By the turn of the 21st century, Robert Longo was, as he puts it, sitting at the top of the junk pile.
He had once been a leading protagonist in the “Pictures Generation.” Alongside fellow artists like Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Louise Lawler and David Salle, he became one of the most collected, exhibited and talked about visionaries of the early 1980s, rising to prominence during the golden age of contemporary art through his “Men in the Cities” series, which depicted suited, dancing silhouettes drawn in charcoal.
But he was punished for it — and cast aside.
“I kind of got blamed for the ’80s,” Longo said during a recent interview from his home and studio in the Northwest Woods. “I ran away, went to Paris, developed a career in Europe, and that saved my life. The thing that happened was, I got lost for awhile — and I also raised three kids — and I missed the ’90s.”
It wouldn’t be until Christmas 1999 that he found his way back to his first love, four years after directing the cyberpunk film “Johnny Mnemonic” and not long after teaching his son how to surf.
Pushing his board along, as opposed to riding himself, Longo finally saw waves for the first time, and in recognizing them as the ultimate power in nature, he decided to draw one.
Except he couldn’t find any graphite.
“The only thing I had was this box of shitty charcoal,” he said. “I hated charcoal, I hated it so much, but that’s all I had.”
He didn’t leave his studio for nearly a week. And when he was done, he had not only found his first wave, but also a new preferred medium.
“It exploded very quickly,” he recalled. “It came all very naturally.”
Over the last two decades, Longo has reinvented himself by creating highly aggressive, hyper-real imagery with the extremely fragile material — leaning into the symbolism of making art from dust — that at quick glance could easily be mistaken for black-and-white photographs.
His newest exhibition, “A History of the Present” — comprising two bodies of work, “Gang of the Cosmos” and “The Agency of Faith,” now on view across two adjacent galleries at Guild Hall in East Hampton — simultaneously pays tribute to the past through an Abstract Expressionism homage while offering a snapshot of where society stands today.
Ahead of the opening, Longo couldn’t help but feel a bit nervous, he said. Using models of both the galleries, he mapped out the exhibition, moving around miniature versions of the 19 drawings — but still knew his greatest challenge would be fitting the large-scale pieces through the doors.
“My feeling has always been, ‘The more prepared I am for something, the greater chance that something serendipitous will happen,’” he said, adding, “I joke about the fact that I make big art because I’m an American, and in America, if it’s big, it’s good.”
Monumental moments in history have also colored Longo’s perspective and shaped his work, starting in November 1963. Growing up in Plainview on Long Island, the 10-year-old had faked being sick to stay home from school — “I hated school because I was dyslexic,” he said — when a newsflash interrupted his television show. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
“It completely freaked me out. I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “Like, oh my God, everyone was so excited about him being president, except my parents — they were Republicans, of course. But it was a bit strange, for sure.”
Then, mere weeks before his high school graduation in 1970, the Ohio National Guard massacred four students at Kent State University who were protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. One of them, Jeffrey Miller, was his former classmate — forever immortalized in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph seen around the world.
“That image had a huge affect on me, for sure. It was really quite profound,” Longo said. “That’s when I got actively involved in politics and protests. My life radically changed at that point, for sure.”
In 1972, Longo received a grant to study art restoration in Florence, Italy, where he watched frustrated artists trying to “change history” and quickly charted a new course. He packed up his books and traveled through Europe, devising his own grand tour of the major museums, closely studying both old and modern masters to understand his own relationship with them.
“At a certain point, I realized, ‘There’s enough old art. I think it’s time for me to make my own,’” he said. “But I didn’t think it was very cool to be an artist, that was a big thing — and I also didn’t quite have the courage, that’s for sure. I always had an image of guys with striped shirts on and berets and little mustaches with their thumbs up in a palette.”
But he had an epiphany while sitting on the steps of a Greek temple in Siracusa, Sicily, where he was visiting with relatives. He looked out over the sea and said to himself, “No, I’m gonna do this. I want to become an artist,” he recalled.
“A few weeks later, I remember meeting a girl in Florence and telling her about that. We’re sitting outside in the square and, you know how they have those big copies of the ‘David’ outside?” he said. “There was a pigeon that was sitting on the hand of the slingshot, and all of a sudden I get this huge wad of bird shit on my head, just as I tell her I want to become an artist. She said to me, ‘That’s good luck!’ All these fortuitous things led to this.”
He interrupted himself with a soft laugh. “The irony is, I don’t know what I would have done if I wasn’t an artist.”
After studying at Buffalo State College, where he met Cindy Sherman, they moved to New York together in 1977 and he scrambled for a job — from attending truck driving school to driving a taxi — in the pursuit of making art.
“There was no backup plan,” he said. “I guess I could work in a design studio or I could teach art, but the backup plan wasn’t driving a f—–g taxi, that’s for sure. So when we got there, that’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna do it one way or another. Making money was never on the menu, which is really ironic.”
That same year, he participated in “Pictures,” curated by Douglas Crimp for the non-profit Artists Space gallery in New York, which was the first show to contextualize a young group of artists who were turning away from minimalism and conceptualism, and toward image-making inspired by newspapers, advertisements, film and television.
“In hindsight, work was the most important thing — this desire to want to express, not illustrate,” he said. “Artists go through different cycles with their work, just as history goes through the formal, romantic, manneristic periods. I was at a very formal period at that time. I didn’t quite know what I was doing, but I really wanted to make work.”
And the art world wanted to buy.
Today, his art lives in major public and private collections across the globe, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Tate Gallery in London, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
“I always think my ancestors are Caravaggio and Rembrandt, but actually, my real ancestors are the cavemen,” Longo said. “I’m like the modern cave guy, in a sense, as a medium.”
To call what he does “drawings” may be accurate, but it comes across as an oxymoron, he said. Each piece is the size of a painting, and take anywhere from three months to a year and a half to create.
“I have assistants, that’s really critical to me, because otherwise I wouldn’t make that much work,” he said. “I’m more interested in creating a vision, I think that’s really important.”
Longo typically sources his drawings from a photograph, or a compilation of images, and even deciding on a composition can be a years-long process, he explained, due to the sheer level of commitment and dedication required for any given piece.
“I try to work realistically, but it’s never trying to achieve photorealism,” he said. “Photorealism is a very different beast. It’s very categorically broken down into sections that are very precise. Charcoal, for me, became more akin to photographs. It became grain. The surface tends to move into each other.”
Longo and his team have developed an entire technique for each drawing, starting with the charcoal itself. It is a rainbow of greyscale — “colors,” he calls them, including regular black, black black, medium black, cold black, warm black, blue black and brown black — and they exist in different states, from hard sticks and chips to powder applied with brushes.
While in painting artists typically work from dark to light, charcoal requires the opposite treatment. Whites are the paper untouched, Longo said, and here, erasers become extremely important — kneaded, white, pink and electric erasers, as well as a pounce bag, “which is really quite extraordinary,” he said.
“It looks like a sock filled with ground-up erasers,” he said. “You rub it onto the charcoal and it blends everything in quite beautifully.”
They each carve the drawing in a specific way, and Longo leans on his assistants for help, always playing to their strengths through the process.
“It’s very much like a traditional artist studio. There’s guys that fill things, block things in, there’s guys that more are finishers,” he said. “It’s like an artist who has their favorite brushes. I know this guy’s really good with foam or this guy’s really good with hair, so every drawing has a plan to it — and I get to touch it, I finish it.
“I’m like the lightning with the Frankenstein,” he said. “I bring it to life.”
In “Gang of Cosmos” at Guild Hall, Longo breathes new life into the Abstract Expressionist movement by reimagining some of its iconic works — in charcoal — from artists Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell and others.
It was considered the most advanced American art at the time — championed for its large scale, romanticism and sense of freedom at the end of World War II, right at the time Longo was born.
“If you go to the left to see ‘Gang of Cosmos,’ that’s basically America’s past,” he said. “If you go to the right, you deal with the current events of America now. I think, in that sense, I’m trying to present history of the present.”
In the second gallery, “The Agency of Faith” does not masquerade as subtle. Front and center, drawings of a George Floyd protester, a cotton field and a cropped image of an American Indian headdress form a triangle of “American sin,” Longo explained.
“But at the same time, the drawing of the George Floyd protester is quite, I think, liberating,” he said. “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 is on fire.”
Anchoring the visual energy of the space is the largest wave drawing Longo has ever completed — and the first in about 12 years, he said. It serves as a reminder of nature’s enigmatic, unrelenting power, and for the artist, his own connection to the ocean and decades of surfing on the East End, specifically during hurricane season.
“Our summer house was in Peconic, so it was a 45-minute drive to Dune Road — we’d sleep in our vans,” he said. “I remember going out to Montauk and seeing the hurricane waves, and having these surfing magazines and seeing these gigantic waves — they’re all glassy and crystally and beautiful — and the gigantic waves out in Montauk were always so f—–g dirty and nasty and mean.
“This is one of those waves,” he continued. “It’s a very manneristic wave, it’s almost a memory of a wave. It’s made out of three or four different pictures of a wave, so it could never be a real wave. It’s almost like a claw. I always think waves look like they’re trying to grab the earth, pull the earth back into the ocean.”
Come September, Pace Gallery’s flagship Chelsea space in New York will unveil its first show of Longo’s work, which he described as “so exquisitely tight.”
“One of the things I fought against as I got older as an artist, guys get looser and messier,” he said. “I’ve gotten tighter, because I’m trying to create images that are more real than real. As an artist, I grew up with this idea of the loss of the real. Now I’m trying to make more real than real. I’ve taken it to such an incredibly refined level that I’m starting to rethink about where I go next.”
But in the meantime, he is trepidatiously excited that the show at Guild Hall is hanging, after an extended delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This past year was a bit of an insane experience, it was like being in some weird f—-d up science fiction movie that was real. And now we have to adjust and deal with this new world,” he said. “And I hope that art is still part of it, I think art has to be a part of it. I think it’s really important. Somebody has to tell the truth, right?”