On the same night that Robert Longo opened two concurrent solo exhibitions at Metro Pictures and Petzel Gallery in New York, Pace Gallery opened a show of recent work by James Franco. The heartthrob actor restaged and reshot Cindy Sherman’s breakthrough Untitled Film Stills, recasting himself throughout in the role of Cindy Sherman. Using similar appropriation strategies to the so-called Pictures Generation (of whom Longo and Sherman are original members) Franco made a body of work so bankrupt, so enervated, that it’s quite difficult to be in the same room with them. I can’t believe Pace hung this show.
It sounds like I’m outraged, but I’m not. The operating principles of the Pictures Generation have always been, for me, a seriously suspicious set of propositions. A show that fails as dramatically as Franco’s only tends to bolster and confirm my convictions about the flimsiness of the theoretical underpinnings of appropriation and the various critiques it espouses. I felt vindicated.
But what am I to do and feel before a show that uses the exact same approach, but with a result that is a lush, visual feast? At his Metro Pictures exhibition entitled Gang of Cosmos, Robert Longo showed meticulous, large-scale photo-realist charcoal copies of some of the high-water marks of Abstract Expressionism. When I e-mailed my editor at abstract critical to tell him I’d like to cover the show, his response was “They sound awful.” I couldn’t agree more! It sounds like it would be just as abysmal as the Pace show! But it’s not – the pictures are exquisite.
Spoiler Alert: This essay does not conclude with a wholesale endorsement or rejection of the Longo drawings – it’s an essay about profound ambivalence. This may be interpreted as vacillating criticism, or worse still, like I’m asking the reader to act as my therapist, listening patiently as I work my way through conflicting emotions. But here’s the point: When a group of pictures affects one so viscerally that they challenge some of the deeper convictions one holds about art-making, they certainly bear further analysis. Isn’t this one of the higher goals to which the artist aspires?
A more detailed description of the drawings’ facture is in order, for two reasons. First, reproductions of these pictures, in print or on the internet, are simply going to look like black and white photographs of the paintings upon which they’re based. The magical nuances that I found so seductive, along with the scale, will be completely lost. Indeed, people who don’t see the show in person will almost necessarily wonder what I’m going on about. And secondly, art that starts from a theoretical or critique-driven standpoint is rarely this visually satisfying; some hard-core post-modernists might argue that those two poles are in fact mutually exclusive. My judgment of pictures begins and ends with how they look, and these looked marvelous.
The paper is bright white with a smooth, matte surface, and the sheets are all very large and seamless. The sizes do not precisely match the paintings that they depict – the de Kooning Woman is smaller in real life and the Pollock larger. The application of the charcoal ranges from the most delicate greys to the deepest, velvety blacks, and the latter bears further comment. The blacks are nuanced and varied in a manner that one would associate with paint, in which the addition of the tiniest amounts of white, or red, or blue, or sienna will yield a range of colors, all of which would still be described as black. Manet and Velazquez are among the great masters of this approach to black, as is Ad Reinhardt, who is represented in the show. There are no pigments or colored chalks added to Longo’s charcoal – he simulates this broad variety solely with the pressure and direction of his application, and the effect is particularly astonishing in the copy of Robert Motherwell’s Elegy.
The paint application from each source picture is miraculously simulated, from Helen Frankenthaler’s washes, to Pollock’s drips, to de Koonings slashes, to Norman Lewis’ dry-brushed calligraphy. And unlike photorealist painting, in which the illusion tends to break down upon very close examination, Longo’s depictions of paint continue to function even after you’re close enough to see clearly that you’re looking at charcoal. There isn’t a speck of charcoal dust on the pictures’ surfaces, nor a single fingerprint.
I’m sure you can tell at this point the extent to which I relished these drawings – but here’s where the conflicts begin. One of the things that made them great was that the pictures that they were based on were great (except for the Norman Lewis) and not by any invention of Longo’s. Another aspect of their impact was the “how-the-hell-did-he-do-this?” factor – something tantamount to a big budget Las Vegas magic act. And as I stated at the onset, the appropriation mentality is something I never really bought into. Its defenders and exponents would say that it’s critiquing some of the most sacred cows of western art: originality, authorship, genius, masterpieces, inspiration, and so on. But it can just as easily be used as a kind of fig leaf to cover over what is in fact exhaustion and decay, as evidenced by James Franco’s utterly depressing presentation.
In spite of these reservations, I’ve always believed that the best art creates its own argument – if you set up a podium next to a strong work and deliver a theoretical disquisition as to why it’s not valid, the art, although mute, will win and you’ll just wind up looking silly. This was certainly my experience with the Longo drawings – my objections just seemed strident while I was in the gallery, and only gained strength after I was away from the pictures. I still maintain that the objections are real nonetheless.
The two large pieces at the second Longo show at Petzel Gallery shed some light on the argument. The main piece was a seven-panel charcoal drawing of the capitol building in Washington, DC. It was ten feet tall, and nearly 38 feet across. The facture and technique were identical to the Ab Ex copies (although curiously, the capitol drawing was under glass while the copied paintings were not). Without all the theoretical and historical baggage associated with appropriation, I was able to enjoy this massive drawing without condition or reservation – the depiction of the night sky and the subtle highlights on the marble dome were especially satisfying. It’s also worth noting that I saw this one prior to going over to the Metro Pictures show. The second piece was a huge, three-dimensional flag that looked conspicuously like Johns, but in a scale and color in keeping with Serra. The bottom was cut at an angle to create the illusion that it was sinking into the floor, and to underscore this it was called Untitled (The Pequod). It wasn’t as awful as the James Franco work, but it was really dumb.
And what is to be gained from a critical perspective by triangulating the Ab Ex copies, the Capitol and the Pequod? The drawings, no matter the subject, are incredibly compelling – I defy anyone, expert or laymen, to be in the same room with them and deny their presence. In terms of the copied works, however, provision must be made for the knotty issue of quality, and this will probably be harder to swallow for the defenders of appropriation than its detractors. In post-modern terms, quality is simply an arbitrary criteria advanced and enforced by those in power – the very act of appropriation is a challenge to those standards. But the flag was not compelling conceptually or visually. Its huge scale gave it an initial impact, but ultimately only served to amplify its failings. Politically, it was simple-minded to the point of childishness. The Ab Ex cycle, on the other hand, was a visual tour-de-force as well as thought-provoking – it was in fact thought-provoking because it was so visually impressive.
I was seduced by Gang of Cosmos, but still harbor reservations about the whole enterprise. I hate to close on such a mealy-mouthed note, though, so here is a more definitive accolade: For more than a century, western art has been critiquing itself in earnest, from Duchamp’s ready-mades, through Greenberg’s immanent Kantian critique, through Pop’s questioning of high vs. low, through post-modernism, post-structuralism, feminism, appropriation and on and on. Critique is now a conventional, institutionalized gesture – it’s welcomed in the big journals, shown at the big galleries and museums, taught at the big schools, and advanced by star curators. As such, it’s become a kind of mannerism, a toothless tiger. I’ve long been of the opinion that we’re well past the historical point that an artistic critique could still pose any genuinely difficult questions, but the Longo Ab Ex drawings do just that and look terrific while doing it. That’s got to count for something, no?
Paul Corio, New York City, April, 2014