The Hunger Artist

‘I’m going back on hunger strike,” Alfredo Martinez said during a call from Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center on December 16. “I’ve got no alternative.”

The 36-year-old artist has been behind bars ever since he was arrested in June 2002 for faking drawings by Jean-Michel Basquiat and sentenced to three years. But that has hardly affected his artistic productivity: The work he has made in the pen has been in four shows, including solo exhibitions in New York and Paris.

Still, prison authorities seem none too happy with their resident Art Star. Martinez has had work confiscated and was recently barred from the room where he has been making it. Hence this—his second—hunger strike.

Over six feet and 318 pounds at the time of his arrest, Martinez was once so broke that he slept in a container beside the Gowanus Canal. But he is also a sophisticated artist, a former assistant to the painter Donald Baechler and a curator of well-received shows (it was at one of these that he laid his mitts on the Basquiats he later copied). His own work was always interesting—it included hand-fabricated guns—but prison has taken it to a new level. He makes paper by mashing up books and greeting cards, and uses pen, pencil, and coffee grounds to draw his signature guns (“They don’t much like my gun pieces here,” he says) as well as portraits of fellow prisoners and a couple of unrelenting studies of his first hunger strike, which lasted 55 days and took him down to 185 pounds. With an eye to art history, he signs the pieces with both name and inmate number.

“The prison authorities are very aware of what’s happening,” says Ronald Sosinski of Chelsea’s Proposition gallery, which mounted Martinez’s most recent New York show this fall (his works sell for several thousand dollars apiece). “New York does not allow art in the prisons. It’s the only state in the country that doesn’t.” Prison officials—who haven’t returned calls—can’t have been delighted that Martinez tried to get three new paintings to his gallery by labeling them as legal documents.

Some of Martinez’s friends on the outside can be snarky, art-world-fashion, about his sweet-sour success. One sniped that the hunger strike might be just a punitive diet regimen. Certainly, as Martinez’s privations increase, his career prospers. Among those who have acquired pieces are the designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac and the Miami architect Juan Lezcano, who also owns work by Donald Judd. “I was overwhelmed,” he says. “I bought two.” A show is being discussed with the London magazine–cum–art gallery Dazed & Confused.

Two days before Christmas, John Eberenz, an artist and a friend of Martinez’s, did get three works from him by mail. They are gun drawings, made with coffee grounds and jam. In an accompanying letter, Martinez said he was on the sixth day of his hunger strike. Since then, no one else has heard a word.

The Hunger Artist