Los Angeles

Robert Longo

Linda Cathcart Gallery

Robert Longo’s “Black Flags” operate on the viewer like black holes. At first glance these objects are sullen, indecipherable, and opaque. On closer inspection, however, they reveal themselves as references to flags that seem to have been freeze-framed as they flap in the wind; they appear soft, as if indeed made of canvas, and the stars, stripes, and stitching are all discernible. In point of fact, each work consists of a bronze cast, made by the lost wax method, of a genuine American flag.

Though these works seem to collapse inward both literally and textually, they are, nonetheless, freighted with narrative implications. Each vortex in these pieces operates like a tractor beam on the imagination. The associations to Jasper Johns’ flag paintings are inescapable, in particular to the epochal White Flag, 1955. In the monochromatic flags Johns happened on the device of giving subject and ground esthetic parity. By subsuming the subject matter in the materiality of the painting, Johns himself asserted that he had extended the surface of the painting “beyond the subject matter.” This collapsing of type into token constituted a genuine breakthrough in how to think about signification. Longo is at play in the same fields, but he has advanced Johns’ argument into a sort of non-Euclidean netherworld in which the artwork oscillates between two and three dimensions. In the process, the object “depicted” (e.g. the flag) literally disappears into the object created (i.e., the “Black Flag”).

This gesture also represents an advance in synthesizing a number of the artist’s longstanding concerns. Longo’s project has sparked an ongoing debate about strategies of pictorial representation. Douglas Crimp was the first to theorize this work in a catalogue essay for an exhibition entitled “Pictures,” which he curated at Artists Space, in New York City, in 1977. There he referred to Longo’s “spiral of fragmentation,” directing the viewer to the metagrammar that animated the artist’s work from that era. In other words, he directed our attention to how the viewer is called on to supply meaning to culturally codified images that have been deprived of their narrative context. At the opposite end of the critical spectrum, Longo himself has insisted that his work “forces interpretation.” Along this spectrum are various models of representation, ranging from allegory, to picture, to spectacle, and this new work operates on all of these levels at once via the literal collision of image and meaning.

Longo’s earlier work dealt with power, authority, and alienation. In chronological order, he has offered recurrent images of tanks, men locked in physical combat, alien samurai cyberpunks, and civil war. It is through their absence, now, that we discern the range of Longo’s concerns in stately regress. John Howell wrote in 1985 that Longo’s pieces “are so packed with meaning that they implode”; in this show we get a sense of what that might literally mean. Each flag is a compact, dark opera about completely fungible heroes, who are off-stage throughout the action.

Dean Rolston