New York

Robert Longo

Metro Pictures

Robert Longo is the second New York artist I know of (the other being Nancy Chunn) to have lately submitted himself to the same monklike task: the creation of one artwork a day, every day, for a year. Such self-imposed observances evoke a certain rigor and piety that seem novel in the case of Longo, a splashy ’80s art star. As drawings in grisaille—in charcoal, graphite, chalk, and marker on semi-translucent vellum—the works are also modest and grave in palette, and each of them being around two feet in its longest dimension, they are small in size for this artist, who often works at scale and in relief. Thomas Kellein, who wrote the essay for the project’s catalogue, accordingly finds in them an “intimacy” that he attributes to Longo’s “returning to handcrafting in a domestic environment” after the intense collaboration of directing a movie. Since that movie, Johnny Mnemonic, was reviewed quite unfavorably in general, there may also have been an effort to rethink and recoup.

But 366 pieces (1996 was a leap year) are a lot of pieces, and in completely filling the gallery’s two large rooms with drawings floor to ceiling, Longo still managed to produce the somewhat overbearing visual quality characteristic of him. Intimate this wasn’t, not really. Also, where the idea of the daily devotion once implied some kind of interior and meditative practice, Longo’s pictures are translations into rich but severe black and white of images almost entirely from the mass media. Sports, news, the movies, rock, even sometimes art (a Cindy Sherman “film still,” Ellsworth Kelly paintings at the Guggenheim): these Longo gives us as his world. (The works’ collective title, Magellan, suggests a circumnavigation and charting of the globe.) Since the images arc so public, though, the boundary between his world and ours is made purposefully indistinct: it is as if we all had the same mind. The few images of his family are a tiny minority (and anyway his wife is a recognizable film actress). Occasional natural forms—an orchid, a tropical fish—might seem to offer respite from the media terrain, but they surely originate in National Geographic and such. And suppose Longo had drawn that fish from life, acting like a National Geographic photographer, but in a different medium: In a rhetoric of the unrestricted circulation of images, how different, really, would that have been?

If Magellan, in its calendrical aspect, resembles Chunn’s daily-newspaper works (Longo, though, was less disciplined than Chunn; his year of drawings, Kellein writes, actually took fourteen months), it also recalls recent encyclopedic projects such as the hundreds of panels from Gerhard Richter’s Atlas that were on view at Dia, or Douglas Blau’s installations of found photographs. But Blau’s thumb-in-mouth amalgamations are flabby and lazy by comparison. The seductiveness of Longo’s works was not too percent convincing—the surfaces and contrasts of even just competent charcoal drawing offer an easy return on the dollar, and the consistent framing device of a white rectangle of tape marks was in the end, I think, a revealingly arty affectation—but even so this show registered an engrossing contradiction. Public images like these—from Elvis to Marilyn Manson, from the Kennedy brothers to Batman, from the Coca-Cola logo to the poster photo for The English Patient to a bank of skulls in Cambodia—are endless in supply, infinitely replaceable, all different yet all equal in status, and so in a way anonymous; yet they still have real iconic pull, which the artist heightened by his framing and his lush but mortuary palette. There are reasons for such images’ authority and ubiquity. And so perhaps Longo does share something, after all, with the old monks and their schedules of daily tasks: the one facing the media, the other facing God, both invoke a routine of hypnotic repetition to cope with the most powerful force in their world.

David Frankel