Robert Longo is a rare commodity in an age where most artists of his stature often become more consumed by the business of art rather than the process of physically making it. Longo epitomizes what a successful artist should be: he is a perfectionist, he executes his art with methodical precision around its visual impact. Whatever the subject matter, his work of realistic charcoal drawings often mirrors the world that surrounds us but transposed into one devoid of color. It has the ability to envelope the viewer with its truthful nature by accentuating the great tonal details that we might not otherwise see.
Robert Longo rose to fame in the 1980s with his hyper-realistic series “Men in the Cities,” depicting dramatized contorted men and women in formal black and white attire, in a series of images that were influenced by Hollywood’s stylization of violence. From the late ’80s until now, Longo’s work has illustrated themes ranging from power (both in humans and in nature), authority, significant cultural events, and daily influences in the artist’s life.
In his newest solo exhibition, “Gang of Cosmos” at Metro Pictures, Longo illustrates a side of himself that can be interpreted as more historically personal. Delving into the art influences of his youth, each charcoal drawing examines different well-known, mid-century Abstract Expressionist masterpieces in black and white. From Still to Pollack to DeKooning to Krasner, Longo explores the significance of Abstract Expressionism 50 years later.
Seeing these paintings illustrated in this way is like looking through old art books or old issues of Time, when art was usually only printed in limited monochrome. Back then, the replicated images might have not construed the intended emotion on account of the lack of detail and color. But by studying each actual painting in its museum collection, Longo was able to translate the paintings’ three-dimensional details caused by paint strokes and drips on canvas into a two dimensional drawing, giving the viewer clarity to concentrate on the drama and tonality of each piece instead of being distracted by the color. Longo’s passionate attention to representing the minutiae of each work is made extraordinary by including specifics like odd brush strokes that are often ignored and signatures and dates which are often taken for granted.
Each drawing is more than simply a study of the original. It’s more than just showing the differences between drawing and painting, more than the meticulous and raw talent it takes to replicate a visual sensation using a very different toolkit than the original master. The work gives new insight into the strength of what great art can be. By interpreting the past with real technical talent, a new view of a subconscious expression and overwhelming emotion is created.
Gang of Cosmos, Robert Longo, ran April 10 – May 23, 2014, Metro Pictures, 519 West 24th Street
After Mitchell (Ladybug, 1957), 2013. Charcoal on mounted paper, 69 1/8 x 96 inches