Robert Longo

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen

Robert Longo, 2014 Untitled (Archangel) Charcoal on mounted paper 92.75x70 inches (235.6x177.8 cm) 2014
 

Robert Longo, 2014 Untitled (Archangel)
Charcoal on mounted paper 92.75×70 inches (235.6×177.8 cm) 2014


 

“Art should have a balance between what is socially relevant and highly personal”
 

Mart Engelen: A lot of your work is in black-and-white. How come?
Robert Longo: Well, when I was young, most images when they first came out were seen as black-and-white. As a kid, I saw them as black-and-white photographs.
ME: So the reproductions of the paintings of Pollock were in black-and-white.
RL: Yes, because everything—like newspapers, etc—was published in black-and-white. But the thing is they are in black-and-white but the black-and-white is not the arbitrariness of photography. When you take a photograph and it’s developed, the chemicals basically tell you what’s going to be black and white. So what’s interesting, in a painting, is to transform the colours into black and white. I worked from colour photographs. So basically I translated the colours myself.
ME: So we can say we have a new kind of ‘100 shades of grey’.
RL: Exactly. So these are representations of abstract images. It’s a bit of a mindfuck. It’s also kind of bizarre to make drawings of paintings. How long does it take to paint a brushstroke in comparison to draw a brushstroke?
ME: How long did it take to create After the Kooning?
RL: A f… long time. This whole show took over maybe two years.
ME: So you started all this just after the God Machines?
RL: Well, there was also some other stuff going on. Interesting is that I don’t know how it happens but I don’t want it to be like this. But somehow my work has led me to two things: religion and politics. Somewhere in between there is sex. But they both fuck you (ha-ha).
ME: What I see in particular is the power of religion and politics.
RL: Yes, because power is the last taboo. In America, you don’t want to talk about people’s desire for power. It seems to be a taboo. But when you read about all these rich guys who give millions of dollars to political candidates; it’s about power. In Europe you can’t talk about power because it’s something about, or refers to, the Nazis.
ME: But I think we talk about that in Europe. Sometimes people even say: you f… Nazi.
RL: It’s true . There was, by the way, a French writer called Alexis de Tocqueville who came to the United States in the 1830s to write a book about America. It’s amazing how much he got right about the American psyche. He said it’s a country of individuals that very much want to be part of a team. They want individuality but at the same time they like to repress freedom to be part of the group. After all these years, I start to realise that America is truly different than every other country in the world. Because it’s the only country that is not really based on a tribe or religion. So America is really based on a sports team. And what’s the goal of a sports team? To win, of course. Americans are so insanely competitive. When 9/11 happened, the way America responded was like: the Arabs scored a goal, now we have to win the game. On the one hand, the idea of a team has been great because it makes everyone kind of equal in a weird way. But at the same time the purpose of it is to win. And life—it’s not about winning. There is, by the way, this writer, Robert Kagan, who wrote a book called Dangerous Nation; he is the man who created the idea of American exceptionalism. Which is really f… up. Basically the idea is that God created America to lead the world.
ME: But I think that even Americans realise now that the American dream is over.
RL: No.
ME: No? They still think the American dream is alive?
RL: Always. What is really amazing is that you have religions that oppress people, then you have governments who oppress people with might and force. But the way America oppresses people is with a dream. Because what it is, is a lot of lower class, mostly white
people, not black people, who don’t go along with taxing the rich. The reason is that they think that one day they will get rich. But they will never be rich. The idea that they oppress these people with a dream—it’s brilliant!
ME: Back to art. You hear a lot now about LA’s booming art scene. They say LA is back on the map. What do you think?
RL: They always say that. I actually don’t know; I am in my studio. But it was really sad when Mike Kelley died. He never seemed a West Coast artist to me but he was definitely the best West Coast artist. The art world is so global right now and there are so many artists. The problem is that I wouldn’t want to be a young artist now. A part of the problem is …. There is a great movie called Painters Painting. It’s a documentary by Emile de Antonio. Did you ever see it?
ME: No.
RL: You have to see it. In this documentary you will see interviews with painters, all American painters or European painters who lived in America; abstract expressionists, pop artists, post-pop artists. When you listen well, all these artists are talking about what they are reacting to. The abstract expressionists were reacting to European art, the pop artists were reacting to the abstract expressionists, etc. I also think that art should have a balance between what is socially relevant and highly personal. Between these two things is really good. If you go too much this way, it becomes bombastic and if you go too much the other way it becomes narcissistic. The most important thing is that I asked young artists who worked for me if they had seen this documentary. They hadn’t. So one day at lunchtime we all watched it and I asked them, “What are you reacting to?” And they were like, “I don’t know”. It wasn’t like boom like that. One person said, “A lot of people are reacting to the art world.” It seemed really awful. So this also says something about the conditions that exist in the art world. The problem is that there are so many artists, it’s so pluralistic. You would think there would be some radical reaction like my generation’s, but that’s not the case. Another problem is also that it costs so much money to live in New York.
ME: After seeing your show God Machines and now seeing your latest work, can we say that you make political statements through your art?
RL: Well, making art is political in its nature.
ME: But there are so many artists who don’t make statements through their art anymore. What do you think?
RL: One of the guys who was in my abstract expressionist show was a black artist called Norman Lewis. When he first emerged he was a real star, he got a lot of awards in the beginning, I think because he was black actually. He said that he had come to the conclusion that you can’t make political art; it’s just not worth it. He was saying this in a way because he was caught at one point: he was sure he should make afro-centric art. Then political art. And then he realised that all these ideas failed.
ME: Is there a difference between the statement “making political art” and “I make art which possibly has a political meaning”?
RL: That’s exactly what I was going to say. I don’t want to make political art. Read the newspapers or watch TV. That’s always when I think about Rembrandt or Caravaggio, not that I am comparing myself with these guys. They are, like, my teachers. You look at their art and their art tells you about what life was like at the time. And I think as an artist that’s your job. This is what it’s like to be alive now. I think that collectively my work is a self-portrait of my psyche being an American alive now. I can’t avoid this shit.
ME: Are you, by the way, busy with new projects in your mind?
RL: Hmm, yes. But the two big shows I just did were such a psychic effort. It was like I spent the time building this incredible car which was really going to be fast. And I got in it, went really fast and drove it into a brick wall! (ha-ha)
ME: Ha-ha
RL: After it was over I thought what do I do now? I was completely confused and lost. Then I had a rough couple of months. I am old enough to know that every time I do this, it happens all the time. But the problem, every time I do it, is that the depression gets deeper and deeper. You know when Robin Williams killed himself, I completely understood why he turned the lightbulb off. When you go to sleep at night it’s like dying a little bit. I would like to know how it’s like not to dream. Just like turning the TV off.
ME: Are you able to take a break?
RL: It’s kind of hard. I took a little break and went to the beach. But what comes up to me now, by the way: one of the inventors of photography, Henry Fox Talbot—he called photography drawing with light. That also made a connection for me towards my own work.
My work is based on photography because it’s like drawing with light. It also reminded me of the miraculous haunting quality of photography. As a little kid I remember looking at pictures that just haunt me to this day. My youngest son asked me four or five years ago—he
was in art class at the time—what my style was. I said I don’t think I really have a style. I think that it’s somewhere in between traditional representation and modernist abstraction; I exist maybe in the middle. He said to me, “What you want to do is when someone sees a black-and-white photograph they think of your work: you want to own black-and-white”. He realized what kind of evil maniac I was. I think black-and-white is the truth. But then recently this summer, my kid said something that blew me away when I was thinking of changing what I was doing. He said to me, “Who is that artist Roy Lichtenberg?” He meant of course Roy Lichtenstein. He said, “What Roy Lichtenstein is to comic books, you are to photography”. Which was like “Wow!” But although my work is based on photography, I try to alter the pictures as much as possible to make them the way I want them to be. There is a photographic quality I want but my drawings can’t look like photographs and they can’t look like drawings. If they are too drawn they are failures and if they are too photorealistic they are wrong too.
ME: Are you optimistic about the future?
RL: I have three sons. I am not sure if I have to teach them to build houses or to shoot guns. The situation in the USA is as it is in the world. I think about the US because I do think the United States has by nature a degree of hope that’s different than the rest of the world. But the problem is that the evolution of the US has gotten so distorted. So I don’t know how they are going to fix it.
 
—Copyright 2015 Mart Engelen
 
 

Robert Longo in his studio, New York 2014
 

Robert Longo in his studio, New York 2014

 
 

Robert Longo 2014 Image of artwork in progress: Untitled (Ferguson Police, August 13, 2014), Diptych Charcoal on mounted paper 218.4 x 304.8 cm (overall)
 

Robert Longo 2014 Image of artwork in progress: Untitled (Ferguson Police, August 13, 2014), Diptych Charcoal on mounted paper 218.4 x 304.8 cm (overall)