Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Curious Case of the Too-Talented Artist

Robert Longo was once an art world rockstar. Alongside the likes of Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, and David Salle, he became a "household" (ha! - not in 'Murca!) name. 

Above: This enormous, insanely destructive-looking wave drawing in charcoal dominates the room - it's a composite from photos, so it couldn't exist in nature. For Longo it's both an ominous nod to climate change and an homage to his lifelong love of surfing off of eastern Long Island. It's pretty intimidating to stand next to it in person. Sorry the pictures have glare and reflections in them (the red rectangle is an exit sign on the opposite wall); museums and galleries generally don't display charcoals any way other than under glass.

Longo was probably the most collected member of the "Pictures" generation, a group of young artists in the late 1970s  and early 1980s known for appropriating (and subverting) imagery from popular media. Many were photographers, but for Longo, a super-skilled draftsman, it was about forging new ways forward for representational painting, which had loudly been declared "dead" by influential theorists. 

Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art had spent the preceding decade shaking the pictorial tradition to its foundations, and that's when minimalism and conceptualism took the floor.

Yet Longo; unlike most of the other Pictures artists, was committed to - and hugely gifted at - using the traditional tools of art for representational imagery. He was and is capable of a stunning hyperrealism, and cites as major influences Rembrandt and Caravaggio. And despite the noise, the early '80s art world was buying.

Robot hand and closeup (2020-2021). Yes, this is in charcoal (as always, click for larger images).
When the backlash came, financial success put a very visible target on his back. Longo "got blamed for the '80s," he recently told Long Island Newsday. He was one of the best-selling artists at the very moment the "art market" as we know it was born: the cocaine-fueled, financially flush Reagan years, when everything began to serve the the interest of profit. As a highly valuable commodity to begin with, art slid easily into bed with business, spawning a new era in which seemingly facile, willfully provocative, or patently pleasing art could be made seemingly just to make millions (Schnabel, Hirst, Koons).

Native American Headdress (2020-2021) - below: detail.

Did I mention this is in charcoal?

So, basically Longo ran away. His peers reacted by making less-marketable work ever-more grotesque (Sherman, Levine),  aggressive (Salle), explicit (Kruger), and acridly critical of the mushrooming culture of capitalism and the increasing hollowness of the American dream. Instead, Longo hid in Paris, where he started all over building a new career in Europe. Along the way, he dropped out, "got lost for a while," raised three children and "missed the '90s" he says, though he used his time away from the art world to explore filmmaking and in fact directed Keanu Reeves in the highly successful film Johnny Mnemonic (1995).

When the urge to make art the old fashioned way came again, the only thing that came to hand was s "a bunch of shitty old charcoals," in his words, which he hated but couldn't put down. He started thinking about the fact that he was going all in on hand-crafting ever-more exquisitely tight pictures; yes, they're influenced by cinema and commercial photography, but he makes them using basically what cavemen used at the very birth of painting: dust from burnt sticks and ash. He kept going.

Last week, I happened to visit "History of the Present," Longo's extensive one-man show of vey recent work, up now at Guild Hall, a beautiful museum gallery space in East Hampton, NY.  Like everyone else who sees it, at first I thought I was looking at photographs.

Now, to me, massive skill and striking design are impressive, but they're not art - they are about technique,  and as such they are vehicles for art; it took Longo's own explanation of the show for me to see the art in these obviously beautiful hyperreal drawings. So in fact, I'm guilty of the very thing his latest work is designed to counter: our 21st century habit of assuming we have neither the time nor much of a need for sustained and careful looking and thinking.

Fallen bird's wing (2020-2021)

"We live in this world of an incredible image storm," he's said. "How to you get people to look at things more carefully? People look at my drawings and say, 'Oh, they're photographs,' and someone says, 'They're not photographs they're drawings',,,, that gets people to stop and look closer. It's a way to get people to look harder, more in depth.... I'm trying to create images that are more real than real. I've taken it to such an incredibly refined level." So much for technique. On to the art.

These are charged images of America's present. "The Agency of Faith," one of the two large galleries of his show. As Longo points out, a triangle of "American sin" can be traced between three of its potent images: a George Floyd protester, a cotton field, and a cropped image of an American Indian headdress.

"But at the same time, the drawing of the George Floyd protester is quite, I think, liberating," Longo said in an interview. "The translucence of the flag reflects the fragility of democracy. At the same time, the person carrying it is somewhat triumphant. Meanwhile, the world behind him burns."

George Floyd Protestor (2020-2021)

Although I didn't get it first, there's really no "hidden meaning," nothing overly complex or theoretical needing extensive wall text here (as in conceptualism) that someone drawn in by the enchantment and glamour of Longo's incredible skill wouldn't be able to see for herself. Context is all; as the wall plaque says, "A quiet wing of a fallen bird evinces vulnerability. Yet once the viewer encounters a drawing depicting a field of cotton alongside a drawing of a closely cropped Naiver American headdress, the seeming innocuousness of the natural imagery begins to unravel to expose a more provocative narrative."

This is art that requires thoughtful engagement, slowing down and "looking harder, more in depth." And while it isn't the kind of art dominating Artforum or the auction houses in London or New York at the moment, there is surely triumph enough in the way Longo's charcoal chiaroscuro "activates the power of beauty," as the wall text says, "seducing the viewer into a state of, if not unadulterated optimism, renewed faith in our agency to create possibilities for our future." And likewise there is triumph in Longo's return to making relevant art worthy of the talent he wields so well.


  1. It's wonderful to read this. I worked in the curatorial department of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in the early 90s, and we had a dazzling Longo exhibition. He spent some time with us ahead of the show, and was one of the nicest, most down-to-earth and most thoughtful artists I had the chance to meet (along with Betye Saar). I am so glad to read this and know that he stayed true to himself and is making his monumental, meaningful work in service to the times we're in. It was an honor to meet him when when I was younger and I'm inspired to read this now.

    1. That's wonderful Elaine! He's being shown in Manhattan this month too, I believe. Thanks for your note.

  2. Thank you for re-iterating that these are charcoal. I truly thought I had misread you. These images as photographs are rich, but as charcoal their meta-message is that Man's gifts can be redemptive if only we'll allow them to be.

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  4. The post you did on Corot ages ago was very interesting to me. There is never enough information on the palettes and methods of old masters/artists.
    I have been using black since I rebelled in in undergrad at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I used to go to the museum nearly every day and it was obvious that black was a staple pigment of earlier artists. I try to tell people but if they have drunk the “ black is evil” Koolaid, it’s a waste of a good paragraph…
    Terre verte is always on my palette;
    it’s great in flesh tones to mellow out pinks, and I use the pigment that’s more pine green. It mixes well with other colors. It’s lack of color strength is good for mixing muted greens which I appreciate.
    Gabrielle Bakker

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