Born in Brooklyn, 1953
Robert Longo became synonymous with American pictorial art during the 80s, his ambitious large-scale works seemingly synchronized with the booming economy and boisterous values of the Reagan era. Yet although Longo's work is on a grand scale, the combination of disparate elements within each piece destabilizes the potential for monumentality. Instead of acceptance and reverence, his work requires an interpretative effort on the part of the viewer: you must assemble the pieces if you are to make a reading; the different parts within the work being emphasized by the literal and metaphorical spaces in between. Furthermore, by working in close proximity to the mass media forms of film and television, Longo endeavored to continue the critique of painting's cultural position - a redefinition that Pop Art had spectacularly initiated. Characterized by skilful draftsmanship and adept handling of diverse materials, his works have adapted the bombastic strategies of mass media in order to operate with a similar pervasiveness. Moreover, Longo has attempted to work in the other direction, taking art's expertise into the realm of feature film production.
In 1974, whilst studying at State University College , Buffalo , Longo co-founded Hallwalls. As a studio and exhibition space for contemporary art, Hallwalls was the precursor of Longo's ongoing concern for utilizing art's multi-disciplinary potential. His partner in this venture was Cindy Sherman, an artist whose practice would also use the techniques of film and television to critique mass-media representation. Between 1977 and 1981, Longo made sculptural, pictorial and performance work, developing concepts that would recur in later work. For example, in Performance Empire, from 'The Performance Trilogy' (1978-81), a pair of dancers move in slow motion. Images of figures caught in a moment of movement are perhaps the major motif within Longo's oeuvre.
After graduation Longo showed in 1979 at The Kitchen, a downtown space which encouraged artistic experimentation and collaboration. In the following year, he had his first one-person exhibition in Europe, at Studio d'Arte Cannaviello in Milan . Since then, Longo has shown continuously in Europe and America . However, it was his first solo exhibition at Metro Pictures, New York , in 1981 that brought him international critical acclaim. This installation of Men in the Cities presented his charcoal, graphite and dye studies of office workers, interspersed with cast aluminum reliefs of brutal architectural forms. The imposing larger-than-life images provoke an ambivalent response: it is impossible to discern whether the solitary figures are traumatized or exuberant.
The introduction of three-dimensional reliefs into a series of flat images was part of Longo's strategy to redefine the parameters of pictorial practice. Whilst the contorted office workers resist easy definition, the juxtaposed architectural reliefs intrude by jutting into the gallery space. This interruption of a smooth linear reading, notably used in Dada and Surrealist collage, undermines assumptions, whether they be cultural, social or political. In 'Men in the Cities' Longo cuts anonymous people from their environments, then splices their portraits in amongst blocks of buildings. The association is made between the private and the corporate, the human and the industrial, the fragile and the impervious.
With undiminished scale, Longo continued to incorporate the pictorial and the sculptural in combines that featured the human body trapped in either fight or flight. In Angels for a Modern World (1981), sculpted torsos emerge from the top of smooth vertical panels, whilst in The Wrestlers (1978) two bodies embrace in combat. They emerge from the flat screen background, the surface sheen of their modeled contours differentiating their bodies from the plane of entertainment and distraction, and thrusting their selves into our space of existence and physical interaction.
Engagement with the social and political can be seen in Longo's work throughout the 80s, setting him apart from fellow artists David Salle and Julian Schnabel. In Corporate Wars: Walls of Influence (1982) two panels of sleek prisms dynamically veer from the central relief, their vertiginous angles suggesting Futurist designs. The cast aluminum panel features contorted bodies of office workers, doomed to writhe and struggle with each other. An ominous take on American life is also presented in the five panels of the 1983 work, Love Police: Engines in Us (The Doors) with the Golden Children. Homespun notions of family life are undermined by the transference of glossy red automobile paint to the parents' portrait, suggesting that their social unit has the artifice of a commodity. Meanwhile, the flipside of consumerism decays below them: the aluminum of the cast re-positioning the commodity back in the physical world.
Longo has described his work as existing between the movie and the monument: having worked with monumental scale as a critical device, it seems logical that he should turn his attention to the feature film. Longo had not only worked with video and film before, but had debated making a film entitled Empire/Steel Angel, from which he could take stills in order to make a new body of sculpture. In 1995, Johnny Mnemonic was released, the culmination of Longo's collaboration with the cyber novelist William Gibson. By subverting the conventions of action films, Longo and Gibson made a movie that could operate on the same terms as Rambo and Total Recall, whilst re-working the genre.
Following a major retrospective at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1989, Longo began to focus on single themes, rather than montages of associations. Furthermore, he moved to Paris the following year. The 'Black Flag' series resulted from this change in direction, and location. Taking the Stars and Stripes as his subject, Longo re-worked the treatment of the spangled banner by Pop artist Jasper Johns. Longo created Black Flag (When the Hurlyburly's done) (1990), a monolithic wooden flag with the capacity to physically bisect a gallery; hanging flags draped on flag poles in black bronze, such as A Tale Told by an Idiot (1990); and, also in bronze, a series of unfurled flags in the wind, such as The Insane Root (1990).
In 1991, Longo produced pieces described as abstract logos: simple shapes which overtly critique that which they have come to symbolize. One such work, Untitled (Monument to the Sixties) (1991) comprises a white pentagon suspended from the ceiling by wires so that it hovers above the floor. Its construction suggests that the headquarters of Reagan's 'Star Wars' program may not be invincible, but dependent for its stability on exterior forces.
In the late 90s, Longo made a body of work inspired by the comic book characters favored by his children. Subtitling his work, based on these recent superheroes, 'Dolls on Steroids', Longo photographed the action figures, foregrounding their untenably enhanced musculature and prosthetic devices. The outsized photographs present the toys at an alarming scale, the garishly masked countenances glaring and snarling, ready for super-conflict.
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