New York

Robert Longo

Metro Pictures

While Barbara Kruger’s reference to the corporate image is filtered through an ironic wit and occasional poetic insight, it is disappointing to see that no such mitigating qualities can be claimed for Robert Longo’s work; it is the corporate image, the contemporary equivalent of late-Victorian civic sculpture in its naive eclecticism, sentimental melodrama, and grandiose materiality. Indeed, the work’s subject matter is ultimately so inconsequential that it becomes primarily “about” materiality and objectness, not in the Modernist terms of their intrinsic qualities but in those of their insistent material presence. It is a use of materials whose lack of light and space soon becomes oppressive, grounding the viewer in the deadening banality of urban reality. It is less a critical comment on the dehumanizing effect of corporate power (Longo’s apparent subject matter) than a mimicry of it packaged in the conventions of high art.

Longo burdens his work with references to almost every possible architectural, sculptural, and representational tradition, and with liberal borrowings from the work of contemporary artists, as if he were attempting to embody single-handedly the whole of Western art. Nevertheless, his use of a range of materials in the same piece indicates little sensitivity to what happens in the passage from one to another; a black-framed drawing is simply butted up against a silk-screened metal panel or a lacquered wood relief. And images follow each other with the arbitrariness of a poorly cut film montage: is there any reason, for instance, why a Warholian eagle, a neoclassical facade, the head of a weeping woman, and a Dutch tulip field (Kill Your Darlings, 1983–84) should be juxtaposed rather than any other sequence of images illustrating “nature,” “culture,” or “human distress”? The coherence of these diptychs and triptychs depends wholly on a Minimalist grid format; without this totalizing matrix the images in Longo’s assemblies would bear scant formal relation to one another. Longo, in effect, presents not so much “images” as fragments that fetishize the object depicted, reducing it to its most literal level of signification; he uses styles and figures so locatable in time and place that they fetishize memory itself, trivializing its symbolic potential to a sentimental emotionalism.

The quotation of preexisting styles and motifs, although they form the common vocabulary of art and culture, nevertheless needs to be formed into some grammatical order to produce meaning. Even if the meaning sought is that images intrinsically possess no meaning except that which we impose on them (again conditioned by a commonly understood grammar), this must be a readable intention. Given Longo’s use of the formal constraints of Minimalism and the professional finish of his work, this philosophy of irony is clearly not his intention. The work strains to be “meaningful,” but if there is irony surely it is that Longo’s “alienated individual” is so be-cause he or she has been subjected to the same overpowering regimes that the artist imposes both on his materials and images and on the viewer: the desire to impose control on the feared potential anarchy of the human psyche.

As in much current work, there is a confusion between the meaning of size, which is a measure, and scale, which is both a physical and a psychical relationship. The sense of immense scale, however small the structure, may refer to the immensity of human consciousness, while grandiose size seldom signifies more than authoritarianism and power. That a Longo work should have been chosen for an advertisement for an AT&T-funded show at the Museum of Modern Art is wholly consistent with his mode of address. Together with the museum, the corporate building is one of the few contexts that can comfortably accommodate the size of these works, and it is the contemporary mausoleum: seemingly transparent but actually impenetrable, autonomous, insulated from lived experience, monolithic, the monument to conservatism and to the desire for the stasis of language. Post-modernist architecture’s pretense at humanization through its incorporation of domesticated styles does not alter this fundamental condition, but is an attempt to appropriate everything to a singular control; this is equally the case with Longo’s eclecticism.

Longo is not alone in the use of a loose form of image juxtaposition whose potential for endless quotation, repetition, and permutation demonstrates not the death of language per se but the deadliness of this particular usage, and represents a failure to understand our symbolic relation to the image. Nor is the artist alone in the depiction of a sentimentality that is only the simulacrum of authentic emotion. The discourse of the simulacrum has become a mannerism, but it never took cognizance anyway of the fact that human beings are not yet automata and still have the power to dream—and it is precisely the dream that continues to escape the control of corporate power structures, since they too can only play off an existing phantasy apparatus. Art, like Longo’s, that imitates the superficial material conditions of life sadly admits that it no longer has the power to speak for us; it has capitulated to the propaganda of power and relegated itself to the minor role of decoration.

Jean Fisher