New York

Robert Longo

Metro Pictures

Robert Longo’s “Freud Drawings,” 2000, don’t quite have the suave elegance of his 1978–83 “Men in the Cities” series, for which he is best known. The large black-and-white format and charcoal-and-graphite medium are the same, but the stark contrasts here seem more forced. One can’t help but wonder if Longo is trying too hard to revisit the scene of an earlier success. Nevertheless, these drawings do have a certain authority, attributable partly to their reference to Freud but also to their “defeat” of the documentary photographs that are their point of departure.

Edmund Engelman photographed in great detail Freud’s office and residence at Berggasse 19 in Vienna in 1938, days before the Nazis allowed the psychoanalyst to leave for London. While Engelman’s images are crisp, clear, and readily readable, Longo’s drawings are murky, enigmatic, and melodramatic—a menacing hyperbole of black-and-white extremes that almost overwhelms the scene. Exaggeratedly white objects (e.g., the pillow on Freud’s couch) loom out of tenebristic darkness: elsewhere, black and white intertwine in a deviously decorative Rorschach-like design, as in the triptych enlarging three details of the carpet that covered the famous couch. The overall effect is hallucinatory: The drawing of the barricaded entrance to Freud’s office looks macabre; and the drawing with the Nazi insignia seems utterly unreal, no doubt in part because it belongs to a past we still find hard to believe happened.

In Longo’s drawings, the blackness that one expects to serve as a source of negation instead brings the past to expressive, mournful, monumental life. What should be entropic becomes evocative. Longo’s blackness reflects a bleak omnipresent and omnipotent silence—a profoundly funereal ineffability that bespeaks the holocaust and the barbarism that began in earnest in the year of Freud’s exile. Longo’s black is as subtle as Pierre Soulages’s, as psychomoral as Anselm Kiefer’s, and altogether more meaningful than Richard Serra’s. (It is worth noting that the work of all four artists contradicts Henri Matisse’s belief that black is just another color as well as Ad Reinhardt’s association of black with transcendence.)

But Longo’s blackness does more than commemorate the nightmarish meeting of psychoanalysis, which has exposed the persistence of human destructiveness, and Nazism, which took that destructiveness to its limit: It is the blackness of the unconscious, persisting even in the moments of luminous lucidity in Longo’s drawings. Freud once compared consciousness to a flash of light scanning the dark sky of the unconscious, and this transient illumination in the midst of the darkness we are to ourselves is what Longo presents. Can the drawings also be said to stand for the current attack on psychoanalysis, the new attempts to repress its findings, mostly by literati and philosophers who think consciousness is all and who have a one-dimensional idea of science? I think so: Intentional or not, Longo’s drawings are a warning against the new intellectual fascism.

Donald Kuspit