New York

Robert Longo

Metro Pictures

In Robert Longo’s recent exhibition, the penis reasserted itself with a vengeance. We were introduced to his recent work by a granite tombstone inscribed with the title “Bodyhammers: Cult of the Gun.” On the left side of the gallery, hung four, larger-than-life-size, identically framed drawings of handguns, their business ends pointing straight out at the viewer. These drawings—made in the artist’s familiar method of projecting photographs onto paper, tracing the outlines and filling them in—were at once highly realistic and decidedly abstract. With their clean lines, elegant curves, and proportions, they are representative of merely one stop in an endless chain of high-tech industrial design. Yet the fact that they were of guns rather than cellular phones or electronic organizers is what supposedly gave these drawings their aura of chic danger. Every facet of this work—from media to composition to presentation—seemed designed to shout out its affinity to the artists earlier “Men in the Cities,” series, and the exhibition appeared to be dedicated to the proposition that lightning can strike twice.

For better or for worse, “Men in the Cities” was a perfect congruence of art with its time. Film-noir stills in ’80s power garb, these life-size figures assumed impossibly distorted positions of twisting, turning, or falling. Via the ambiguity of the subjects’ distress, Longo asked whether it mattered if they were victims of gunshots or other random violence or merely writhing from the pain of being forced to take meeting. Endlessly and obsessively reproduced, they represented the ultimate triumph of the institutionalized self, a human being as corporate logo—not “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” but man as the Sears Tower. The idea of an individual crushed by a system of unseen forces is hardly novel, but Longo’s innovation was that it could actually be quite glamorous.

And it is glamour that Longo continues to promise. He sees himself as a modern-day impresario, silkscreening his collaborators names on the wall like the credits at the end of a movie. The collective effort in “Bodyhammers” produces work characterized by enormous size, coolness, a precise and detached drawing style, and beautiful frames. The drawing of a machine pistol captured from below, its massive barrel saluting straight up toward the right, would warm Leni Riefenstahl’s heart. Downstairs a monumental sphere, made up of over twenty-thousand bullets (the number of Americans killed by handguns every year) and suspended from the ceiling, was a disco/wrecking ball for an end-of-the-world dance, and a magnificent object. These works tell us nothing about violence or crime or their underlying causes, nor are they meant to, rather they seek to implicate us through our acknowledgment of their sexiness—their power to simultaneously seduce and intimidate.

With all their self-consciously empty flash, the question lingering over these works remains, who were they made for? While “Men in the Cities” was ideally positioned to capitalize on the shift in art buyers from old money, and those seeking to emulate it, to the speculative Men of the City (or Street) that characterized the ’80s, one wonders at the intended audience for “Bodyhammers.” Possibly Longo has presciently identified that the future lies with the last of the true free-marketeers whose up-to-the-minute fashion conceals one of these polished beauties.

Andrew Perchuk