Robert Longo has at times been an art world darling and a target of critical derision, the latter being a fate few artists would hope to suffer. There are several examples of comparable contemporary giants of American art — Ed Ruscha, Richard Prince, and Christopher Wool come to mind — who worked steadily until the market for their work took off. For them it was an early retirement with benefits, sainthood in the same life. Longo deserves his due, yet perhaps it’s a good thing that he still hasn’t received it. “Surrendering the Absolutes,” on view through Saturday at Metro Pictures, should be considered a major turning point in an already well-worn career.
Everyone seems to remember their first encounter with Longo’s art. For many New Yorkers, it was his early work shown in pioneering exhibitions such as Douglas Crimp’s “Pictures” show (1977). For those not in the city during the 1980s, it was perhaps the paperback cover of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, which featured a reproduction of Longo’s Arena brains, an image of a screaming mouth whose disembodied head is a blazing fire. For others still, Longo was the key figure behind Johnny Mnemonic (1992), the major Hollywood movie that starred Keanu Reeves. These specific entry points confirm Longo’s larger influence. A leonine figure amongst his peers, the 56-year old artist is best at his most basic medium, a decades-long career using charcoal on paper to make drawings that are capable of reaching varied heights of refinement.
One of the most redeeming aspects of the new work in “Surrendering the Absolutes” results from Longo’s willingness to engage with the push and pull between contemporary and historical references. Bellini’s Janissarie — the Turkish Sultan’s honor guards drawn by the Venetian master in the late fifteenth century — protect the entrance and exit of the gallery. They are part of a recent suite of fastidious, small-scale drawings based on masterpieces. One monolithic sculptural work included in the show is a nod to his younger colleague Sterling Ruby. Each facet of the rectilinear sculpture is a fully blackened drawing, framed and inset into a supporting armature. The resultant structure is an update on the mirrored minimalist stele à la John McCracken, an elegant proposition for a new form of sculptural drawing.
Longo is an abstract artist working figuratively. When stepping into the artist’s vast Soho studio, you wouldn’t know that abstraction had reigned supreme over the last half century: the space is a beehive of activity where graphite dust is as abundant as sawdust in a carpenter’s workshop, as massive figurative and landscape drawings hang in various states of completion. By the late 1980s Longo’s drawings had grown in scale and over the next two decades their thematic range deepened into a group of distinct series of monstrous ocean waves, mushroom clouds, women’s busts, handguns, and menacing sharks. While each proved an achievement in its own right, seeing them grouped together by the dozen detracted from their individual power.
With this exhibition, Longo has wisely put to bed some of the more histrionic aspects of his past work, where a single image would be repeated in a dozen versions and hung together. The best of the new drawings defy easy categorization. Untitled (City of Glass) (2009) is an aerial image of Tokyo at night that has been hybridized with a picture of shattered glass. This fractured, crystalline image revels in its ambiguity: Is it a bullet ridden piece of glass – a metaphor for a violent urban landscape? Among the weakest works are Untitled (Et in Arcadia Ego) (2009) and Untitled (The Sound and Speed of Light) (2009), which are borderline saccharine, haze-filled visions. Untitled (Cathedral of Light) (2008), a five panel drawing of light flooding through the delicate tracery of a wall of stained glass windows, is a broad-shoulder success of a composition; as the largest work in the show, it effectively conjures up the enthralling feeling of the architectural space it depicts.
Walk into the grand foyer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art this summer and a trio of Longo’s giant Men in Cities series of drawings are hanging on display as part of the “The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984” exhibition. To be shown in such a context is a certain triumph for Longo. In the past the most damning critique of Longo’s work has come from those who considered his drawings as ‘pretty pictures’ with a light conceptual framework. What those naysayers missed was the indispensable role that Longo played in expanding the capacity of drawing, stretching it to encompass a cinematic surface for action. For this novel contribution, a great artist has for too long endured the art world’s mistrust of his technical skill and towering ambition. Like a crestfallen champion boxer who has had to build himself back into fighting form, “Surrendering the Absolutes” shows off Longo’s dizzying powers, while historical references that span from the Renaissance to today heightens the drama of the show.
[“Surrendering the Absolutes” remains on view at Metro Pictures through May 30th 2009. Installation shots courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures.]