showed me, and it all looked great in the photos and stuff, I realize now, looking back at this whole thing, getting artists to come out there is like trying to sell people property in Florida at low tide. I remember we got there and the studios looked great, but they didn’t build the plumbing properly. You know in plumbing where you have a trap, the reason there’s a s-curve in it is that keeps the water trapped in one of the curves, it keeps fumes from the sewer from backing up into your house. This was new construction, so after a week, all the places smelled like Port-a-potties! I figured out we had to retrofit all these things back on there so the places wouldn’t stink, and then things started failing in all the studios. First the water failed, then the plumbing failed, then the electricity failed. The insurrection only happened because there was this big installation we were doing, paid for by this foundation. There were all these foreign artists living in this compound together. The insurrection only really happened once the internet failed. People would put up with so much, up until the internet failed.
Heaps: Were you making good work over there?
Alfredo: Oh yeah, I made lots of great work.
Heaps: Is it like the same kind of work you were doing in America?
Alfredo: Yeah, it was actually very lucky for me, I had a gallery financing me, I’d send them artwork and they’d send me money. You know, they’d send me $500 a month or something like that. That’s like 3 months’ salary for a Chinese person there. I wasn’t paying for my space, I usually wasn’t paying for my meals, and my material costs were like, nil. So I had an assistant, I was living like a king. I practically got carried around in a palanquin.
Heaps: How did you run afoul of the authorities?
Alfredo: I think it was a couple of things. Every time I went on the internet I would search some odd sites, to say the least. One incident that got reported in the New York Times is that I left China and came back, and while the people who were sponsoring me for space were preparing the space for me, I was working in the hotel room to make some artwork in exchange for getting the space. So while I was doing this, the cleaning lady comes in and sees what I’m doing, and they call the cops!
Heaps: Gun stuff.
Alfredo: Yeah. What I did was, for the equivalent of $3 I bought like 20 Chinese gun magazines, and started making collages and drawings. So my place looks like Ted Kaczynski in a motel room kind of thing, and I was using the TV set as a light box to trace things. It was facing up. It wasn’t damaged.
Heaps: It’s unorthodox.
Alfredo: The cops show up, they knock on the door, I was like what’s going on? What do you want? “Standard police check.” I was like, standard police check, my ass! What do you want? “We must check to see if you are a terrorist!” I remember opening the door, it’s like, come in. If I was fuckin’ a terrorist, I would have shot you through the door! They’ve never been spoken to like this before. I started cursing them, and I get on the phone, I talk to the museum director who sponsored me, and I called my friend who writes for a couple magazines and the New York Times, and I was meeting this guy who was doing a documentary about the art scene in China and he just happened to be coming. So while I’m arguing with them, and they’re on the phone, the cops aren’t grokking it all. The museum director, he’s like a big, his granddad’s like some grand poobah in China, he’s trying to explain what’s going on, and then they still want to take me to the police station but right then my writer friend shows up, and the guy who wants to make a documentary shows up, and he would rent cameras every day, it depends on what they have available and what’s the cheapest camera he could rent, and that day the cheapest camera he could rent was a giant TV news film camera! Like the thing looked like a goddamn bazooka, what you would cover a building fire with, on his shoulder, you know how big these damn things, with the half inch tape, and they walk in, it’s got a huge light on it, they open the door and these guys are standing there, my writer friend plays along, he grabs the mike and he’s holding the mike because they want to film this, and the cops are like, “Who are these people?” Well, he’s a writer from the New York Times, and he’s filming this, obviously! They immediately stopped talking to me and just skedaddled out of there like I’m infectious or something. Then the management apologized to me, and said, “I’ve never seen police leave that fast,” they just drove off! So, I think I got on their bad side.
Heaps: And then what happened?
Alfredo: My friend Josh Harris warned me, you know, after that got printed in the New York Times, that whole incident, he said, “You know, you only got about 6 months there before they do something to you.” And almost to the day, something happened. You don’t think the grand poobahs in China are reading the New York Times and seeing this, and not liking at all what they read? I’m sorry, I kind of have a bad attitude around people, you know, around cops, sometimes.
Heaps: That’s punk rock, it’s the anti-authority streak.
Alfredo: I remember I was in an internet café doing some work, and it was the middle of the afternoon, a hot day after a big lunch. I was emailing some people and then I doze off. Then this cop takes his billy club and starts hitting the side of the table, because they’re coming in and inspecting. I start screaming a blue streak at this guy, like “What the fuck! I’m a paying customer here! What the fuck do you want? What do you give a fuck that I took a nap here, I just had lunch, and I go here every time! Yeah, here’s my fucking passport, look, it’s a fucking American passport!” And I remember the whole internet café, it’s like 200 people in there, dead silence. And I’d only been in the country like a week. And it’s like, why you speak to me – “Why the fuck you wake me up? What laws have I broken? If anybody’s going to complain it should be the goddamn management here! They have no problem, they take my money fine! What the fuck do you want?”
Heaps: So, you get on the list.
Alfredo: Yeah, basically. I also, after much lobbying from my friends, funny thing is, I think Ai Weiwei prefers hiring foreign assistants, and I asked him, when I finally met him, why does he hire lots of foreign assistants, he’s like “I don’t need to check their work!” (laughter)
I think I’m in danger of being more the story than my art. Part of the reason I left New York, to China, after I got out of prison, is I felt like I was running for mayor, and I felt the danger of becoming one of those New York minor celebrity landmarks, like you see guys like Rene Ricard, and Taylor Mead, and Carlo McCormick running around, and they’re all very talented, but also they’re too familiar, in a way.
Heaps: Well they’re characters.
Alfredo: I could feel the transform-ogrification going on in me.
Heaps: So back to China, so then you ended up in prison in China.
Alfredo: Let me explain to you what happened. So, I find Ai Weiwei, and we have very similar builds. We’re both fat. He joked, if you cut your hair just the way I have it, and I think he was only half joking, I could dress you up in my clothes and my chauffeur could drive you around the city, while the cops follow you, and I could get in the trunk of a car and just go to the airport or train station. And I said, “Yeah yeah, let’s do it!” (laughter) That man’s amazing. He’s going to be the next Nelson Mandela. I expect the next time I go to China, he’s gonna be the premier.
Heaps: Well, he’s certainly one of the most famous people in China, and that makes you the most famous person in the world, because there are just more people in China!
Alfredo: No, the guy… the one thing I don’t like about people criticizing Chinese artists is they’re playing up being victim of… the Chinese government as a sort of sales tactic for their work? And I know enough of these Chinese artists personally to say, no, they really believe this way. If they were really manipulating that way they’d leave the country. I remember the Gao brothers were talking to me. They’re famous for Mao as a weeble wobble with tits, out of fiberglass, it’s a famous sculpture. They’re great guys, and their parents were killed by the Chinese government. Ai Weiwei said for half his life he didn’t know what the taste of meat was like, because his family was exiled to Outer Mongolia.
Heaps: What do they have to eat there? Grass?
Alfredo: Vegetables, basically, you know, gruel. He had some small job cleaning bathrooms in the middle of fucking nowhere. That’s the lowest job you can have in China, cleaning bathrooms.
Heaps: It’s not very prestigious anywhere.
Alfredo: Yeah, but have you seen what Chinese bathrooms look like? They make the bathroom in Trainspotting look like a 4 star restaurant. Also I was talking on Skype, to my friend, learning how to draw on the computer. That’s what I learned in China, I used to go to internet cafes and draw everything on the computer because I was trying to make these drawings scale… I make these gun drawings or robot drawings, I want to scale them up. It’s very difficult to scale them up drawing it all by hand, because the biggest problem you have is you start curving, because you’re trying to look at something, you’re trying to draw something and you look at it close and it seems straight and you back up and you realize it’s all drooping. So I would draw something on the computer first and then print it out and glue it down as a guide, and draw over it. Then I was drawing 3-D blueprints for another artist to make objects, there are machinists available, you can have guys make anything. I wanted to make a nuclear bomb out of machine parts, like all the physical parts, just not the material. Instead of steel, just aluminum, but as a cutaway. So I was drawing all the blueprints, and as I was working on this and all the other stuff, I get a tap on the shoulder. I’m at an internet café.
Heaps: They’re spying on you.
Alfredo: I turn around, it’s the cops in the black uniforms. And these guys are dressed in complete SWAT outfits, helmet, goggles, black fatigues, patches, the radio and the belt full of crap, pistol, holding machine guns. And not just a machine gun, a machine gun with flashlights and lights and sights and lasers and everything. Modern firearms now are more like Swiss Army knives. You have all these extra attachments, you can’t even tell there’s a firearm under all these things. They’ve got everything on there, including an electric can opener. So I quickly turn off my computer because that just wipes everything. In the Chinese internet cafes, when you turn off your computer or you run out of time, it completely wipes all the memory for the next customer, that way some one’s not going into someone else’s email. He’s arguing with the staff, why can’t you see what was on his computer? It’s automatically just erased, there’s nothing we can do! They got very annoyed, and it got freaky when they put a hood on my head, and put me in the back of the van! They drive me to this, like, I don’t know, it seemed forever, like an hour and a half, from what I can estimate. They held me there, they told me for about 3 weeks, I didn’t even realize how long they held me there. One advice for anyone. If you are arrested by a foreign policeman, do not be sarcastic. They do not like sarcasm. One guy, the guy who’s obviously the boss, a bald headed guy with glasses. He’s wearing fatigues with no insignia at all. Except a little gold pin, gold rimmed glasses, and a gold watch, that’s it. Not like a big fancy Rolex, like nice single leather strap. He spoke perfect English. He put out these photos from a file, “Do you know any of these people,” these Chinese people. And I was freaked out, because I just met Ai Weiwei a short time before, and I said I’m not gonna, if I say any shit, I’m gonna put some Chinese guy away for life, or worse! So I’m like, “I don’t know anyone there, wait, wait, wait, I think I recognize ‘em… you know, you guys all look alike… that’s Mickey Mouse, that’s Bugs Bunny, that’s Daffy Duck.” Oooooh, that did not go over well. It’s like, “Take him away.” And they took me away, and they put me in this one room, and the guard stays in there with me. So I proceed to sit down, and he yells at me, “No sit down! Stand up!” I’m standing up for a long, long time, I don’t even know. Then another guard comes in, I try to sit down, and he yelled at me again, “Don’t sit down.” I’m standing up for 3 shifts, before I pass out. I can’t, they’re yelling at me, they’re kicking at me. Not kicking me hurting me, just sort of like, “Get up! Get up!” The room is completely bare except for a concrete slab about that high (indicates 16 inches) about the size of a single bed. And the toilet was just a hole in the floor, kitty corner across from where the bed was. I was stripped down to my underwear. It’s just really cold. One of the things with stress positions is, and there’s no windows in the place.
Heaps: So you couldn’t even tell if it was day or night.
Alfredo: When I finally woke up I didn’t know what time it was. It was just time to stand up again. So I stood up until I couldn’t stand up any more. So I didn’t even know how much time passed. I just knew after a while the guards would change. I didn’t even know what happened.
Heaps: How long did this go on?
Alfredo: A while. A while. Until I got called in, and in the meanwhile, my friends were all panicking. I was working on a friend of mine’s art project, and I was helping him make work, which didn’t help, I was helping him build a thing called a Davy Crockett Rocket, which was a rocket launcher that would launch a little nuclear bomb. So, it wasn’t even my project. You can imagine what the internet searches look like for this. So I’m supposed to build this thing for him, but I’m gone, and he’s annoyed with me because I took his money! He gave me money for material, and I’m doing the blueprints, then suddenly I disappear! His show’s coming up, I’m still not around, and wait, he may not be hiding, he may be really gone!
Heaps: So, your friends are making inquiries.
Alfredo: Yeah, and one of my friends who basically, he was Canadian, but he’s one of those guys, very handsome, he’s like a Jedi knight with women. He can wave his hand over them, and, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for, and you’re coming home with me.” One of his former flings was Deng Xiaoping’s granddaughter. He was the last prime minister, the prime minister who met Nixon. She’s basically the Paris Hilton of China. If there was an Enquirer, she’d be on the cover. She’s a nice girl, very cute, kind of bubbly, reminds me of a 20s flapper who’s Chinese, in terms of personality. She makes inquiries on my behalf, and things start rolling. I remember getting called into the room by the same guy who was really pissed off at me, he’s like, “Mr. Martinez, why didn’t you tell us you had friends? None of this would have happened! We’re transferring you right now.” At that point, when they dragged me out of my cell to meet this guy, in my mind, I was broken. I said, “OK Alfredo, I know you’ve never given fellatio, but it’s not that difficult, and if you need to give fellatio to get out of this place, we’re going to do that.” This is what was going through my mind. I was preparing myself for the worst. I would have admitted to being the Queen of England at that point. So, it doesn’t register that they’re transferring me, I was like, what terrible, fucked up thing is gonna happen now.
Heaps: You have no way of knowing what’s coming next.
Alfredo: So they bring me to this other prison, and a huge argument breaks out as soon as I show up. First they don’t want to let them through the gate, and it’s late at night. It’s dark. They look at me with a flashlight, I can only tell because I’m still wearing the goddamn hood, but through the fabric I can see the flashlight flashing me. I hear them arguing. I get in, finally, and they talk to me a little bit, and they bring me a cup of tea, and who are you, we’re going to take you to the hospital now. Then another inmate, who was Singaporean, who spoke English and Chinese, said he’d overheard they were fighting over whether or not to sign papers to drop me here. He said the conversation basically went like this: “So who are you guys? Oh, you’re from THAT department? Oh, fuck. You’re gonna dump this guy over here? No, no.” I remember at one point they asked me, “How much is taxi fare to your house?” I was like, “I don’t even know if I’m still in Beijing!” I haven’t showered or shaved in 3 weeks, so I look like how I look like now (laughter). They told them, just put him on the street with enough money to take a cab home. Like, no, we can’t do that, transfer him, finally one of the officers got on the phone with someone and passed it to the warden, and the warden’s like, “All right, all right,” but then they still didn’t want to sign any paperwork that they dropped anybody off. It was inter-governmental squabbling, because this was a regular prison, people in there for normal things, and they don’t like each other at all. Of course, normal Chinese cops are like normal cops here, and these guys are more like the SS, and you can tell they really don’t respect each other at all. Like these hard ass Chinese SS cops are like, these guys are pussies, they don’t have the stomach to do what’s necessary; against, these guys just give us a bad name. The government’s not monolithic; there are different factions. There are very liberal factions, and there are very right wing factions, and reactionary factions, and that even goes down to the police force and the military. On certain things, certain police are told to do something, “No. We just write tickets for traffic accidents and arrest people for burglary.”
Heaps: So, the regular prison didn’t want to take you? What ended up happening?
Alfredo: They took me anyway, because some higher up had ordered them to do it. Then they brought me to the hospital, looked me over, and they tried to give me medication, and they said, “You have a lot of health issues. When you return to the United States you should visit a physician.” They started trying to give me high blood pressure medication. They were afraid I was gonna die on their ass. I was still really freaked out. They tried to give me different food than they were giving the other inmates, and I refused to eat. “No, I’m not going to eat that! I’ll eat what the regular inmates eat.” “No, we can’t give you that, you’re a Westerner. Policy here is to give you the same food as the guards.” I was in a room with 20 other guys. “Then feed everyone in this cell the same thing you feed me.” So they were feeding them the good stuff they give the guards, and they agreed to do that while I was there because I was only going to be there 3 or 4 days. Then they bring me to the office, and they said, “Mr. Martinez, it’s very unfortunate what’s been going on, those people weren’t representative of how we treat foreigners, we see who you are.” They just searched my name on Google. And they said, “If those idiots had done that for themselves, they would have let you go, and none of this would have happened. And your friends are all very worried about you, so the embassy is coming here today. Could you please really not discuss everything that has gone on? Or else it could really complicate your release.” To this day, I feel like I was such a pussy to go, “Yep. Whatever you say!” I feel guilty. I felt like I should have screamed to high heaven and really made them pay for this.
Heaps: So what happened? You just went to the airport and came back to the United States?
Alfredo: Yeah, they send over some chick from the embassy, probably at the level of coffee, the person who brings coffee to the ambassador level, really cute, dressed in some Prada outfit. She asked me what’s been going on, “Oh, this has been fine, just a misunderstanding.” They said how are you going to pay for your flight home? Do you have that all handled? The warden said, “We’re paying for his flight back.” Like, that’s very unusual, the Chinese government never does that. “Oh, fuck procedure, we’ll handle it.”
Heaps: Do you think it was because they were worried about your health?
Alfredo: I think they were just worried in general, like this could all really blow up. You’ve seen China, every week some fucked up thing happens. We read it, and it’s just like some thing. For the individual people involved, it’s their career ruined. So this guy found the petty cash to pay for that flight, to get this hot potato out of his basket.
Heaps: I remember seeing 2 shows of yours since you came back from China (in 2009). One was in a little storefront church in the Village, and that was mostly gun drawings, as I remember, and then you had a show in the fossil store on Spring Street.
Alfredo: Yeah, and then the various sort of group shows and things going on.
Heaps: Who are you doing stuff with?
Alfredo: I’m doing a lot of computer graphics work. I’m doing a computer game project with Jakob Dwight, who you met earlier today. I had an illness, where I caught an infection… Somewhere along the way, I picked up some bug somewhere. It could have been anywhere. Prison? Restaurant bathroom? Anywhere. China’s pretty unhygienic. I’m not exactly a germophobe, but it can get pretty funky. I caught some kind of bacterial infection, and one of the ways it reacts to antibiotics is to hibernate. It builds a cell membrane around itself.
Heaps: How did you know you were sick?
Alfredo: I had a wound on my leg that was never healing.
Heaps: Did this start in China?
Alfredo: You get scratches and scrapes and don’t think about it. We treat our bodies like beat up vans, oh, another paint scratch. The only time you notice is when the muffler falls off or something. So, I have this wound on my leg, and it starts off really small, like a pencil eraser. It grows to the size of a dime, never heals. It would form a scab, and it would swell, and then squirt out something nasty, and scab over again, and get slightly bigger every time. Then it got to the size of a silver dollar, and I started getting a little worried about it. But when it was the size of about a doughnut, I said, I gotta go to the hospital. It’s getting nasty. I was putting a bandage on it, it was not healing. It kind of just laughed at Neosporin, I tried alcohol, pour a bottle of Peroxide, it wouldn’t heal. Once it gets too bad, you’re like why didn’t I take care of that 3 weeks ago? So I decide I’m not going to a hospital here in New York, I’ll die! So I went to visit my parents in Connecticut. A nice Connecticut hospital, that sounds like the ticket. My dad takes me to the hospital. They see it, they diagnose me, and I’ve been driving my body through all these adventures the way the Blue Brothers drove their car. In the last scene, when they park in front of the taxation office and the car falls apart – that was kinda me. They look at it, they give me some antibiotics, and then come back, it would heal somewhat and as soon as the antibiotics were over it would come back again. We did this 3 times, then I would stay overnight, then I would stay for 3 days in the hospital and they would give me intravenous antibiotics. The last time, I was taking the regimen of antibiotics they gave me. There was a space of the Thursday night, when I took my last antibiotics and the Tuesday morning when I had to go to the clinic for a follow up, it developed suddenly all these boils popped up all over my leg.
Heaps: Your leg was turning black, and everything.
Alfredo: I was looking at one of these boils after I took a shower. I started touching one and it EXPLODED, sending blood and chunks of pus into a Jackson Pollock on the opposite wall. Really nasty! It would bleed a little bit, then stop. I went to the clinic and they saw this. They immediately said wait here for a moment, and they called me an ambulance. The clinic is attached to the hospital physically. They didn’t want me to walk to the hospital. They brought me on a stretcher onto the ambulance and drove around the block and brought me to the emergency room. They immediately saw me, and a great surgeon happened to be on duty. He said we just need to start cutting these things out. He shot me up with a lot of fun drugs and proceeded to cut these out like rotten parts of an apple, with a scalpel, really fast! And he cut like 10 of them out. They’re showing me all these chunks. Usually doctors aren’t cool, they don’t want to show you these things. They’re about the size of a quarter, these nasty little balls. He said, this is all full of bacteria, these bags.
Heaps: So he cut ‘em all out, and you lived happily ever after?
Alfredo: Well, no, he said there was a limit to how many holes he wanted to put in me at one time, with just local anesthetic. Because he said, you’re gonna be feeling what I just did later on. Surgeons are cool. They have no trouble writing you up as much meds as you can tolerate, because they know what they did to you. They just basically stabbed your ass. He said he thought it was best to immediately cut out some of those boils, to help reduce the inflammation. He said it would also encourage blood flow through the area. So my leg at this point is pockmarked with all these huge silver dollar holes. They did tests and x-rays to determine if it had gone down to my bone. I was preparing myself psychologically to start putting a dash line above my knee. I know what happens to people when something goes septic, they have to lop it all off; it seemed to be very aggressive. Suddenly popping up in boils all over my leg.
Heaps: Pretty gross.
Alfredo: Luckily, Waterbury Hospital is connected to Yale University, so they’ve got some of the best doctors in the world. If I had gone to some other hospital, I would’ve probably lost my leg. This really nice Chinese surgeon, who actually knew Ai Weiwei, came in and very Jedi knight-like, so, we’re doing surgery, since it’s aggressive, and you don’t have any reservations, we’re going in. Now the recovery was really nasty. I had like 16 holes in my leg, the size of my thumb.
Heaps: You’re just leaking.
Alfredo: What they have to do is, they can’t just let it heal because they have to heal from the bottom up. They can’t just scab over the top. Tissue has to build up layer by layer, and they have to get rid of the dead tissue that forms. So they have to go in there and basically scrub out the holes every day for a couple of weeks.
Heaps: So you’re stuck in the hospital all that time?
Alfredo: No, my father would have to scrub out the – but it started becoming less painful. My pain threshold now, you could put a dagger in my back, I’d just feel itchy.
They had this water gun, it’s a deburrment treatment, it shoots out high pressure sterilized water and sucks out all the pus, and phlegm, and blood, and dead tissue. It was a little rough because they didn’t quite get the whole medicine painkiller dosage timing just right. I was screaming like a 12 year old. I remember the funniest thing. They were starting to do this deburrment treatment from the first incisions they made. There were still boils floating around on my leg, like 6. I warned the nurse, who was cleaning up my boils. There’s a different kind of surgical mask that has a goggle kind of thing, a sheet of clear plastic, a visor protecting their eyes, attached to the gauze face mask. They said aw, it’s no big deal; she was blasé about it. So she starts with scissors, poking at this one (laughter) You know where this is going. Poking at this one boil, and it EXPLODES. Like it’s waiting for her to, don’t do it until her face is right there, don’t fire until you see the whites of her eyes! It exploded full force into her face. Imagine tartar sauce and ketchup, mix ‘em together, and then you put ‘em into a mustard dispenser and you (clap) squeeze it like that. Imagine the chunky mess that comes out. That squirted right in her face.
Heaps: What was her reaction?
Alfredo: She stood there, and her partner laughed at her. She said, “He warned you!” She had stuff in her hair; there was stuff on the ceiling. I said, “I warned you.” She was like, “That would have been really nasty if you’d gotten that in the eye.” She was freaked out, because I had to really insist on her putting the face mask on. And she said, “We’re taking a break now.” (laughter) She had real black humor.
Heaps: You’re back to health now.
Alfredo: Yeah, now my leg just looks like it’s been bitten by something that didn’t like the taste and spat me back out.
Heaps: When did you start forging artwork?
Alfredo: I think the first time I forged artwork was when I was like, 19 or 20 years old. I was working at 56 Bleecker Gallery. That was run by Bill Stelling. My girlfriend – I was a punk rocker and I met this girl, and I needed a job. She said the gallery I work for needs a handyman. I helped them install a show there, and you know how it is, if you can put a nail in the wall, the gallery can always find some use for you. It was great fun working there. I got to install one show, that punk fashion designer, Stephen Sprouse, the show with Iggy Pop on crucifixes. I met David LaChapelle there, helped him install his show. Terribly nice guy. My whole forgery thing started innocently enough. I forged a copy of the Whitney Biennial invitation. And I didn’t make just one, I made like 50, and I gave them to all my friends. One of the people I gave them to was David LaChapelle, and this was before he was famous. He was starting to get well known. I remember, as he was handing the invite to the door guy, I whispered in his ear, “You know that invite’s fake, don’t you?” (laughter) His whole face went white, ‘cause he’s kind of a goody two shoes. But, he’s cool. I remember meeting one of Keith Haring’s – I don’t know what to call ‘em – entourage. Keith Haring had a terrible habit. He would basically pay people for sexual favors with artwork, but it was known in the art world that you do NOT BUY the artwork from the people he gives it to. People would exchange a sexual favor, he’d give them a drawing, they’re thinking it’s worth $1000 or something. But no one would buy it from them. I think sometimes he would just buy it back from them for $50. (laughter) Which is not what they would have charged for a sexual favor! One of the guys came in with a big plastic mask that Keith Haring had drawn on. He tried selling it to Bill Stelling, and he said, “You know, Keith will be really pissed at me if I buy that from you. You know I can’t do it.” And the guy was only trying to sell it for $500. He starts walking out, and I’m trying to help him, he’s annoyed and freaked out. This door is one of those ungainly doors if you’re trying to carry something delicate and open this door that wants to slam shut and he cracked it.
Heaps: On his way out.
Alfredo: I remember he turned to us and said, “How about $250?” And he wasn’t kidding. I saw him walking to every gallery, I’d see him walking around Soho with the damn thing. I ran into him again and said, “I’m really sorry what happened to it,” and he said “Yeah, I got some Crazy glue and I fixed it, but no one wants to buy this from me.” I’m like, “I’ll buy it from you for $200. They just paid me today. I can only pay you $50 now, but you know where I work, I’ll give you $50 every time I see you.” So I bought a few things like that. On the sly. Bill would have really freaked out. So I turned around and sold it to somebody for $3000 and I was like, that’s good money! But then all that stuff started drying up. I was like, aw, man! I can fuckin’ make one of those things. And the secret to making a good Keith Haring, and people believe it’s a Keith Haring? LOTS OF COCK. (laughter). Draw lots of cock.
Heaps: Well then you became an assistant for a famous artist. Was that around the same time, or after?
Alfredo: Yeah, I was trying like, I want to reform myself, I don’t want to do this nasty stuff any more. Mostly because you can’t really do it alone, you need a partner to do this kind of thing.
Heaps: So you’re trying to go straight, and you got a square job.
Alfredo: I was trying to be an artist, and I thought, it’s not right doing this kind of thing. I wasn’t even telling people I was an artist. I was like, I can’t tell people I’m an artist; if they know I’m an artist and I’m trying to sell fakes, they’ll figure it out. 2 and 2 is gonna add up to 4. So for was a long time I was hanging out in the art scene, and never actually admitting to anyone that I was an artist. It’s kinda like I was a forger first, before I was an artist!
Heaps: You worked for the guy for a long time, right?
Alfredo: Yeah, on and off. I enjoyed the work because it’s nice to do the physical process of making work, but there’s none of the emotional investment. You have pride in craftsmanship, you’re making stuff, you want to make the guy happy, or it looks like what he wants it to look like, and he’s never told me this, but his people told me he said “Fredo’s the best assistant I ever had,” he can’t deny that at gunpoint. Heaven forfend that he would ever tell me that. I teased him once, I said, “You know I’m doing a tell all book!”
Heaps: I heard that you were forging his work, and he found out when some collector brought a piece back that was damaged, and he wanted to see if the artist could repair it, and he looks at it and says, “That’s not my work.”
Alfredo: Well, after he checks through his paperwork. He didn’t realize right away that it wasn’t his.
I worked for a lot of artists. I remember one artist I worked for. For a period of 2 years I was basically making his work. Even if you’re a successful artist, there are pressures there. But I do think being a famous artist is the best kind of celebrity you can have. It’s like you’re famous, but only with the right people.
Heaps: So it’s not going to interfere with your life.
Alfredo: Until you let it. Because they also have the problem that no one says no to them. There are lots of sycophants. And I have as much sympathy for the hound as I have for the fox. It can get very unhealthy.
Heaps: What about the Basquiats that landed you in trouble?
Alfredo: What Basquiats?
Heaps: It’s a matter of public record! You went to jail for it!
Alfredo: What is these rumors you spread about me?!! I was only an innocent bystander!
Heaps: I want more. You must feed the beast.
Alfredo: Like I explained. I had been forging on and off since I was like 18. They arrested me when I was 36. So basically for half my natural life I’d been forging artwork and not getting caught. When you sell someone some fake artwork, and they eventually find out, and they almost always eventually find out, they’ll call you and basically give you a piece of their mind. “RARARARARARARARARA!!!!!” Basically the normal thing you can imagine. “You’ll never eat lunch in this town again; blablabla, Do you know who I am; I’ll ruin you,” you know, all this thing. You never hang up on them. My general advice, whenever something’s gone completely pooch screw, and the other party calls you, irate, you don’t avoid their call, you take their call and let them vent at you. People feel much better after they get to vent at you. No skin off your back! They want to vent. The thing they’re mad about is not the money or anything, but being fooled. One art dealer described it, “Finding out that piece of art was a forgery was like finding out my fiancée was giving blow jobs on the West Side Highway.” Then they calm down, and usually they don’t call you again. But if they do, in like, 3 to 6 weeks they call you back, and they go, “Alfredo. I apologize for my behavior before on the phone. I overreacted. Emotion got to me. I’m really sorry. But we do have things to discuss. Can we have lunch?” Well. “What do you want to discuss? The weather? Politics?” I would play dumb with them. “You know what we’re discussing!” “I have no clue.” “Well, I’ll be blunt. Is there any way we can get more, for less money?” And 99% of them reacted that way.
Heaps: So it’s likely they enter the market as what they are supposed to be; now they have to fool somebody else, to unload the thing.
Alfredo: What I explained to you before is, people confuse a piece that looks good with a piece that’s authentic. If a piece looks really good, it doesn’t mean that it’s genuine. There can be a terrible genuine piece that’s not accepted as a good piece because it doesn’t look good. There can be a terrible fake, like, the paint’s still wet, from a painter that’s been dead for 20 years, that is accepted as genuine because it looks really good and people want that to be, yes, that is what we would imagine a Basquiat to look like.
Heaps: You got caught by the Feds.
Alfredo: There was an interesting article in the Times recently about money laundering in the art world. I was like, yeah, and it rains occasionally in London!
Duh. Let’s say Basquiat. The art world’s the only place in the world where you could walk in with a million dollars in cash, into any big gallery, and say I want a million dollars worth of art, and they’ll say, for cash, sir, we’ll give you a discount. Most big galleries basically do their bookkeeping in a shoebox. It’s a leftover habit. It’s not like they’re genuinely dirty or anything. Basically all galleries are just mom and pop stores that do good! They start out really small, they keep on growing, and early on they’re making cash; all these bad business practices that wouldn’t be allowed in any other industry…
Heaps: Become habitual.
Alfredo: Yeah, just from the nature of how a gallery starts.
Heaps: So how did you get caught?
Alfredo: I refused to sell any more artwork to Leo Malca, because he was a slow payer. You ever have a slow payer? He got really annoyed because I started selling to other people, instead of him. I remember he said, “Alfredo, just give me whatever you have; I can get a ham sandwich authenticated.” From what I construed, he would basically give the father an envelope of 10% of what he hoped the final price would be. And he would authenticate it for him. You see, all the art authentication committees are shutting down shop now. These things all used to be private. The collectors used to be embarrassed about buying a fake piece of work and they’d never talk about it. Like some sex crime victim wouldn’t talk about date rape. Now the collectors aren’t embarrassed about suing someone if they get sold a bad piece of art. And they’re even suing authentication committees. The authentication committees saw the writing on the wall. The big catch-22 for the authentication committees is legally they don’t have any standing unless they have members of the estate, which means family, on the board. But they are the least reliable in terms of authenticating things.
Heaps: Right, so the Calder Foundation has that.
Alfredo: Calder Foundation, Basquiat, Warhol. What happened after I got arrested, the family got forced out. The father tried to replace himself with the daughter; that wasn’t flying. People, I won’t mention the names, they basically, wow, this is great, we can use this as an excuse to force out the father. Then they realized the jig is up with the authentication committee. That’s why the Basquiat committee shut down. That’s why the Warhol committee shut down. They’re all shut down now.
Heaps: The Calder Foundation’s still going.
Alfredo: I don’t know why. All it takes is someone to sue them. They’re just out there. There’s liability all over an authentication committee. People are much more litigious in the art world than they were 20 years ago. People are not as embarrassed to get press, because they realize that even if a big collector has a bunch of artwork from whatever artist it is, and one is found out to be fake, the press just makes the rest of his collection more valuable. I didn’t damage Basquiat’s name at all, I just brought it back in the public eye. A year after my trial, all people remembered was that there were all these articles about Basquiat.
Heaps: Yeah, well, 25 years after his death, he’s doing pretty well.
Alfredo: The Feds, when they arrested me, they were at first, we don’t want to prosecute you, you’re just by yourself. They wanted to prosecute Leo Malca for money laundering. He was using Basquiats to launder money for the Colombian drug gangs. Leo Malca had to admit in open court that he was involved in selling cocaine. He was arrested for bringing cocaine from Colombia. Involved in a huge conspiracy.
Heaps: I wonder why some Colombian artists’ prices are so high.
Alfredo: It’s an excellent way to launder money. You take, say, 5 Basquiat drawings, all 20 x 30. Those are worth anywhere from $150,000 to $500,000 each, right? Let’s say $150,000 each, they’re not so good. You go to LaGuardia. Customs opens ‘em up, what are these? Oh just my friend’s drawings, they’re not really worth anything. Fly ‘em all to Switzerland. Customs opens it. Hello, Mr. Malca. What do you have here. Oh, just some… artwork. Have a wonderful trip. They know EXACTLY what’s going on. Because part of the whole economy of Switzerland is funded by things like that. When the FBI arrested a bunch of people for money laundering here in the United States, part of the tapes they had of people, caught on hidden microphones, talking about money laundering, was at the Basel Art Fair in Miami. So, you bring those Basquiat drawings to Basel, Switzerland. You talk for 20 minutes to Bruno Bischofberger, and the sale is done before the end of lunch. And you put your cut in your Swiss bank account.
Heaps: So how did the Feds get you?
Alfredo: Well, Leo Malca got really angry that I wasn’t selling him any more Basquiats. As my lawyer described it, he set himself on fire to give me a sunburn. Leo Malca called the FBI to tell them I’m selling fakes, so they set up a sting operation. What he forgets is, every time you call the FBI to report someone, the first thing they do is investigate you! That’s the first thing they do! Who is this guy that’s calling us?
Heaps: So it didn’t work out so great for him.
Alfredo: Well, he didn’t get – he became an informant. The funniest thing I thought, his business partner was a Japanese dealer, who when the FBI came to his office, he’s no, I’m only the assistant. He suddenly only became the assistant! I don’t know how they possibly could have bought that. I think it’s just a fig leaf.
Heaps: When you were locked up, wasn’t Kenny Schachter putting you in a bunch of shows?
Alfredo: Kenny was, he put me in a couple of shows, and so did James Fuentes, he was the main guy helping me with shows. He did a yeoman’s job. He’s got a great eye and good instincts.
Heaps: I remember Fuentes when he was working for Deitch. So this was after he started his own gallery?
Alfredo: This is before he started his gallery.
Heaps: OK. Then James opened up at James and St. James, which I thought was pretty wonderful.
Alfredo: Yeah, it was sort of a comedic thing.
Heaps: So, in New York (prison), they don’t have to let you make art?
Alfredo: The thing is, they were just annoyed that I was having art shows. There was one prison guard, I got under his skin because I was sarcastic again, and I got nothing to lose, it’s not like when I was in prison in China.
Heaps: Yeah, what are you gonna do, lock me up?
Alfredo: I did the whole hunger strike thing. I didn’t learn until after the hunger strike that there are certain chemicals your body can’t produce, and you only have a 60 day supply of them. You have to eat, they’re minerals, and the body can’t make minerals. If you don’t have ‘em, your body will shut down, you get kidney failure, and you die. I went on a hunger strike for 55 days. I got down to about your size of jeans. I was a fatass when they pulled me in. The doctor kept on trying to talk me out of being on a hunger strike, I’m like, “So, you really recommend I stay at the weight I’m at right now?” (laughter)
Heaps: Well, it was in the newspapers. It was a pretty interesting story at the time. I guess you weren’t getting the newspapers in there, but people were talking about you.
Alfredo: Yeah yeah, I knew what was going on. One guard started taking my stuff from me, I was like, “What’s your name, so I remember to put your name in the Village Voice when the article comes out.” And then after the article came out, and they didn’t mention the guard, the guard was like, “Oh, uhhh.” They would get orders from the prison officials to fuck with me. But the guards were like, we’re not doing anything, we don’t want to fuck with him. I didn’t really have that much of an issue with the – it was basically the guys in the suits I had problems with.
Heaps: So you did your time and you got out. What happened after that? What was it, “The United States vs. Alfredo Martinez.”
Alfredo: All the shows went on when I went out, and I had a falling out with James. It was a silly misunderstanding. It happens all the time in the art world. I did the stupid thing of looking a gift horse in the mouth. I’m very grateful to James for all the hard work he did for my career.
Heaps: Right around this time Kenny Schachter fucked off to London anyway, right?
Alfredo: He did the ultimate good career move, marrying into money. (laughter) No, no, he’s a really talented curator and he has a great eye. His wife is a really nice woman. He has 4 boys, and I remember when they were growing up, they were very cute, but it was like Lord of the Flies in his house. He told me, “Oh, when are you coming over to babysit the boys,” I said, “No I’m not, I’ll be tied to a pole and they’ll be building a bonfire under me! They’ll be naked except for their skivvies, with headdresses on, dancing around me with war paint on, waving kitchen knives.”
Heaps: And now I guess they’re getting to be the age where they’re doing stuff.
Alfredo: A pair of ‘em are curating a show in London! And I’m sure there are very many fathers in London who want them to keep far away from their daughters!
Heaps: Alfredo, you’ve had a chance to think about this, since your own death has been faked! How would you like to be remembered?
Alfredo: I don’t know… Geez, I hope they don’t say anything true about me.
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Joe Heaps Nelson is an artist and writer in New York City.