PRINT March 2003

’80s THEN

Robert Longo

MARY HAUS: You were involved in both the Hallwalls gallery in Buffalo and the “Pictures” show at Artists Space in New York in 1977—both of which many people feel opened the way for the ’80s.

ROBERT LONGO: I ended up in Buffalo in the mid-’70s [at the State University College of New York, as a fine arts major]. I had decided I wanted to be an artist after failing at everything else. I had just returned from Europe, studying art history. The college wasn’t much, but I was fortunate to meet up with some interesting people and a few teachers, and the fuse was lit.

Around that time I met Cindy [Sherman], and we started living together. I had just rented my first studio in an old ice factory. There I met Charlie Clough, an artist who was making really interesting work and who generously turned me on to the current contemporary art. He and I started Hallwalls, so called because the gallery space was a hallway between our studios. I managed to get Robert Irwin to come up—someone said the work I was doing at the time looked like his, so I wrote him a letter saying I was interested in his work, and to my surprise he flew up to Buffalo, on his own money, and came and talked to us. And Hallwalls started.

Charlie and I ran the place. The people we were reading about in art magazines and in art books came to life by coming up to Hallwalls, doing installations, exhibitions, giving talks, and hanging out with us: Serra, Acconci, Borofsky (who got snowed-in there for a week and a half), Judy Pfaff, Hannah Wilke, Nauman, to name a few. Sol LeWitt even gave us a wall drawing to do. We did incredible, exciting things. For research we would hitchhike to New York for a day or a weekend, do the galleries, and visit artists. This was 1975–77.

About that time Helene Winer was going around with Douglas Crimp, looking at artists for the “Pictures” show. They saw my work in the exhibition “In Western New York” [1977] at the Albright-Knox and wanted to include me. Simultaneously Cindy got an NEA grant for three thousand dollars. We put these two things together (and my car was working) and decided to move to New York.

MH: Did you know the work of the other people in the show?

RL: The last show I curated at Hallwalls [“Resemblance,” 1977] had Jack Goldstein, Troy Brauntuch, David Salle, Matt Mullican, and Paul McMahon. I met them all when they came to Buffalo. I realized I was meeting my generation—except these were real artists, and they were living in New York, in the real arena. I saw connections in what they were doing to what I was doing in isolation in Buffalo. It was a strange connection, Hallwalls and CalArts. They were articulate and very supportive and their work moved me. I thought, “This is a group of artists that is about to take over the world,” or at least the art world. They later became the crew we ran with once we were in New York.

MH: Did “Pictures” mark the start of some kind of success for you?

RL: When the show happened we thought, “Wow, this is the beginning of it.” And then nothing happened. I had to get a job driving a taxi. I also worked at the Kitchen as a temporary curator. There I managed to plug my friends—David, Jack, Troy, Cindy—into the schedule of exhibitions.

“Pictures” was significant because what Crimp was able to articulate made sense to me; it helped me. I was raised on movies, television, and Life magazine. I wasn’t interested in images that were based on reality; my concerns were more for representations of representations. I was interested in what art could be, not what art was.

MH: Was there any connection between your work and Cindy’s early on?

RL: We lived together for some time, in Buffalo and New York. We shared a lot of things. We went to Godard films together, CBGB’s together. We helped each other—she was one of the first models for my early “Men in the Cities” drawings, and I took some photos of her for her “Film Stills” series. That time was important for both of us.

MH: How do you remember the art world of the ’80s, the star system in the galleries, all of that?

RL: When Metro Pictures [Longo’s New York gallery] first opened, the atmosphere in SoHo was almost like a street fight. Artists should have been wearing leather jackets with the name of their gallery on the back and walking around with baseball bats. But the early to mid-’80s was an extraordinary time: the art-music scene, the clubs, the drugs, the camaraderie of artists, the night. I was playing in bands with Rhys Chatham, Glenn Branca, and Richard Prince, collaborating on performances with Bill T. Jones and Eric Bogosian. At the same time I was making my work with total abandonment and intensity—“make work, make work, make work.”

One thing that became difficult in the ’80s was that we went into Metro Pictures as a group, but once the gallery opened and shows started to happen, it became clear who was going to get more attention and the group started to disintegrate. Friendships were strained. There was an excitement, even if it was a competitive excitement. Unfortunately the greed-is-good mentality overrode it, but it was a blossoming moment—so much about art had been taken apart and rearranged and given back to us with new parts to work with. It was our time to shine; little did I know burnout would be the next stage.

MH: In the mid-’80s you were doing it all—making movies, performances, rock videos, directing the cast of thousands who made the work. Do you think that affected the way people saw you as an artist, and the way they saw the art itself?

RL: I think that in the beginning my bravado was attractive to some. I think people like [Charles] Saatchi were attracted to me because of it. I truly felt I had this incredible opportunity. The work was my only focus, it was selling, and I’d take the money and throw it back into the work.

MH: You put everything into the art?

RL: I had an ego that was totally out of control, but if I hadn’t had that ego I couldn’t have made many of the things I did. My work wasn’t about modesty at that point; it was about living in America. I was making “big” art because I thought that was a way of critiquing what was American. I wanted to take an aggressive position in a culture that I thought was sick. The bombastic nature of the work, particularly the combines, I felt was a language of our time. In hindsight, one risks becoming what one critiques.

MH: What was the defining moment of the ’80s for you?

RL: I think I distinctly remember when my time was over. When the “art star” crap ended. But I also remember the frenzy of the time, when the studio was getting bigger and bigger and more and more people were working for me. I felt like I was the avenging angel—I was going to attack the media that made me. In ’86 I did two big shows at Metro Pictures in less than a year. I blew so much money and made so much work, it truly was excessive, manneristic. I was peaking in my knowledge to make my work, and I had the means to make it. It was an incredible explosion. But at a certain point I got lost, I hit a brick wall, probably in 1987, after completing that big monster [All You Zombies, 1986]. That was a self-portrait, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Then the changing of the guard happened, with all those artists coming to SoHo out of the East Village, from places like International With Monument and Nature Morte.

MH: Looking back on it all, why do you think you became so successful and so identified with the ’80s?

RL: You can have talent and desire, but you have to have luck. You have to be in the right place at the right time. I was lucky. Because of Hallwalls, because of Charlie, because of Robert Irwin, because of Vito, because of “Pictures,” et cetera, et cetera, I was guided in the right direction to the context that I wanted to work in.

MH: You once said that “artists like Beuys and Acconci sacrificed themselves to create my generation.” I was fascinated by that idea.

RL: I always thought they were the mechanics who were building the hot rod and we got to drive it.

MH: One last thing: any lingering misconceptions about your work or your career that you feel are out there?

RL: Misconceptions can be beautiful, and histories are always being rewritten. Besides, I’m not finished yet.

Mary Haus, an editor at ARTNews in the ’80s, is director of communications at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.