Robert Longo is an American painter and sculptor who rose to fame in the 1980s, and became known as a leading protagonist of the “Pictures Generation.”
He engages with history through his art, using various mediums to produce work that makes provocative critiques on capitalism, war and other world events. Themes of power, protest, futility, destruction and aggression join to form a searing portrait of our time, predominantly through the lens of American media.
Famously, the fictional Patrick Bateman chose to invest in Robert Longo art. A piece from Longo’s ‘Men in the Cities’ series, which depicted sharply dressed men and women writhing in contorted emotion, was prominently displayed in the film American Psycho.
During recent years, a growing audience has been looking to buy Robert Longo art too, which has experienced a sharp rise in auction prices as a result. In 2013, a three-part work from Men in the Cities sold for US$674,500 at Sotheby’s New York, while a charcoal drawing sold for US$1,575,000 at Christie’s New York. Most recently, his huge sculpture ‘Death Star II,’ created using tens of thousands of bullets, sold at Art Basel 2018 for US$1.5 million.
Robert Longo was born in 1953 in Brooklyn and grew up in Long Island, New York. He graduated high school in 1970, the same year as the Kent State University Massacre in Ohio and nationwide student demonstrations against the US invasion of Cambodia, both of which
inspired Longo to become involved in political protest.
In 1972, Longo received a grant to study restoration and art history in Florence. He soon discovered that he wanted to make art rather than preserve it, but while in Europe he closely studied both Old and Modern Masters to understand his relationship to art history, a pursuit that remains important to the artist to this day.
Roberto Longo then enrolled as an art student at the State University College in Buffalo, where he worked under the experimental filmmakers Paul Sharits and Hollis Frampton. During this time, Longo co-founded the exhibition space Hallwalls, where he organised shows and talks with artists such as Vito Acconci, John Baldessari, Lynda Benglis, Robert Irwin, Joan Jonas, Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra, establishing a network that proved seminal to his development and beginning his life-long friendship with Cindy Sherman.
Longo moved to New York in 1977, and participated in a five-person show entitled Pictures, thought to be the first exhibition to contextualise the the “Pictures Generation,” a young group of artists who were turning away from Minimalism and Conceptualism and towards image-making, inspired by newspapers, advertisements, film and television.
Over the next decade, Robert Longo became known as this group’s leading protagonist, and used drawing, photography, painting, sculpture, performance, and film to make provocative critiques of the anaesthetizing and seductive effects of capitalism, media, war and the cult of history in the US.
Longo has been represented by Metro Pictures—the first New York commercial gallery to establish a market for the Pictures Generation artists—since they opened in 1980. However, he also remained involved in underground culture, initiating performances, collaborating with bands, contributing to alternative magazines and programming non-profit spaces.
Following his fascination with moving images, Longo produced several commercial music videos in 1980s, including New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ Megadeth’s ‘Peace Sells’ and ‘The One I Love’ by R.E.M. He also created artwork for the front covers of Glenn Branca’s The Ascension from 1981 and The Replacements’ 1985 album Tim.
Longo continues to explore themes of conflict, power and fear in the modern world. A series entitled The Freud Cycle depicted views of Sigmund Freud’s consultation room and apartment during the Nazi occupation of Vienna, which provided the counterbalance of
human reason to the oceans’ untameable nature.
Subsequently Longo produced parallel series of bombs, sharks, planets, nebula, sleeping children, and roses—images of what he calls “absolutes” — that together embody the collective unconscious.
Racial tensions across the US, war in the middle east, the Occupy Wall Street movement, Black Lives Matter protests, the European refugee crisis, terrorist attacks and man’s impact on the environment all contribute to Longo’s recent series entitled The Destroyer Cycle.
Since 2015 he has embarked on a series entitled Hungry Ghosts, drawings based on X-rays of famous paintings from transparencies kept by museum conservation departments. Through these, Longo looks to render the “truth” of an image beyond its surface appearance and hone his inquiry into revealing invisible layers of meaning.
“Art is an attempt to try and understand our own contemporary situation through making images that are completely personal, while also addressing our social context” – Robert Longo