Gallery  November 25, 2020  Jordan Riefe

Robert Longo Finds Hope in the Storm

Jordan Riefe

Robert Longo: Storm of Hope installed at Jeffery Deitch, Los Angeles, November 21, 2020–January 30, 2021.

Among the fourteen recent works by Robert Longo in his new show, Storm of Hope, there’s plenty of storm, but where’s the hope? Large scale black-and-white images, including a black panther, a freshly-calved iceberg, and the Capitol Dome with a blue sky rendered black, offer dramatic and foreboding tones. There’s a splintered image of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Refugees crowd a raft that’s taking on water. A California wildfire rages in the night. Each compels stormy reflection. But hope?

“I think hope is an incredibly abstract thing,” Longo tells Art & Object during a walk through at Jeffrey Deitch in Hollywood. “That I have the right to do this is really hopeful. I think making art is a political gesture, period. It’s exercising your freedom of expression.”

The only abstract piece in the show is a black-and-white reproduction of Jackson Pollock’s Convergence from 1952. It’s a work that Longo first encountered in the black-and-white pages of a magazine as a child growing up on Long Island. In 1972, when he attended art school at Buffalo State College, the painting took on even greater personal resonance.

Jordan Riefe

Robert Longo: Storm of Hope installed at Jeffery Deitch, Los Angeles, November 21, 2020–January 30, 2021.

“I started living with Cindy Sherman. She was an Arts Education major and I was an art Nazi. And we’d go to the museum and this was our favorite painting,” he recalls. “When he (Pollock) made this painting, originally it was going to be black and white. But he didn’t like it so he ended up throwing the kitchen sink at it.” 

While in Buffalo, Longo co-founded the alternative space Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, which brought him into contact with fellow starving artists like Richard Serra, Jonathan Borofsky, David Salle and others who suggested he move to New York City. Eventually, he and Sherman took a place on South Street, near the financial district. Just a few blocks away lived Salle and Tom Lawson, among many other artists.

Jordan Riefe

Robert Longo: Storm of Hope installed at Jeffery Deitch, Los Angeles, November 21, 2020–January 30, 2021.

“Back then, we never thought we’d make any money. We’d hang out with each other and go to each other's studios,” he recalls. “Younger artists, you try to explain to them, being famous is a long-distance run. Artists aren’t like athletes. You don't have to make it by the time you're thirty.”

In the 1980s, Longo’s Men in the Cities series, photo-real black-and-white images of convulsing men in suits, became a hallmark of the New York scene, making him one of the era’s biggest art stars.

Jordan Riefe

Robert Longo: Storm of Hope installed at Jeffery Deitch, Los Angeles, November 21, 2020–January 30, 2021.

“My art exploded in the ‘80s when I did this big show here at L.A. County [LACMA]. And the backlash was I got blamed for the ‘80s. I was one of the original stains, me, Schnabel, Fischl, Salle. When they want to blame what’s going wrong in the artworld, they blame it on us. We made money in the beginning, but compared to what [Jeff] Koons made, we made cigarette money. But I’m fucking really lucky, cause I’m an old white guy and I got in right before the door closed.”

He may be an old white guy, but he still has something to say. The show includes images that are central to the struggles of our times–climate change, racism, and immigration–with a portion of sales being donated to like-minded causes. 

Death Star, his massive sphere composed of 40,000 AR-10 bullets and weighing two tons, is suspended from a steel crossbeam. An earlier iteration from 1993 reflected the handgun death toll of roughly 18,000 that year, using the same number of .38 caliber bullets to make the piece. “I bought over eighty thousand bullets. And nobody knocked on my door and asked why are you buying all those bullets?” he laughs.

Jordan Riefe

Robert Longo: Storm of Hope installed at Jeffery Deitch, Los Angeles, November 21, 2020–January 30, 2021.

There is an alchemical element to Longo’s use of charcoal as a medium, a process by which dust becomes its quintessence. It is also a medium that reaches as far back in time as the first cave dwellers. The images in Storm of Hope are composites of elements from several photos rendered into one seamless composition. 

“People tend to remember in photographic terms. I want to trick them into seeing in photographic terms. I want to trick them into thinking they're seeing photographs because that memory aspect is really important,” he explains. “Also, you realize how little people actually look. When you get closer, it’s easier to see [it’s charcoal]. But people don't look. I want you to be somewhat unsure of what it is.”

Jordan Riefe

Robert Longo: Storm of Hope installed at Jeffery Deitch, Los Angeles, November 21, 2020–January 30, 2021.

The black-and-white drawings make up a third phase of his career after Men in the Cities and his combines done in the tradition of Robert Rauschenberg. In a second studio, closed to prying eyes, he’s been experimenting, searching for his fourth phase. There “I can embarrass myself on my own,” he explains with a smile. 

In a recent dream, Longo went blind, an enlightening experience that led him to the conclusion that artists are blind. “I can’t see how you see what I do. I can only see how I see it. I’m trying to make it so you can see it,” he offers, thinking back to Buffalo. “I remember tripping one time in college and walking down the street. I was with this girl and Jimi Hendrix’s head was in the tree. I kept saying to her, do you see Jimi Hendrix's head in the tree? And I realized that’s what artists do. I’m trying to get you to see Jimi Hendrix in a tree. I’m trying to get you to see how I see.”

About the Author

Jordan Riefe

Jordan Riefe has been covering the film business since the late 90s for outlets like Reuters, THR.com, and The Wrap. He wrote a movie that was produced in China in 2007. Riefe currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter, while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound.

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