- Robert Longo: CharcoalOur PickBy Hal Foster, Kate Fowle, Thomas Kellein, and Robert Longo
- Robert Longo: Men in the CitiesBy Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince
- Robert Longo: Luminous DiscontentBy Alessandra Bellavita, Qing Liu, Robert Longo, and Olivia Murphy
- Robert LongoOur PickBy Caroline Smulders and Gilbert Perlein
Important Art by Robert Longo
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