[September 19 2017]
JETHRO TURNER – Hi Robert where are you now?
ROBERT LONGO – I’m in the gallery [Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac] right now.
JETHRO TURNER – Are you putting the final touches together?
ROBERT LONGO – Yes. It’s a bit of a behemoth this exhibition. It’s almost more like a museum show. It’s a real challenge because it’s a townhouse and it has some wonderful spaces but it also has all these peculiar nooks and crannies in it. It also has a lot of history, which is kind of interesting.
JETHRO TURNER – I think the last interview you did with Purple was with the late great Glenn O’Brien. And I saw in that that you model all your exhibitions out in little 3D models.
ROBERT LONGO – I do, yes. The drawings are so heavy (the small ones are maybe 200lbs and the big ones are like 700lbs) so you want to know where to hang the works so you don’t have to ask people to move it around.
JETHRO TURNER – Was that easy in this new space?
ROBERT LONGO – I think I’ve only made very minor changes. I mean, I’m an old timer these days. I’m a pro! It pretty much looks like how I planned it. You never know until you get here. I mean the lighting was challenging, but it’s working out pretty good. I was very excited about the show – it’s somewhat like part two of the show I did at Metro [Pictures]. It’s a continuation of these works that have an immediacy to them.
JETHRO TURNER – They seem very rooted in contemporary American identity.
ROBERT LONGO – That is largely what my work has always been about. As a young artist I emerged during the age of Reagan, and I hated Reagan. Reagan is basically the role model for Trump. Reagan said “let’s make America great again” and now we’re living in this time of this moron Trump, and I don’t want to seem like I’m being too opportunistic, but I have probably amplified the political aspect of the work because I’m incredibly sad and also incredibly angry. I’m living in a country with this moron as a president. I have kids, I have a grandchild. I’m worried about the world we’re gonna leave behind for sure.
JETHRO TURNER – It seems like almost every American artist at the moment that I talk to feels the same, whether they were already explicitly looking at politics with their work or whether they’re coming to it now because they were shocked into action.
ROBERT LONGO – You know, making art in itself is a political act. It’s about freedom of expression. During the Reagan era, I became very aware that at any time someone could come along and say ‘you can’t do that any more’. Ironically when I did a show in Paris last year I did a big drawing based upon a bullet hole in Charlie Hebdo. That’s when I realised that terrorists weren’t just coming after politicians or innocent people, they were specifically coming after artists. So in this show the other drawing of bullet holes is the Hebdo-inspired attempted assassination of the Danish cartoonist at a free speech rally. So it continues that theme. The works all happen all at once, but they’re all about what’s going on in the world. I mean I can’t ignore this shit man. I’m not interested in making decoration. At the same time these are not illustrations. The original sources have been highly changed or invented. They’re beyond photo realism, they’re almost hyperreal, which I consider a critical distinction. That sense of immediacy is very important. I am making work that is both highly personal and also socially relevant.
JETHRO TURNER – I’m interested in the relationship between the media and media narratives, where these images come from, and then the final work.
ROBERT LONGO – Well the irony is that when I was a younger artist and I was dealing with appropriation, in the context of the Pictures Generation, I responded to images. And then when I started working on my series “Men in Cities,” I realised that I could make my own images so I started taking photographs of my friends. I’ve always used the world as a point to find images, but now as I’m older I find I’m much more of a searcher, in that I have a sense of an image that I want and then I go find it. Or I make it. Each drawing has its own strategy to it, how it’s executed. It’s gotten much more complicated in terms of how I make the works. The other thing that’s really important is that they’re labor-intensive objects. I often think about Werner Herzog’s 2010 film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and I like the fact that these 30,000 year drawings exist on the walls of caves. My medium, my ancestry goes back to the cavemen, which I think is incredible. I’m making these big aggressive images that are unexpectedly incredibly fragile. They’re made out of burnt dust, charcoal.
JETHRO TURNER – Most charcoal works are kind of small – is there something fun in playing with the scale?
ROBERT LONGO – For sure. The traditional medium of drawing typically does possess such a demanding physical presence: my drawings are the size of an abstract expressionist painting, and the weight of a Richard Serra sculpture. I did find my place in that sense. I found drawing because I couldn’t afford to do anything else at the time when I first started to draw – I ran out of money making sculptures and I couldn’t make any more films or videos, and I just happened to have some paper and I always could draw. And I started to realise that drawing, ironically, as far as artistic practice goes is the root of everything, as far as I’m concerned. Drawing inherently teaches you the process of looking. You can’t draw unless you look at something. You try to draw a seemingly familiar object like a tree and it’s not that easy; you have to have had the opportunity to look at it and see how it truly looks. And this arduous process is interesting because it’s about this taking in of an image on an almost molecular level and processing it through yourself, so you become highly intimate with those images.
JETHRO TURNER – Well it’s John Ruskin who first talks about that isn’t it? Which leads us quite nicely onto the older works like the Manet and the Victorian art that you’ve referenced. How do you pick them?
ROBERT LONGO – I researched the building first of all. The Albemarle Club was in Ely House which belonged to the Bishop of Ely. So it was his house before it became the Albemarle Club, which was one of the first clubs to admit both men and women, but it moved here because of the scandal involving Oscar Wilde. I made this drawing of the card that the Marquess of Queensberry left at the original club accusing Wilde of being a sodomite. Meanwhile he wrote it wrong, he spelled it somdomite. Because Oscar Wilde was fucking his son. And I found it fascinating because I’m a huge boxing fan and the Marquess of Queensberry wrote the rules for boxing, which is the most homoerotic sport possible. Wilde sued him for slander, and Queensberry proved his slander, so Oscar Wilde went to jail and the Albemarle club had to move because of that. I knew that Manet’s Folies-Bergère painting was in London, and I really love Manet. He’s like the beginning of modern art – his paint is so alive. Photography interrupted the history of painting, causing the medium of Painting to shift from being about the service of illusion to being about subject matter. I met with conservators at the Courtauld Institute, which owns Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), and I asked them for the painting’s X-rays because I was very curious about the positioning in the painting: the barmaid is really quite defiant. She has this look like ‘What the fuck do you want?,’ standing there very powerfully. But through the X-ray I discovered that the original gesture she had in the painting was very subservient. Her hands were crossed down by her sides, and all of a sudden Manet changed this. In making drawings based on the X-rays of paintings, I consider Walter Benjamin and the loss of the aura, and Benjamin’s ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ – X-rays are like seeing the aura. In our contemporary world one of the biggest problems is religion, and the idea of religion is based on seeing the invisible. And I like that X-rays do that. Also as artists we’re involved in a form of research, so if we don’t know the research that was done before we’re just trying to reinvent the wheel in a sense. Art is a form of understanding, or rather trying to understand and to answer questions. In that way, art is similar to science, history, or philosophy. But I think art has the capacity to hold all of these things and to be a better tool for us to understand our contemporary situation.
JETHRO TURNER – You reference this line from MacBeth ‘Let the frame of things disjoint’.
ROBERT LONGO – I’m a big fan of Shakespeare and I think his timeless writing is always appropriate to continue returning to. I’ve referenced him a couple of times in the past; I did a show in Los Angeles in 2005 called ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, and it felt like the perfect title at the time. We’re still living in these times now– let’s allow everything to fall apart then let’s rebuild it. When Macbeth is talking everyone around him is bitching about how fucked up everything is, and he’s saying ‘okay let it all fall down and let’s rebuilt it because it’s obviously not right.
JETHRO TURNER – He’s also dealing with all the shit he’s done wrong himself.
ROBERT LONGO – Exactly. I hate when artists go to a country and make art about that country that they don’t know anything about. Sometimes European artists come to New York and make art about ‘America’ you know. I want to acknowledge that I know very little about England but what I realised when I was here recently is that England is a country built on what it stole from around the world. And just as Reagan was a pre-cursor to Trump, the British Empire was a pre-cursor to the United States. I installed a drawing of the American symbol of the Bald Eagle at the beginning of the exhibition. This work sets the tone, announcing that this is an American show in London. There’s an imperialistic aspect absolutely.
“Let the Frame of Things Disjoint” in on view until November 11th, 2017 Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Ely House, 37 Dover St, Mayfair, London W1S 4NJ.
Text Jethro Turner and photo Flo Kohl