German shotgun parts from the 1950s lie strewn about the dusty wooden floor. Amongst them sits Alfredo Martinez, an artist who has been showing his work at New York galleries since the early ’90s, though he gained large-scale notoriety five years ago for forging Jean-Michel Basquiat drawings—a stunt that landed him in prison.
It’s a bright, cool January day, but you wouldn’t know it, since not much sunlight makes it in here. We’re at the Greenhouse, a decrepit, brown warehouse building in Soho where Martinez has been living for free with another local artist, Jerry Foust. (Two years ago Foust spent two months sleeping out in front of this building, under his paintings, until the building’s owner, Sue Stein, unlocked the warehouse door and allowed him in. He turned the space into his home—and a gallery—and a year ago invited Martinez to move in too.) The warehouse is covered, wall to wall, in Foust’s artwork. In the center of the room is a fantastical labyrinth, a massive walk-in piece of art intended to evoke the feeling of a childlike fortress that Martinez helped construct. In the rear of the space is one of Martinez’s pieces: a life-size model of a motorcycle built, like everything else in the Greenhouse, from recycled materials.
Martinez, who constructs his own firearms, is attempting to explain to me what the shotgun he’s working on will look like when it’s finished: “I’ll probably cut the barrel apart, widen it, and move it over here…” He gesticulates with his dirt-caked hands for emphasis, like a teacher. He’s 37 years old, smells like a pet store, and looks imposing even while sitting on the floor: about six foot two, 320 pounds, thick black hair, a goatee, and some dried blood under his right nostril. His clothing—black army coat, black pants, and black boots—adds to the menacing image. While in prison, from 2002 to 2004, Martinez got down to 175 pounds, starving himself for 56 days in protest against the prison warden, who refused to let him paint. The warden thought that some of his paintings—mainly those of alarmingly lifelike guns—would incite the other prisoners to riot; he even thought Martinez might be a terrorist. His other work from that perio
d is astonishing: self-portraits of an emaciated Martinez, strapped to a bed, stuck. There’s desperation in those paintings, exacerbated by the media he worked with: coffee beans, acrylic floor wax, Kool-Aid, and homemade paper constructed from letters sent by friends from the outside. When Martinez finished a painting, he would fold it up in an envelope and send it to New York gallery owner James Fuentes. In 2004, while Martinez was still in jail, Fuentes mounted a successful show entitled The Unites States of America vs. Alfredo Martinez.
Martinez leaves his gun parts on the floor and joins me on the couch. “Jail was a publicity stunt,” he says, sotto voce. “I was tired of being a forger and decided it’s either time to cut bait or fish. It wasn’t just Basquiats I forged, but Keith Harings too. I was either going to steal a lot of money and move somewhere really far away with an attractive female population, or just make a huge dust-up.” Martinez was set up by the FBI, a sting operation. Martinez claims some of his friends in law enforcement tipped him off before it went down, but he went along with it anyway.
“The funny thing is, I never liked Basquiat’s work much,” Martinez says. “When I first saw his stuff, like Haring’s work too, I just knew instinctively it was something I could forge. I could make perfect copies as well as make originals in their style, passing them off as if they were authentic. It was such an easy way to make a quick 20 grand. I met Basquiat a few times, but we didn’t really know each other. He would have paid more attention to me if I was a big-titted blonde.” He laughs until he breaks into a hacking cough.
Martinez ran away from his Brooklyn home when he was 16, and hasn’t spoken to his family since. He describes his father as a Puerto Rican Archie Bunker and his mother as a manic depressive. “Birth is accidental,” he says. “I’m not tied to them at all.” One of his siblings, a brother, died in a fire when he was 13. When he tells me this I express my condolences. “Why?” he says. “You didn’t kill him.” He smiles to soften his response. “While I was in jail,” Martinez continues, “the psychiatrists were out to prove I was crazy. That way they could do anything they wanted to me. They never did, though.”
In the background, Foust, perched atop a loft, screams: “Where the fuck are my cigarettes! Alfredo, I need some whiskey! The Artist cannot create without whiskey!” The Doors song “The End” plays over the stereo. “Jerry over there,” Martinez says. “Jerry is like my own personal Tyler Durden,” the dark antagonist from Fight Club born out of the protagonist’s sub-conscious.
Martinez has always been a big reader. Everything he knows about guns he learned from books. He loves J.G Ballard and William S. Burroughs, and is also a movie buff. “I’ve been watching all these apocalyptic movies lately,” he tells me, “like Children of Men. I keep thinking that’s what my neighborhood’s going to wind up looking like.” He pauses for a second as his cat, Bijoux, jumps on my lap. “I think I’m just going to do a series of ruins,” he continues, “and a series of suicide notes too.” Martinez giggles. “Yeah, suicide notes, about 30 or 40. They’ll be handwritten with little diagrams. The diagrams will show how that person committed suicide.”
“You’re a sick fuck, Alfredo,” Foust says, calling down from the loft.
“Well,” Martinez responds, “no one’s done it yet, and it’s hard to do something that’s not already someone else’s shtick. Plus, it’s funny.” When asked if he deliberately tries to scare people with his work, he says, “I don’t think so. You take things internally and you spew them out again. Things are coming to me and I’m just mirroring what I see. I watch the news and sci-fi-shoot-’em-ups too often. I worked for a weapons dealer in Belgium, and as a weapons consultant for movies. Plus, people are scared of everything. Particularly with my guns; they don’t fire bullets. I’ve always made my own toys, since I was little. This is no different.”
Since Martinez’s release from jail he has put on one show, at the Canal Chapter Gallery in New York, during the summer of 2006. There, he displayed more paintings of firearms and elaborate sculptures of giant machine guns. The sculptures, constructed from the detritus of Soho, are identical in every way to the real guns they imitate. When he was preparing for the opening he slept at the gallery, laboring all day and night with the aid of Adderall, an ADHD medication. Lately, he’s spent most of his time fixing up the warehouse and helping Foust prepare for a show. “Once things around the Greenhouse are in order,” Martinez says, “I’ll invest all my time into the ruins project.”
Our conversation lulls as Martinez glances around the room and nods in appreciation. “You know,” he says, “I’m very sensitive to environments and this space is a very positive environment for me; it’s what made me want to create again. They don’t have places like this in Soho anymore.”
The next day I arrive at the Greenhouse and the door is locked with an official sign on the door. Here’s your irony: The building has been deemed a fire hazard and condemned. A ruin, like one of Martinez’s future paintings.