American Photographer, Sculptor, Filmmaker, and Musician
Brooklyn, New York
Summary of Robert Longo
With his iconic drawings of torqued figures in suits and dresses caught as if mid-fall, Robert Longo shot to fame in the 1980s New York art world - his images resonating at the intersection of underground Punk culture and the adrenaline-fueled rush of Wall Street. Longo was a prominent member of the Pictures Generation, a group of artists who turned attention to media images and their imprints on the collective cultural psyche. He worked with multiple mediums, including popular forms such as music videos and, later in his career, produced large-scale, detailed charcoal drawings of news images, such as those documenting racial strifes in the US as well as the migration crisis in Europe. Throughout, he has maintained a keen interest in the media's representation of reality, and the artist's role in unpacking popular imagery for contemporary audiences.
- With his penetrating eye, Longo's work has stood out for his use of imagery from the center of culture's visual pulse, confronting viewers with the archetypes of their times. In this, photography has remained a central source: as he said, "Drawing from photos is a way of reclaiming the images that haunt us".
- Branching out to popular mediums, Longo inserted in his works a sharp political sensibility, addressing power, violence, oppression, and the generational gap. These themes continued in his prescient 1995 feature-length film, Johnny Mnemonic, a cyberpunk action thriller about a future internet.
- His more recent works on paper blow up images from the news media and give them a history painting scale, making him an unusual voice in contemporary art. Unlike traditional history paintings, Longo's images are stripped of grand, allegorical narratives usually tied with classical mythology. Instead, they stare the viewer in the face with the failures and inadequacies of our time, while giving heroic visual space to marginalized subjects in the news.
The Life of Robert Longo
As an art student in Buffalo, Longo had a wide range of interests that would inform his later works. These included the work of the Soviet avant-garde director Sergei Eisenstein, contemporary experimental filmmaking, and works coming out of the art scenes in New York and California. With his art school friends, he co-founded Hallwalls, a visionary exhibition and talks space that saw the works of some of the most cutting-edge contemporary artists of the 1970s. The space continues to operate to this day and remains one of the premier venues for contemporary art in upstate New York.
Progression of Art
Untitled from the series Men in the Cities
Longo's iconic Men in the Cities series (1981) was featured in his first solo show at Metro Pictures Gallery. Longo's contorted figures, seemingly caught mid-dance or mid-freefall, between ecstasy and agony, represent the ambitious "Yuppies" of 1980s New York. Punk music, the Power Suit, and youthful exuberance collide with the legendary greed and ambition that likewise became hallmarks of the era. (The film American Psycho included works from this emblematic series in its set design.)
"Of course, the guys in Men in the Cities were my friends - they were basically Punk rock guys, they always had skinny ties on," said Longo. Fellow artists such as Gretchen Bender, Cindy Sherman, and Richard Prince served as his models. He staged them on his rooftop, manipulated their movements by throwing objects at and tying ropes to them, and photographed them, achieving the image of the figure arrested in space inspired by Punk music. The results took on a choreographic aspect. Sherman recalls, "Creating these poses became a sort of dance, and I think that's why [I] remember having such a good time." Longo then projected the photographs and traced them in graphite, before working with an illustrator on the finer details in order to exaggerate the contortions in his artistic translations.
Over time, the series became associated with corporate America and the New York visual landscape. Longo's torqued figures have been appropriated by pop culture, from the "falling man" motif on the series Mad Men's intro sequence to images referencing 9/11. Having gained recognition from this work (which he has revisited throughout the intervening years), Longo describes how this cemented his reputation: "That series was my launch pad. Their success was so powerful that it entombed me in some way. I've spent a great deal of my career running away from that body of work. I think if you succeed in creating an archetypal image that enters the visual landscape, what happens is you eventually lose authorship of it. It infuses itself into the culture. Now I am quite proud of the work, but it was a long time ago."
Charcoal and graphite on paper
Now Everybody (To R.W. Fassbinder)
The torqued figures of his Men in the Cities series reappear in Now Everybody (To R.W. Fassbinder). This "Combine" artwork presents a dramatic sculpture of a man precariously caught in the moment between the impact of a gunshot and the fall to his death - a victim of war and the military industrial complex. (The ambiguity of the figure's positioning may also allude to German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The American Soldier, 1970). In the back, a four-panel coal, graphite, and ink drawing portrays the bombed-out buildings of Beirut, which was ravaged during this time. Longo worked in the black, grey, and white of newsprint: "I mean, look at Time and Newsweek, man. The media. For the first time, Americans are being confronted with this reality they've never seen before. Like, you look at a picture from Beirut [...] That city especially has shown America what it could be like here."
Even though the horrors of war are a key motif, however, Longo also placed Beirut (and the viewer) at a removed distance. Functioning as a reporter of sorts, Longo compartmentalized Beirut as a site for war reportage - a Western trope that paints a broad generalization of the Middle East as a site of unremitting trauma. Closer to home, the work may also be read as a depiction of the alienation associated with the corporatization of urban life, with the military-industrial complex as the political backdrop.
Painted cast, synthetic resin, coal, graphite, ink on paper
R.E.M. - "The One I Love"
Branching out into film and music videos, Longo directed the accompanying video for R.E.M.'s first hit "The One I Love." With their often political lyrics, the collaboration between R.E.M. and Longo seems intuitive. Working with his director of photography, Alton Brown (of Food Network fame), Longo's video features a trance-like superimposition of faces and images, fading in and out in a kaleidoscopic manner. Dreamlike positioning of the musicians' bodies recalls his Men in the Cities series. Close-ups of instruments, such as the drums, speak to Longo's 1980s Punk aesthetic, as well as provide a glimpse of his later works focusing on photographic details. The figures in the music video often appear as two binaries, either static or frenetic; blank stares and the same question of "torture or ecstasy" appear in connection with the repeatedly held "fire" in the lyrics. Sparks, often visible on the screen when the word "fire" is held for several beats, are often incongruously paired: over a hibiscus, along the power cord for a fan, etc. The song ends before the video, which closes with a burst of bright red sparks on a black background.
Other music videos from this period, such as the one for New Order's Bizarre Love Triangle (1986), also demonstrate Longo's early aesthetic. In one sequence, for instance, we see a businessman in a suit in free-fall. The video for Megadeth's "Peace Sells" (1986) is an especially interesting study in terms of Longo's political and artistic statements. Building on his critique of capitalism, Longo's visual layers compound on the song's lyrics. Menacing, almost apocalyptic, images of protests and militarized police flash on the screen between images of rock performances and audiences. In a break from the song, Longo's artistic statement is summarized in a tense exchange between the generations in the figures of a father and his son. The son is watching the music video on television when the father calls it "garbage" and demands to watch the news. The son in turn asserts that "this is the news" as the screen rapidly changes from guitars to images from the news. Edited by Gretchen Bender, a longtime collaborator and influence on Longo's early work, this music video underscores the importance Longo accords the media vis-à-vis visual art.
Screen grab from R.E.M.'s "The One I Love"
Untitled (Freud's Desk by Window, 1938)
Marked by its melancholic timbre, Longo's Freud Cycle (2004) presents an especially interesting dialogue between photography, cultural memory, and Longo's artistic practice. After the Nazi annexation of Austria, Jewish-Austrian photographer Edmund Engelman took a detailed photographic inventory of each and every room of Bergasse 19: Sigmund Freud's home and office for more than 40 years. In the days after the annexation, Freud, 82, fled to London, leaving behind his home, art collections, and substantial library. Engelman himself also left, in 1939, settling in New York, where he found work as a consulting engineer working in the photographic technology sector. It wasn't until 1976 that his collection of photographs from Bergasse 19 would be published as a book sharing its title with the famous address. Two decades later, a friend gifted a copy of this book to Longo, who recalled that, "The book, with its extraordinary photographs, sat around my studio and eventually insinuated itself into my consciousness, pushing me to take action."
With their high contrast and soft edges, Longo's charcoal translations of Engelman's photographs rendered the images even more intimate. As a cycle, the two exterior drawings bookend the portfolio of interior views. In Freud's Desk By Window, the absence of Freud's personal effects such as his desk figurines, as captured in the original photograph, shrouds the image with a melancholic air. The depiction of an empty space that once belonged to one of the most important scientific and cultural figures of the twentieth century, whose methods in psychoanalysis continue to influence how we understand ourselves and each other, leaves a haunting trail in the viewer's mind. It is also a capturing of a bygone era of cultural flourishing in early twentieth-century Vienna, to which the rise of the Nazis put an end.
Longo's monochromatic palette, seen here as well as throughout his oeuvre, is influenced by the news, particularly old newsreels from the Vietnam War. Working with charcoal and graphite, Longo's method is informed by the process of painting - but in reverse: "All the white in my drawings are the paper, and so they're actually the opposite of traditional paintings, where you work from dark to light. If you are painting a tree, you start with the dark green; Rembrandt would finish with a little dab of white on the forehead." Longo's use of charcoal had begun around 1999-2000 as a last-resort substitute for graphite. The longer he worked with charcoal, however, the more his appreciation for the medium and its historicity grew: "I like that, with charcoal, I'm making artworks out of dust. And it's an incredibly fragile medium - although I saw that film by Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams , about the paintings in the Chauvet Cave in southern France. They are 32,000 years old and they are charcoal drawings. So, I like to joke that my ancestry goes that far back, that I'm like the caveman in a weird way."
Charcoal on mounted paper
Untitled (Ferguson Police, August 13, 2014)
On August 9, 2014, Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri (a suburb of St. Louis). In the days and weeks after Brown's murder, protests took place in Ferguson and across the United States. On the evening of August 9, residents of Ferguson gathered to create a makeshift memorial at the site of the shooting. In an article for Mother Jones, writer Mark Follman reported that an officer allowed a police dog to urinate on the memorial before police cruisers ran over and destroyed it. The ensuing protests and unrest became a catalyst for debates and activism related to the militarization of and widespread use of force by the police, as well as systemic racism and the policing of Black Americans and people of color. In March 2015, the Department of Justice found the Ferguson Police Department to have committed various acts of misconduct, including racial profiling.
Due to the importance of its subject matter and sheer size, this work has, by some, been compared to the genre of history paintings, in which artists employed allegories drawing on mythology sometimes to interpret contemporaneous political events. Rather than feeding into the white mythologization of American History, Longo's work speaks to the ongoing racial injustices that are part of life in the United States. The threatening faceless figures loom from the distance and emerge from the haze of tear gas deployed on the protesters. Longo explains why the police are the subject of the image: "Whenever I tried to draw the images of the protesters it never felt like I gave them justice," he said.
Longo's work presents a funereal vision, where the void left by optimism is filled by the shadow of fascism. Like Andy Warhol and his screen print of a protestor being attacked by a police canine in Birmingham, Alabama (Birmingham Race Riot, 1964), Longo's work appropriates an iconic photograph from the news. In an interview with Studio International (2017), he describes the relationship between photography and his art: "I think that, psychologically, people now tend to see the world and memories in photographs. And if you have traditional representation and modernist abstraction, my art exists somewhere in the middle. Maybe I even translate photos. My images can't actually be photos, but I like that people come in and sometimes think they're photographs until someone tells them the truth and their perception of the work changes. The idea that they are these labor-intensive voodoo objects is really important" (due to the size of his charcoal works, Longo works with a team of assistants, providing creative direction). In this work, Longo further blurs the lines between mediums to reference Robert Rauschenberg's illustrations of Dante's Inferno: the police are transformed into the grotesque demons envisioned in Dante's Hell.
Charcoal on mounted paper
Untitled (Guernica Redacted, After Picasso's Guernica, 1937)
Longo's politics and interest in art history come together in Untitled (Guernica Redacted, After Picasso's Guernica, 1937). Though separated by many years, both Longo and Picasso condemned political oppression as driven by power and violence. Picasso had painted the original in response to the 1937 bombing of a Basque town called Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Resonating with Picasso's staunch anti-war stance, Longo appropriated the image but added his own twist to it, disrupting the original image with vertical bands of black. In part, this asserts a visual distinction between looking and truly seeing. It also creates multiple levels of references to modern visual culture and the media. He explains: "I thought of the frames of a film and the flicker of black and white newsreels of the past, the bars of a prison, or the redaction of sensitive texts... After experimenting with numerous versions over a period of time, I arrived at a critical conclusion where there are six black charcoal strips with various widths blocking and redacting content from the image of Guernica, as if it is too gruesome to be seen and refuses to be seen all at once." The redactions tantalize the viewer with what they block. "To undermine," he concludes, "is to create a space where people can see what they can't see or choose to ignore."
Charcoal on mounted paper, four panels
Untitled (Bullet Hole in Window, January 7, 2015)
On January 7, 2015, brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi attacked the offices of the weekly satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. The publication was known for controversy surrounding critical lampoons of political and religious figures.The brothers, aligned with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, stormed Hebro offices in a weaponized attack in response to its publication of a cartoon of Mohammed, killing 12 and injuring 11 people. Victims ranged from Charlie Hebdo staff to unaffiliated individuals in the vicinity, as well as the especially shocking execution of the unarmed responding police officer, Ahmed Merabet. Four additional attacks around Paris followed in the weeks afterward.
Longo's work captures this brazen act of violence through the large-scale rendering of a bullet hole in a bulletproof window at the publication's office. His decision to make an artwork about this incident came from his fierce rejection of censorship and sense of solidarity with creative workers such as cartoon drawers. He explains: "the thought that someone could tell me that I can't do what I do, was at the front of my mind. Freedom of expression became really important. That's why the bullet hole piece becomes really important to me."
The work also became important to at least another person: Longo recounts an interaction with a staffer from Charlie Hebdo: "A man who worked at Charlie Hebdo - fortunate enough to have overslept that morning - saw my drawing and sent me this incredible book. It was so touching. He made a book where he redrew my drawing from the hole out, coupled with a beautiful piece of writing. He wrote about how my drawing had helped him deal with the situation. It blew me away - really blew me away. [...] So when something like that happens I think, 'Wow, maybe this stuff actually works sometimes' It's important that work is evocative on many different levels, and one of them is actually a sense of healing or closure."
Charcoal on mounted paper
Untitled (Refugees at Mediterranean Sea, Sub-Saharan Migrants, July 25, 2017)
Like Ai Weiwei, Longo has tackled the migration crisis on the Mediterranean as a subject matter. He worked with media images, including drone footage, to create a compelling composite narrative. In all of the works, the turbulent waves of the Mediterranean dominate the paper, reflecting the perils of traveling on flimsy dinghies on the turbulent sea. In Untitled (Refugees at Mediterranean Sea, Sub-Saharan Migrants, July 25, 2017), Longo situates the raft mid-swell: riding a wave, certainly taking on water, or possibly, tragically - like so many crossings - sinking. Placing the viewer at the bottom edge of the image, Longo situates the viewer in the water - almost as if in another refugee dinghy looking up.
Charcoal on mounted paper
Biography of Robert Longo
Born on January 7, 1953 in Brooklyn, New York and raised on Long Island, Robert Longo's early interest in mass media such as films and comic books had a profound influence on his later art. Dyslexia made school difficult for Longo, who described himself in his senior year of high school as the "hippy jock who was also organizing political protests." Longo recalls that he "emerged as a conscious being during the Vietnam War," with the 1970 Kent State University Massacre in Ohio solidifying his dedication to political causes. He went to school with Jeffrey Miller, the student protestor who was shot dead as documented in the iconic photograph.
Although he struggled in school, Longo enrolled in North Texas State University through college athletics. Needing to boost his academic performance, Longo, who knew he could draw, became an art major, although eventually he left without a degree. A grant in 1972 allowed him to study Art History and Restoration in Florence. Studying both the Old Masters and modern superstars, Longo began to see himself in relation to the long trajectory of art history. Plotting his own educational tour of Europe's museums, Longo realized that he wanted to create art. Returning to the States in 1973, Longo needed to enroll in college for a draft deferment. He studied art at State University College in Buffalo. The nearby Albright Knox Gallery and the community of artist friends were all formative in getting his art career started.
Early Training and Work
Between 1973 and his graduation in 1975, Longo writes that he "worked under the experimental filmmakers Paul Sharits and Hollis Frampton, who introduced [him] to structural filmmaking and Sergei Eisenstein's films," referring to the pioneering Soviet avant-garde filmmaker (1898-1948). In 1974, along with his artist friends including Cindy Sherman, Longo co-founded the exhibition space Hallwalls. The forward-looking space saw exhibitions and talks by artists (now considered luminaries) including Vito Acconci, John Baldessari, Lynda Benglis, Robert Irwin, Joan Jonas, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Serra. Through Hallwalls, Longo developed an important artistic network. He eventually moved, with Sherman, to New York in 1977 (the two dated from 1977-79 and then remained friends).
Although he was trained in sculpture, Longo began to seriously approach drawing after his move to New York: "My degree is in sculpture. I am a pretty physical person. I've always drawn; it's the basis of everything. When I moved to N.Y.C. I was broke and found some backdrop paper in the trash - big sheets - and I began drawing. It gave me the chance to work in the scale I wanted." After moving to New York, he worked as a studio assistant to Vito Acconci and Dennis Oppenheim. That same year, he was included in the seminal Pictures exhibition curated by Douglas Crimp at Artists Space. Regarded as one of the first exhibitions to pay attention to a new generation of artists shifting away from Minimalism and Conceptual Art, Pictures showcased artists who were all drawn toward image-making inspired by mass media (e.g., advertisements, newspapers, film, television). The artists included in the show--Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, and Philip Smith - became known, along with a number of others in their circles, as the "Pictures Generation." The show provided a seismic shift in Longo's artistic career. Metro Pictures, the flagship gallery for the Generation from its founding in 1980, represented him, and over the course of the next decade, he became known as a preeminent member of the group, having achieved name recognition with his first solo show, which featured his 1981 Men in the Cities drawings. He began working with a multitude of media ranging from photography, drawing, sculpture, painting, film, and performance - all employed as critiques of capitalism, wars, and their ubiquity in the media, as well as the cult of history in the United States.
In 1984, Longo premiered his wall-based "Combines" at Metro Pictures, the title a nod to Robert Rauschenberg's work. An amalgam of painting, relief, and sculpture, Longo, in a 2014 interview, stated that these works "used Sergei Eisenstein's theory of montage to juxtapose conflicting imagery and forms exploring the workings of reason, intuition, fantasy, and power; concepts that continue to be important [to his artistic practice]".
Concurrently, Longo became a key figure in New York's underground art scene, collaborating with other arts-related groups and venues, rock bands, magazines, and filmmakers. Increasingly interested in film as a medium, he produced his first music videos in 1986 and a film the following year. Among his music videos, Longo was the director for the video for R.E.M's "The One I Love," the band's breakthrough hit. In the video, Longo made use of imagery reminiscent of his Men in the Cities but, enabled by video as a medium, also played with layering moving images on top of each other, creating a shifting, sometimes disorienting visual tableau that goes with the song's dark theme. Longo sees his music video work as part of his artistic trajectory. He describes it as an enjoyable way to develop and practice his film skills for application to longer movies. However, despite his work's popularity and high demand, Longo began to clash with music executives as the industry became increasingly corporatized.
Working across mediums, Longo's art became associated with 1980s New York and its changing topography, from the wild adrenaline rush of Wall Street and subsequent gentrification to the storied nightlife and creative bounty of the city's underground art and music scenes. His works consistently explored the role of images in pop culture, as well as the theme of disconnection and individual alienation in post-industrial society.
Following Reagan's economic policies and the first Gulf War, the 1990 recession marked another transition in his career. With the art market in turmoil, Longo moved to Paris, where he lived and worked before returning to the United States to direct Johnny Mnemonic (1994-95), a thriller starring Keanu Reeves, in Hollywood. The following year, Longo's Magellan (1996), a series of 366 small-scale drawings taken from mass media over the course of a leap year, proved to be another aesthetic benchmark for his subsequent artworks. Comprising of subjects as varied as rock concerts, murder scenes, animals, superheroes, and plants, the series served as a catalogue of his thoughts and observations of the visual world. He drew them alone in his studio as an antidote to his filmmaking experience involving hundreds of people. The series together formed an "image lexicon" that he would draw on in his later works.
For an artist whose artistic directions were often spurred by political events and climates, Longo describes the early 2000s, with 9/11 (2001) and the war in Iraq (2003) as having "profoundly affected.. [his] .. outlook on the world." The scale of Longo's charcoal works portraying scenes from current events became monumental. They gained their heft from his desire to impart a sense of weight to familiar news images, to render their presence impactful like a sculpture. In addition to these hyper-realistic charcoal drawings, he also experimented with digital printing, such as in Essentials (2009), which portrays images of what he calls "absolutes" - a mushroom cloud, a shark, a sleeping child, a rose, among others - that, to him, embodied the collective unconscious.
In 2012, Longo suffered a stroke while he was playing basketball with friends. Suddenly, he recalls, "he was flat on his back, listening to his wife and [the actor John] Turturro talk to doctors about what the chances were that his life could be saved." After the stroke, his art career bounced back: "I saw the dark rider, bro...But if anything, since the stroke I've been on fire."
By 2014, world events ranging from the racial injustices in the US to the rise of Daesh/ISIS, became material for Longo's The Destroyer Cycle (2014), in which he captured these events as seen "predominantly through the lens of American media-creating visualizations of power, protest, futility, destruction, and aggression, that together form a searing portrait of our time." Today while Longo's work continues to respond to contemporary political events, he has also worked on a series examining details from celebrated works throughout the history of art.
The Legacy of Robert Longo
While Longo's oeuvre defies categorization by medium or genre, there is an overarching consistency in the thematic elements of his works, as well as a palpable melancholic aesthetic. Writing in 1989, art historian Hal Foster noted that "It is in the war zone between schizoid obscenity and utopian hope that the art of Roberto Longo is now to be found."
In terms of his engagement with political and social issues, Roberta Smith, art critic for the New York Times, has written that there is a noticeable "continual, if often simplistic, involvement with social issues, especially the dilemma of the individual in an increasingly chaotic society." In Smith's view, "The artist's essential indifference to materials and to sensuousness of any sort increasingly asserts itself. And, at times, the obviousness of his symbolism can make your jaw drop." According to writer and curator Presca Ahn, however, Longo's work possesses "a clear and unrelenting artistic gaze in which visual hedonism and political disillusionment are in constant tension."