Abstract Critical

Robert Longo at Metro Pictures

Written by Paul Corio

After Reinhardt (Abstract Painting, 1963), 2014, Charcoal on mounted paper, Image Dimensions: 60 x 60 inches, 152.4 x 152.4 cm, Final Framed Dimensions: 64 3/16 x 64 3/16 x 4 7/8 inches, 163 x 163 x 12.4 cm

After Reinhardt (Abstract Painting, 1963), 2014, Charcoal on mounted paper, Image Dimensions: 60 x 60 inches, 152.4 x 152.4 cm, Final Framed Dimensions: 64 3/16 x 64 3/16 x 4 7/8 inches, 163 x 163 x 12.4 cm

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.

RL D-1393

After Pollock (Autumn 2013 Rhythm, Number 30, 1951), 2014, Charcoal on mounted paper, Image Dimensions: 91 1/4 x 180 inches, 231.8 x 457.2 cm, Final Framed Dimensions: 96 13/16 x 185 9/16 x 6 1/8 inches, 245.9 x 471.3 x 15.6 cm

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.

After Krasner (Birth, 1956), 2014, Charcoal on mounted paper, Image Dimensions: 103 1/8 x 60 inches, 261.9 x 152.4 cm, Final Framed Dimensions: 107 5/16 x 64 3/16 x 4 7/8 inches, 272.6 x 163 x 12.4 cm

After Krasner (Birth, 1956), 2014, Charcoal on mounted paper, Image Dimensions: 103 1/8 x 60 inches, 261.9 x 152.4 cm, Final Framed Dimensions: 107 5/16 x 64 3/16 x 4 7/8 inches, 272.6 x 163 x 12.4 cm

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.

After Frankenthaler (Mountains and Sea, 1952), 2014, Charcoal on mounted paper, Image Dimensions: 70 x 95 inches, 177.8 x 241.3 cm, Final Framed, Dimensions: 74 3/16 x 99, 3/16 x 4 7/8 inches, 188.4 x 251.9 x 12.4 cm

After Frankenthaler (Mountains and Sea, 1952), 2014, Charcoal on mounted paper, Image Dimensions: 70 x 95 inches, 177.8 x 241.3 cm, Final Framed, Dimensions: 74 3/16 x 99, 3/16 x 4 7/8 inches, 188.4 x 251.9 x 12.4 cm

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.

Robert Longo, Untitled (Capitol),  2012-2013, charcoal on mounted paper, 120 x 450 inches, 304.8 x 1143 cm

Robert Longo, Untitled (Capitol), 2012-2013, charcoal on mounted paper, 120 x 450 inches, 304.8 x 1143 cm

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.

Robert Longo, Untitled (The Pequod), 2014, steel, wood, wax and pigment, 207 x 192 x 12 inches, 525.8 x 487.7 x 30.5 cm

Robert Longo, Untitled (The Pequod), 2014, steel, wood, wax and pigment, 207 x 192 x 12 inches, 525.8 x 487.7 x 30.5 cm

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

 

Robert Longo is on at Petzel until the 10th of May and at Metro Pictures until the 23th of May. If you’d like to go, James Franco is on at Pace Gallery until the the 3rd of May.

  1. robie said…

    It more art as spectical.

  2. Paul Corio said…

    John:

    It’s funny you should mention the Pei Shen Qian case – right before I filed, my wife suggested I add that into the article to further muddy the already muddy waters. But I think the difference between those and the Longo’s is not simply the change of intention – the change of medium, change of scale, and especially the reduction to black and white make them quite different. More specifically, they don’t look like they were copied from the paintings, but from black and white photographs of the paintings.

    As I stated in my piece, I’m no supporter of appropriation – my natural inclination is to strongly agree with your conclusion about gesture vs. result. But standing in front of the drawings I felt overwhelmingly different. This is why I chose to cover this show – it really took me out of my comfort zone.

    Evan:

    Good call about Stella. The pictures Longo chose generally came off a little better if the source picture was drawing-driven (Pollock, de Kooning, Motherwell, Kline), and the ones that were color-driven (Rothko, Newman) didn’t translate quite as well. I think this is the reason the Norman Lewis copy looked so good – in real life, I don’t care about his paintings much.

    Robin:

    Agreed, I let my subscription lapse years ago.

    Christian:

    I must say that for me, Sherrie Levine has always been the poster child for the absolute failure of appropriation. When in my piece I talk about my mistrust for the whole enterprise, I’m thinking about her work – I find it utterly academic and depressing. She has a new show at Paula Cooper, and this is from the press release:

    “The question of an endgame, so central to any account of modernism, is raised anew in Levine’s exhibition, which extends her investigation into the movement’s foundational myths and repressed memories.”

    Honestly? Still prosecuting a sour, pinched critique of modernism all these years later? It wasn’t compelling to begin with and it’s not aging well.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      OK, but why continue to stir this crock of shit. Why not let it settle, so the water starts to clear a little. It is after all – and no matter that you were amazed by these drawings – at heart a cynical money-making excercise. It certainly has no connection with attempts to understand and improve abstract painting and sculpture. We should ignore this crap; though if we are to listen to the likes of you and Mark Stone it would seem that we have to pay it all the most profound attention and take it all on board. There is no good reason to.

      • Sam said…

        Not sure what Mark Stone has got to do with this article? I wasn’t aware we were dividing into teams! (though I agree, more or less, with the evaluation of Longo).

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Isn’t Longo’s work another of Mark’s abstractions, all of which we have to be influenced by in our work which reflects modern life?

        BTW, your bit in brackets is an own goal for your side.

      • Paul Corio said…

        But pretending that the last fifty years didn’t happen and that the Longo show doesn’t exist doesn’t really seem like a productive response either. Abstraction is in the midst of an unprecedented renewal (at least in NYC). It would be naive to think that we could just pick up from where color field left off and carry on as though nothing happened.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Great. Let’s hear more about the unprecedented renewal of abstraction in NYC. Is Longo part of that, or not? Surely not? So what is?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        …and, not to put too fine a point on it, aren’t you the one who is naively carring on from… well, 60′s Op Art(?) as if nothing had happened?

    • Paul Corio said…

      True, Longo isn’t exactly part of abstraction’s renewal – but the fact that he chose those pictures, to me, is a strong sign of the sea-change. He’s savvy if nothing else. It’s a sea change that everyone in NYC has noticed and are talking about.

      As I indicated in my piece, I also think it’s worth noting that there are other appropriation-style shows hanging right now: one is at Pace (abysmal), plus the recently opened Sherrie Levine at Cooper (dry, academic, dated). The distinction in quality between the Gang of Cosmos and those shows is in large measure attributable to the enduring power of those pictures. That plus the care taken in their execution communicates reverence as opposed to mockery or simple academic critique.

      But to go on to your other question (what are the defining characteristics of abstraction’s renewal in NYC?): It’s all so messy and recent that it’s a little tough to define, but in the broadest sense, I think there’s a lot of sifting happening. People are going through the canon and separating out what’s resonant and compelling from what was simply dogmatic (purity, non-referentiality, and the like). The visual aspects are winning out over the theoretical for sure. This means that you get a certain number of po-mo chimeras, but I’m also seeing some pretty compelling painting, even among the less developed work.

    • John Link said…

      Paul: It is certainly possible to experience a fraud aesthetically. Duchamp proved that. Likewise for those who buy fakes. So it goes with you. As a writer about art, your first obligation is to report your experience honestly. You have done that and I admire you for it. You are brave to let it all hang out the way you have.

      I would like to think the Longo show is a sign the art world is suddenly missing visual pleasure, but I don’t think so.

    • Paul Corio said…

      Robin:

      I’m nor seeing such a wave of sculpture, although there are some good sculptors around – I like Jim Osman, John Powers, and Richard Bottwin, all worth a Google search. I think one reason that sculpture is not burgeoning is that studio space is at a crisis point in New York. It’s getting more scarce and expensive all the time – and forget about storage. Sometimes the practical concerns can really get in the way.

      John:

      Thanks for the pat on the shoulder – I knew this piece was going to polarize opinion here, so I was ready to take a few lumps.

  3. James said…

    I too was kind of blown away when I first saw the show.

    Then found out that these drawings of master works were done by studio assistants. You know when you’re copying original work that was done by the actual artist, having it done by assistants and you’re calling it your own work? I find it vulgar and pointless. Pointless for every reason other than the golden market.

    I always thought Longo a boring equivalent of a one hit wonder ’80′s boy band. This show made me re-think his entire work. Then I find out he didn’t do them and it’s more like he’s still that one hit wonder but now he’s the record exec. Now it’s more boring than there are words for!

    • Paul Corio said…

      I’ve heard mixed reports on this – some say he made them top to bottom, others say otherwise. The jury’s still out on this.

  4. John Link said…

    A high tide floats a lot of boats. It does not change the essential nature of any boat so floated.

    Pei Shen Qian was recently indicted for creating forgeries of work by the same artists Longo copied. His forgeries were “lush” enough to convinced collectors they were the real thing. That did not change what they were, no did it alter the criminal nature of what Pei Shen Qian did.

    Likewise, the nature of Longo’s juvenile gestures are not changed by the lusciousness of his results.

  5. Evan Steenson said…

    My eyes crossed a little when I saw the advert in Artforum for Longo at Met Pictures and the accompanying photo appeared to be a Motherwell and a De Kooning. Witty appropriation on Longo’s part. The fact that he also did one of Reinhardt’s Black Paintings is flat out brilliant, bad pun intended. I would have enjoyed one of Stellas’ black stripe paintings in charcoal but now I’m just daydreaming.

  6. christian said…

    If it helps quell your ambivalence, remember that Sherrie Levine did this all before, and did it better. If her work is superior, then it’s because her project in toto displaces agency and works through a broad range of media that take color, scale, reference, and material to task in ways Robert Longo, always at heart a mere illustrator leaning on the crutch of his ‘gee whiz’ technique, seemingly cannot. In fact, Longo’s closest influence here aren’t the hardcore appropriationists like Levine, or Elaine Sturtevant before her. Anselm Keifer is Longo’s forebear, if not actual peer, and this display makes it obvious. The ‘architectural’ renderings at Petzel should have tipped you off.