New York

Robert Longo

Metro Pictures

One work—one image—in this exhibition is Longo’s best yet. In All You Zombies (Truth Before God), 1986, we see a hermaphroditic figure, saturated with attributes/associations, in an ambiguous pose of victory and defeat, at once unhorsed horseman of the apocalypse and strident soldier of God, posturing in a quaintly archaic theater. In its macabre universality, this figure summarizes our horrific, vulgar century. It epitomizes the theatrical/performance/waxworks ambition of Longo’s art. It is a truly stunning creation in an art-entertainment world almost stun-gunned to death.

Of all the artists who want to Hollywoodize art—who think this the only way to go in our world of simulation and spectacle—Longo perhaps takes the greatest risk because he is most upfront about it, especially about the fact that this is a consumerist ambition. Indeed, in The Velvets (Red “I”) crash and burn, 1986, Longo even consumes his own most famous image in the fires of hell (the figure of distressed modern man, here naked, iconographically relates to medieval images of the damned in hell), as well as the solemnly abrupt gesture, that cliché emblem of the forced ambition and energy of American art.

In general, Longo’s is a brilliantly staged production of all the imaginable symbols of modern doom. He is like a director full of premonitions that the symbols, even the performance as a whole, might be all wrong. So he throws another character and prop on stage, loading it down in uncertain abandon. Even if the character doesn’t know his lines or the prop is limp with over-familiarity, his/its appearance will be grandly exciting because it is confusing. Longo’s is an art of walk-on parts, of cameo appearances by star cultural symbols. (One might call this the Robert Wilson syndrome, a fresh version of what Theodor Adorno called the Orson Welles syndrome: make it big, different, a little bad, and the public will still recognize itself in it, success will still be yours. Otherness is merely nominal these days.)

But Longo does have his performance in hand; control is obvious in the traditional backdrops, the split death’s head in Walk, 1986, the cemetery walls in Camouflage in Heaven (Swans), 1986, and I presume that the industrial vista in Meat Shot and the Homeless Count, 1986, has the same funereal import. The death landscape is confirmed by the copulating Machines in Love, 1986; these dead things alone are vital. Longo’s human figures are certainly in a condition of dramatic devitalization, and this is his subtlety: he glamorizes death and treats it with a certain deliberate, defiant abandon (not that defying it will change it). He creates a dizzying dance of death and despair. In fact, I see a despairing vertigo everywhere in his art. Structurally, his hyperassemblage creates this vertigo; emotionally, a forced recognition of futility creates it; intellectually, vertigo is engendered by analyzing the inevitable. Longo’s is an art about the abyss of the inevitable, about the cliché of fate in a modern world that thinks there is none, that thinks it is in total administrative control (impersonal administration substitutes for impersonal fate). But as controls fail—as the figures fall, the failures of control (represented by the homeless) mount—fate makes its appearance, blackfaced under the plain guise of everydayness. Longo has created a brilliant world theater from omens of disaster. His message seems to be that we will watch the disaster of our world from the comfort of the theater of our own disastrous lives. He implies that the fact that we feel compelled to theatricalize our lifeworld is our disaster.

Donald Kuspit