New York

Robert Longo

Metro Pictures

Robert Longo’s new wall-mounted sculptures are nominally abstract, but they retain a halo of figuration. They recall his previous pieces, the now-familiar representations of unhappy bodies and ferocious technologies. It is possible to locate these works within the recent trend of abstraction-as-representation—as the bearer of referential and historical import—a trend perhaps most notoriously exemplified by Peter Halley’s paintings. Longo makes obvious reference to both ’50s abstract painting and ’60s Minimalist sculpture. In Black Planet (all works 1988) he recalls, in almost parodic fashion, the grim, mute gigantism of Richard Serra’s and Robert Morris’ sculptures, transforming them into a stage set for science fiction atrocity. The piece consists of a steel section of a sphere with a tangled stream of rubber guts spilling through a hole in its side, the result being a delirious image of postindustrial wreckage and menace. In A House Divided (Re-Enactor), Longo recalls another Modernist icon, Barnett Newman; the work’s vast color field bisected by a red stripe alludes to Newman’s famous “zip” paintings. But the luminous surface of the original has been replaced by the dull opacity of Longo’s dark-blue wool felt on aluminum. Similarly, the “zip,” which Newman so self-consciously strove to imbue with transcendental meaning, is here strategically interrupted in dead center by a steel square offering a pallid, slightly distorted reflection of the viewer. Longo converts transcendental aspirations into a weary solipsism, ironically reflecting the failure of late-Modernist hyperbole.

In these works Longo uproots Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism from their historical contexts and ideologies, reinscribing their manifest and latent contents within his own representations of urban alienation, technology, and violence. Such collisions of context echo the collisions of imagery in his prior work. By comparison, much of the remaining work here looks flimsy, even irrelevant. With Dumb Running (The Theory of the Brake), Longo proffers pure spectacle. A grid of 20 gold-leafed cylinders alternately spins in place, slows down, and stops—that’s all. Whereas Longo previously managed to evoke multivalent context, while almost sadistically withholding univocal sense, pieces such as this extend only the merest suggestion of sense without generating any real tension. Even if much of the new work seems inert and passive when compared to the vertiginous and unnerving alliances of sense and nonsense in the earlier work, the artist is still to be commended for rejecting familiar formulas. Despite its shortcomings, this show remains intriguing, particularly in its manipulations of the phantasmal imagery of earlier abstraction.

David Rimanelli