New York

Robert Longo

Leo Castelli Gallery And Metro Pictures

Fascination is the key to Robert Longo’s work. The fascinated gaze of the viewer awaits the falling figure’s end—his death.

Since Longo’s use of a single Rainer Fassbinder film still in the late ’70s, through his images of men fighting (the “Men in the Cities” series, 1979–81), to the more recent Corporate Wars: Walls of Influence, 1982, an overriding concern in his work has been the seemingly continuous image of “the fall.” This image has almost entirely preoccupied Longo. We move with him from the verticality of the early, single silhouettes of men to the horizontal ity of the later fallen men and women. The masculine image (the hero) becomes deflated.

In the cinema, death becomes that moment frozen between the vertical and the horizontal just before man “bites the dust” for the last time. Longo’s newer fight pieces, exemplified by Corporate Wars . . . , seem like attempts to restore a diagonal—a last moment of life before the end. The fight is the last g(r)asp. Why the preoccupation with dying? Maurice Blanchot, writing about a corpse, says “this splendid being who radiates beauty. . . no longer has any relation with this world in which he still appears, except that of an image, an obscure possibility, a shadow which is constantly present behind the living form and which now, far from separating itself from that form, completely transforms itself into a shadow”. In Longo’s work we see the shadow of death. From cinema’s flow of images, a shadow is frozen. The image ceases to promise another, and becomes itself.

And yet the fall here is really an ascension. In hero mythology the essential ambiguity of the phallic presence is that between desire and desiring the death of desire. This dichotomy holds the anxiety as well as the fascination of Longo’s work. The dance of death, or the act of dying, is suspended in the entropic spaces of the gallery or museum. One kind of emptiness (the space of the cinema) meets another (the gallery or museum wall). Void meets void in the image. The fal len hero as an allegorical figure has to be reencountered within the cinematic fall. (I have always somehow mentally discarded Longo’s falling and fallen women; they seem somehow “in on the act.” At times they are interesting in subverting the phallic image. But the important quality of Longo’s images is their lack of ambiguity). The hero’s fall in death mirrors his birth in The Fall (creation myth).

Longo’s heroes come ready-clothed in the executive suit of the modern detective film. The most powerful of therecent work here seems like a move away from the isolated figures of the earlier work (or at least from the isolated figures floating in the void). The crowded frame of Corporate Wars . . . , for example, represents an important change from the displaced (dislocated) individual. The crowd is the new symbol of the “White Riot” series; from this point on the pieces are intended to engulf rather than isolate.

The rediscovery of image space in the early Longo work was in the media image—the void in its fallen state as emptiness. The viewer was on equal (though distanced) terms with the isolated images of falling men. They remained at the distance of fascination. The new work is now more frontal and directly challenging. It doesn’t give distance or space. For this reason, it is more uncomfortable to many. Yet it is this very disquiet that marks the turning point and the growing maturity of the work.

Corporate Wars . . . seems like a corporate, art world enterprise. One thinks of the reliefs found in the lobbies of large corporations in the ’30s; the reliefs embody permanence, the aspiration of the corporations. The original carved wall of the relief embodied immobility—placement. But Longo has filled this site of permanence with ephemeral and fragmentary images, from the cinematic men of “Men in the Cities” to the city itself, building fragments of which appear in Master Jazz and Pressure, both 1982–83.

The drawings isolate the image while the reliefs spread it out. The image has to be found in their lacquered reflective surfaces. One’s attention is drawn to the details upon which the illusion hinges rather than to a center in the image. This “spread-out” aspect of the reliefs seems to have become the essential preoccupation of the new work. Corporate Wars . . . physically bursts through the frame. The figures seem to be struggling out of the frame. As if frozen, the bronze seems to congeal the action like fast-setting glue. The image is crowded. We feel crowded. The effect of the piece is almost nauseous. One feels hypnotically sucked into the work while at the same time repelled by its physical presence. The image of the struggle embodies this sense of physical closeness and yet violent withdrawal.

Another forceful relief work, Love Police: Engines in Us (the Doors), 1982–83, shuts the gates on the teeming activity bursting out of corporate hell in an image of compression and implosion. The implosion is of cars; it suggests but is devoid of life. Is this a moment of multi-car pileup, or the silence of the junkyard? “The Doors” suggests a center (of the action) but denies access to it. The crisis moment of multiple death (the tragedy) becomes a pile of junk. The ambiguity is there in the physical presence of the piece. The bronze seems debased in its illusionistic currency with scrap metal. The truncatedness of the couple that dominates the doors (like an architrave), suggests a continuation of the male and female bodies behind the doors. Yet the spatial suggestion is the reverse; the implosion of cars becomes a void which cuts away the bodies (a reference to the other part of the title, “Engines in Us”).

In the new work, Longo is exploring a different kind of space from his earlier isolated, indefinite one. Space in the most recent work is closure and compression. As in a cupboard crammed full of clothes, we can’t find anything; it’s impenetrable. The image becomes a wall of details, a permanently closed door upon the invisible.

The interrelations between the sculptural and the two-dimensional components of the work have become technically more complex. Instead of singling out a unified and unambiguous image, Longo allows the image to reflect its multiplicity: juxtaposition takes place not at a distance but in a maze of images. The work no longer has the distance of fascination that Blanchot finds in relation to the image-as-corpse. Fantasy is wish-fulfillment; cinema is fantasy. Fascination wants to know the ending—to see the corpse. Longo’s relation to the media image is that of fascination. Isolated from the flow of fantasy, the freeze-frame image becomes amenable to the fascinated gaze. But Longo’s gaze has now relinquished the charm of the isolated shadow for a more dreadful point of fascinated confrontation with the image in his new work. In the same way that corporate advertising seems to have taken on a more threatening dimension, so the edge of dread is ever-present in the more powerful of Longo’s new images. The new work suggests an attitude much closer to dread in a very proximate confrontation with the image-as-corpse.

Rosetta Brooks