10:49 am Sep. 19, 2012
Robert Longo tends to think big.
“I wanted to make work that wasn't as much stylistically recognizable, more [something that] permeates the world,” he said, trying to pin down his process to novelist Richard Price at the Strand Book Store on Friday evening. “Once I said I don't see any style in what I do, and [my middle son] said to me 'you're just trying to own all the black-and-white images in the world,' and I felt like I had been caught.”
Longo and Price were in conversation to help promote the former's latest book, Charcoal, a retrospective of his 25-year career as an artist.
Price, author of Clockers, Lush Life, and many other books detailing the gritty underbelly of America’s urban cities, as well as a writer on "The Wire," called Longo’s work, “apocalyptic” more than ten times during the course of the evening. That's a word that's followed Longo around throughout a career spent mining pop culture imagery for his dark, melancholic works. Price couldn’t quite put his finger on why almost every piece in Longo’s wide-ranging oeuvre reminded him of the end of the world, but said it rang true, even if subconsciously.
Longo's works (none were shown during the talk) are, as the book's title suggest, largely done in charcoal; he has always utilized a photo-realist style, and his work has always revolved around rebukes against consumerism, violence, societal greed. His subjects, though, have changed rather schizophrenically throughout his career. His recent work runs the gamut from depictions of atomic explosions to images of Freud’s empty office to enormous, crashing waves, all rendered with strong detail, deep contrast, and a sharp, dramatic edge.
Longo tried to take a stab at whittling down his process, explaining how his big thoughts materialize in his work.
“The system that I've developed, it's constantly revealing itself to the next step,” he said, “The waves happened because my kid was surfing. The bombs happened because 9/11 happened and my art dealer Helene sent me a photograph ... that came out of the printers upside down so instead of the towers and the smoke, it was the smoke and then the towers and it looked just like a bomb. And then my youngest son looks at it and … he says it's a hurricane. Wow. He thinks it's nature, and it's man trying to be god, and all of a sudden through things that are in the world or in my life a new series happened. The doors opened.”
Yet not all of Longo's work is fire and brimstone, like his series of images of sleeping children.
“If you are fortunate to have a certain amount of success in life, you start to think about the future, about what you are going to leave behind," he said. “Not your own work, but what kind of world you're going to leave behind… These images of kids I stumbled on; I thought about this idea of sleeping children, the idea of whether or not I wanted them to wake up to the world.”
Longo has enjoyed a long, steady period of success, dating back to the late '70s, grouped together with fellow appropriation artists like Cindy Sherman (his one-time girlfriend), Richard Prince, and Laurie Simmons. Longo's "Men in the Cities" drawings (1977-1982), nearly eight feet tall and four feet wide and featuring smartly dressed men and women in contorted positions, are what made his name. Three of his massive charcoal drawings hung in the Metropolitan Museum's Great hall during the 2009 Pictures Generation exhibition.
Longo and Price first became friends in the '80s, or to be more precise, they became drug buddies. Price offered detailed accounts of their cocaine binges, with a writer’s flourish.
“The Beehive—that was your studio back then.... Stuart Albright used to sleep on your couch. The people who came through that funky place on South Street. I just remember sitting there and seeing Basquiat there and Rockets Redglare and René Ricard and just, going into the bathroom and coming out and looking like someone dipped your face in lemon meringue without the lemon and everyone was walking around with this reverse red nose.”
Longo was reluctant to travel down that particular portion of memory lane. He’s clean now, and that was his focus. Yet, for someone whose words can barely keep pace with his thoughts, it was intriguing when Longo explained that drugs helped him focus on his work.
“The irony of all this is I'm sober. I had a crash a while ago.” he said, “It's kind of funny to be at that point of trying to make decisions when I wasn't sober and how excessive I was. Actually, now I have a little more of a judicious take on what I can do.”
More by this author:
- For Charles Clough, a solo show that raises the question: What was the 'Pictures Generation' really?
- Steven Soderbergh describes his last good shot