New York

Robert Longo

Robert Longo is the Francis Ford Coppola of the art world. With his extravagant conceptual claims, his bombast and sentiment, his epic scale, and his autobiographical insistence, Longo’s work either puzzles or inspires: there’s no middle ground. Like Coppola, Longo gambles that he can move not just an individual consciousness but an entire zeitgeist. That’s an outsized goal, and it’s finally transcendental in the great-white-whale-seeking tradition.

Not that these lofty ambitions always translate so clearly. Sometimes Longo’s combine sculptures are so overdetermined, so packed with meaning, that they implode, turning into non sequitur billboards of mystifying—rather than mystical—import. What is not in question is their relentless, searching energy, a quality that can override their analytical flaws to galvanize the work into brute provocation.

In this exhibition Longo presented a typically large-scale, varied, erratic, and altogether compelling collection of sculpture and performance works. His installation, Temple of Love, was a condensed miniretrospective of his brief career to date. The setting was the Museum’s grand turn-of-the-century entrance hall; hung high on the marbled walls were six large works that ranged from the earliest black-and-white drawings to the recent combine sculptures constructed from paintings,photographs, and various industrial materials. As in any good retrospective, there was a clear developmental line to follow The works here from the early “Men in the Cities” series, 1980–1981, drawings of men and women dressed in business clothes and contorted in violent poses, retained their fresh, iconic inspiration. But the next step beyond this clarity was the baffling Rock for Light, 1983, a combine of three panels: paintings of a black couple at play in the sea and of an astronaut floating in space flank a distorted, extremely foreshortened view of a skyscraper. These three images don’t really resonate—they’re just there, in a phenomenological muteness that seems at odds with Longo’s professed slouching toward meaning. The most recent piece, however, suggested a new turn. Heaven, 1985, is a vertical sculpture built up of a jumble of tiny bas-relief heads painted purplish red, then overlaid with green, graphlike markings (which are, in fact, an enlarged version of the tracking line of a heart monitor). This column is topped with a larger-than-life-sized drawing of a man whose face is smeared with what looks like shaving cream. While the piece describes death, its exuberant execution and jaunty air create a sense of affirmation, not of despair. It’s rare to see such a sophisticated “straight” statement avoid the traps of either strained naiveté or extreme ironical distance.

Performance is a genre perfectly suited to Longo’s brand of conceptual/theatrical spectacle, and here again, when his performances’ conceptual reach exceeds their dramatic grasp they still exude a compelling visceral power. Like the early drawings, Sound Distance of a Good Man, 1977, the first of the three performances shown here, remained an enigmatic, powerful statement. It featured a cinematic central panel of a man in a business suit holding a movie still–like pose; he was flanked on one side by two live dancers who moved slowly through erotic/gymnastic poses on a rotating platform and, on the other, by an operatic soprano who sang variations on Brian Eno’s variations on Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. At the Museum as in 1977, Sound Distance was weirdly moving.

Following the transitional Surrender, 1979, The Marble Fog, a premiere, staked out a new territory which Longo has defined as somewhere between film and the monument. The enormous scale was established with the opening slide projections of pastoral scenes, projections as large as the Kodak billboard in Grand Central station. As the images evolved into distorted views of skyscrapers, spotlights behind scrims illuminated three silhouetted performers: two sentries performed robotic, athletic movements while a central performer recited an abstract text about impending doom. The piece ended with part of Eric Bogosian’s nihilistic-bum monologue (“Let ’em drop the bomb”), dissolving slides of facial parts, and a projection of flames.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what Longo was getting at here—meaning, meaning everywhere but not a hard fact to think about. Yet The Marble Fog finally cohered as a demonstration of Longo’s lyrical power, in which an amazingly complex technology was harnessed to produce an emotional,apocalyptic effect—something to think about in itself.

John Howell