interview by GLENN O’BRIEN
photography ROBERT LONGO
All works courtesy of Metro Pictures Gallery, New York
GLENN O’BRIEN — Okay, so here I am walking through Robert Longo’s studio on Center Street in Soho. Robert looks kind of the same as he did when he was a guitar-playing bad-boy artist in the ’80s. He’s still got his Elvisy pompadour and sideburns and that unrepentant guy-ness that goes so perfectly with the post-macho black-and-white graphite drawings of his that made such a splash in the ’80s. I went to put my coat down but Robert warned me, “It’s like a coal mine in here.” And it was — the black stuff from his drawings was all over the place. I joked about him getting a check-up for black lung disease as we strolled around looking at the work hung on the walls. There was a large image of a fierce-looking great white shark and near it was a series of décolletage studies, the first one so abstract it would take me some time to figure out exactly what it was.
ROBERT LONGO — This is actually the last shark that I’m doing. And this [pointing to a beautiful study of female breasts in a low-cut dress] is me just kind of humoring myself.
GLENN O’BRIEN — It’s lovely!
ROBERTO LONGO — It’s kind of like guys’ revenge. I can look at it without having to talk to anybody. It’s funny — a friend of mine saw this one in Miami and said, “I like that tulip.” When I sent it to the framer, he said, “I really like that planet!”
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah, it’s the only one you might think was something else.
ROBERTO LONGO — Yeah. This one is almost done. You can see how it’s done with just enormous amounts of charcoal. [Robert points out some studies of astronauts in space suits, with the visors of their helmets filled with distorted reflections.] But the charcoal is just like power. This is new stuff. I’m not sure what it is yet. I always thought it was really interesting, that saying about, like, how men will stick their dicks into anything. I always thought the things that men stick their heads into far more interesting.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah. It’s just as risky. [Robert points out a series of rock bands in performance.]
ROBERTO LONGO — This is a new series. I’m just kind of dicking around with it, trying to get everything right. They’re all in vellum. — Is this of a real band or of just any band? [It reminds me of Sonic Youth.] — No, it could be any band. It’s mostly of guys that worked for me — they were all in bands. We photographed them and, you know, messed around, putting it together. I’m trying to figure it out.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Were you ever in a band?
ROBERTO LONGO — Yeah, and I’m still in one!
GLENN O’BRIEN — Really?
ROBERTO LONGO — Yeah. I used to play with Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham. I was one of the originals.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Right! I forgot about them. I knew that.
ROBERTO LONGO — Now I’m in a band called Ex-Patsies with my wife and John Kessler. Do you know Knox Channel?
GLENN O’BRIEN — No, I don’t.
ROBERTO LONGO — He’s an incredible guitar player. What about Anton Fear?
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah, him I’ve known for decades.
ROBERTO LONGO — Yeah, he’s the drummer. Knox used to play guitar in The Psychedelic Furs. Then there’s Anthony Coleman.
GLENN O’BRIEN — That name rings a bell.
ROBERTO LONGO — He’s the composer/keyboard player.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Oh, yeah. He played with John Zorn. I’m so brain dead.
ROBERTO LONGO — My wife is basically the whole show. She’s extraordinary. We played at the Highline Ballroom a while back. We’re playing in Germany soon. It’s really fun.
GLENN O’BRIEN — What’s your wife’s name?
ROBERTO LONGO — Barbara Sukova. She’s a film actress. Have you ever seen any of Fassbinder’s films?
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yes.
ROBERTO LONGO — Did you see Lola? She’s Lola.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Oh, wow!
ROBERTO LONGO — She’s in Berlin Alexanderplatz. She plays Rosa Luxemburg. My wife is much better at what she does than I am at what I do. She’s won all these awards. Every time she does something she wins an award for it. She’s nominated for a Grammy for a classical music record she just did. Anyway, this piece is a bit of a failure. [Robert points to a large, multi-paneled work of a religious rite in a cathedral.] It’s in transition.
GLENN O’BRIEN — It’s beautiful!
ROBERTO LONGO — I got a little carried away with too many panels. I’m not sure what it is.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Whatever it is, it’s spectacular.
ROBERT LONGO — And this — I don’t know what the fuck this is. [It’s a series of paintings. For his entire career Robert has been working in charcoal, in black-and-white, and now here’s a whole wall of bright paintings. War!] It’s a bit of a disaster. There’s a whole room over there filled with fucking paintings. Why am I trying to reinvent the wheel? I should just paint the way I draw!
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah. Are these ones of Baghdad?
ROBERTO LONGO — Yes. I thought they were kind of like contemporary landscapes.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I remember that night … and those exact explosions.
ROBERTO LONGO — This is an old series. I kind of went back to see if I could bury the darkness. Which is always kind of fun. This is the gun I photographed at the gun shop. Then I drew it like that. Then it gets blacked in like this. You used to play in a band, right?
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah, I had a band called Konelrad. We played at CBGB’s.
ROBERTO LONGO — I played in a bunch of bands. I played with Moralice. But then I started hooking up with Glenn and Rhys. I did the pictures for Rhys and then I started playing with him. Then I played with Glenn and did his album cover for The Ascension.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah, I remember that music well. The 12-tone stuff. I did a performance with The TV Party Orchestra at The Mud Club. We had like ten guitarists covering Deep Purple and stuff. It was around the same time as the Glenn Branca guitar orchestra. I realized later that it wasn’t such a unique idea.
ROBERTO LONGO — We did that thing with four hundred people in the Sacré-Cœur in Paris about two years ago. Fuck, it was unreal! [Robert takes me across the hall to the office part of his studio. There’s a kitchen, computers, a dining-room table, and several exhibition models. For all his shows Robert builds a model of the space and creates scale copies of the work. It helps him plan the show]. This is a model for the show for the museum in Nice. Making models is a really great way to figure out a show.
GLENN O’BRIEN — It’s really smart!
ROBERTO LONGO — I started doing it with really big pieces because they weigh so much. When I do the installation it will get changed around. I mean, I used to just do floor plans and little cut-out pieces of paper, but eventually it evolved. Once I had people working the computer who could figure out how to make scale-models it became a lot easier. I’ve been doing this with the models for maybe 10 years. This retrospective in Nice is kind of like the ’80s, the ’90s, and the 2000s. And they’re connected by hallways, so if you walk in here… [Robert points out the layout of the show in the model.]
GLENN O’BRIEN — Wow!
ROBERTO LONGO — So that’s that. Then there are these big, black, bronze flags that go on the wall here. This is a flag. These are some other guns. [He points to a plastic toy soldier, probably borrowed from his son.] That’s a person, so you get the scale of it. And then some of the bombs are in here. And one of the sharks is in here. The ’90s was like a kind of weird period of time. I kind of feel like I was one of the people who got blamed for the ’80s and I moved to Europe. I developed a bunch of other work. But there was a lot of mediocre shit. The ’90s was kind of a weird transitional point. The guns are from the ’90s, and so was my film, and a bunch of other stuff. But what’s great is that now, the last 10 years or so, it’s been really pretty strong for me. I’m really kind of happy. So, that’s why it kind of spilled over into here. I did all this research with the FBI for the guns I used. This was in 1993. They gave me a list of the most popular handguns. I couldn’t get anyone to give me the guns to photograph. I was just trying to get sober at the time and this guy — a friend of mine who used to be a drug dealer, but now he’s become a stock broker or something — told me he knew a guy I could rent guns from. So that’s what I did.
GLENN O’BRIEN — That’s funny. He would rent guns to just anybody?
ROBERTO LONGO — No, it had to be through this other guy. But it was kind of ironic that you could just rent guns. Anyway, this is the series from 1999 until now. This is the Freud series, and here’s the monsters that are the waves, and then here’s the bombs. The roses are grouped with the bombs and then come the planets. Then come the children and then come the sharks. It’s a series of seven images. They’re like the essentials, basically.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I don’t remember the Freud series. What was that about?
ROBERTO LONGO — There was a photographer, Thomas Engelmann, who photographed Freud’s house a few days before Freud fled from the Nazis. A friend of mine gave me this book about it in 1990 and I ended up making these drawings. Making art is kind of like a way of balancing. Remember those old radios that you tuned in, that you physically fiddled with? It’s like doing that. It’s a balance between something that’s extremely personal and something that’s really of this world, that’s social. It’s trying to balance it. What I thought was really cool about the whole Freud stuff was that Freud was trying to understand the deep, dark secrets of our minds and meanwhile, just out on the streets, the Nazis were actually manifesting them.
GLENN O’BRIEN — What’s with the doors? [The doors are heavily reinforced with steel.]
ROBERTO LONGO — The Nazis kept on busting into Freud’s house. What’s really great is that I didn’t go there until after I finished the whole series. It was really strange. Like the gates of hell. But it’s just my memory of it, to a certain extent. Like this is in the wrong place, and there’s too many reflections.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Is that a Buddha?
ROBERTO LONGO — Yes. Freud had all these things, like a Buddha and a bunch of other religious figures, on his desk. He had tons of stuff. This series has a whole bunch of crazy stuff. This series of waves happened at the same time as the monsters. [Robert shows a series of drawings of giant breaking waves.]
GLENN O’BRIEN — I love this series.
ROBERTO LONGO — This happened because I was teaching my middle son to surf. I would sit in the water with him and push him on the board. I started realizing there was a connection of this to Freud and the other thing in my work that seemed to be somewhat about power, or the meditations of power. Here was the ultimate power, Nature’s power. What’s really interesting about the whole concept of Freud and psychoanalysis and the water is that a wave stays pretty much the same. It can be bigger or smaller depending on the weather, but the wave’s personality and shape are dictated by the shoal underneath it, and how quickly it gets shallow. What was really weird is that I realized that the waves were like psychoanalysis. Their personalities were caused by what was deep underneath them. These waves are a combination of photographs I took myself and ones I took from magazines. None of them are real — like, this is three different waves put together, and this is two different waves put together. What was interesting is that the waves started to turn and look more like fire. Or smoke. I was looking for images of smoke when 9/11 happened. So I started taking pictures of the smoke from 9/11. Helene sent me a picture of the buildings of the World Trade Center falling down and there are some really great images of smoke in them. When I printed them out they came out upside down, so it was the smoke and the column. I almost fell over. I was like, “It’s like an atomic bomb!” So, I took out all my old Life magazines that I had saved. Life was one of the greatest influences on me when I was a kid. So, I was looking at the Bikini Atoll tests from ’61. My youngest son walked by and I said, “What do you think this is?” He said, “It’s a hurricane or a tornado.” And I went, “Fuck! This is like Man being Nature!” It was like someone saying, “Go that way!” I just felt really quite clear as to what the next series of works would be.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I’m guessing you and I are from the same generation. I remember when I was like four years old, watching the atomic bomb test live on television. The TV screen was tiny and they strapped these shades over the lens before the blast.
ROBERTO LONGO — Do you remember crouching under your desk at school and stuff like that for the drills?
GLENN O’BRIEN — Oh, yeah. Annihilation was a huge influence. I remember the Bikini Atoll tests very well.
ROBERTO LONGO — I realized through this particular series, more so than with any other, that the point of adolescence when you go from being a boy to being a man is where everything comes from. You know what I mean? Yeah, showing my kid how to surf. I started surfing when I was about 12. The bomb tests happened when I was like maybe eight, or nine, or 10. I realized that all this stuff had a kind of synchronization. It kind of reaffirms the idea I had that at adolescence, when you stop playing and actually enter into the world of aggression, it all becomes really clear. It felt really honest to me. And the waves and the bombs — when I started checking out the bombs, the United States Government had just released a whole bunch of new images of bombs. I used to use this dye on earlier work in the ’80s. I’d dye the paper and draw on it.
GLENN O’BRIEN — So, that’s what the roses are.
ROBERTO LONGO — I had some old red dye. I didn’t know what to do for my wife for a Valentine’s Day present. I said, “Fuck it, I’m gonna draw her a rose.” Everyone laughed and my dealer said, “Oh, that’s so hokey!” But I drew it and I thought, “Well, this isn’t so bad!” Then I realized that the roses and the bombs had a real strong similarity because they and the waves existed at the moment of what they were supposed to be. Like, the bombs are supposed to explode, a rose is supposed to bloom, and a wave is supposed to crash. They are what they are! The roses became quite aggressive. At first I didn’t draw them with the darkness. Then I had this fucked-up dream about Ophelia sinking into the water, so they turned into this Ophelia series. The first time I showed the bombs they accompanied the roses. These images get gigantic sometimes, but they’re also made up of bits and pieces I’ve found. This is like a film noir bomb. Really dirty looking. This one’s really funny. It’s a French bomb. This is a beach but it ends up looking more like a city. I showed the bombs in the show called On The Sickness of Reason. I think about Goya a lot. Remember the film, On the Beach? It really freaked me out when I was a kid.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Oh, yeah. It scared the shit out of me.
ROBERTO LONGO — This was Einstein’s desk on the day that he died, except that everything is a little off. The chair came from Oppenheimer, who had an office on the other end of the hallway from Einstein. Einstein had been working on trying to unify quantum physics with his theory of relativity. But I couldn’t make out the equations from the text in the photograph I had. My middle kid is taking advanced algebra and I ended up inserting some of his shit into the equation. [Laughs] I did a show at the Aspen Institute. They were having a celebration for the anniversary of Einstein’s theory of relativity. In one room they had eight bombs and then Einstein’s desk. I thought it was a cool place to show. The day before the show opened they had a meeting of the joint chiefs of nuclear proliferation. I thought it was kind of cool that they were sitting in this room. I kept on thinking of Goya’s dining room, with Saturn eating the Sun. I also kept thinking of that moron Rumsfeld talking about how seeing the photographs of Abu Ghraib made him think more about the consequences. I thought, “When was the last time these motherfuckers saw a picture of an atomic bomb?”
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah.
ROBERTO LONGO — But what was great is that there were guys at the opening who actually knew Einstein. They were looking at my equations on the blackboard, and they were all puzzled. [Laughs] Like, “This can’t be right!” So, anyway, that’s the Russian bomb. It’s so funky! It looks like it was blown up in a coffee can. Dirty!
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah, the dirty bomb.
ROBERTO LONGO — But again, all these things have some kind of translational element. I mean, the fact that I work from photographs — I think I try to deal with representational images as a kind of conceptual practice. You have your traditional abstract way of working images and you have your traditional way of representation, but I’m somehow trying to find that in-between zone. I think I’m kind of translating photographs. I’m not trying to reinterpret them. I don’t think of this as representation. Barnett Newman said that abstract expressionists were representational artists working abstractly. When I read that I thought, ah, that’s my answer. I’m an abstract artist working representationally.
GLENN O’BRIEN — What’s this one of?
ROBERTO LONGO — It’s a star field. But the star field I made is based structurally on a Pollock painting. I drew the Pollock painting first, kind of like compositionally, and then I put the planets on it.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Which Pollock painting?
ROBERTO LONGO — The one The Met owns, a black-and-white one. The other thing is that the white is always the paper. The star fields can get quite tedious because you have to draw so much. I thought I could draw them black and then use white chalk, but it looked like I was cheating. But what’s interesting about my drawing technique — and what makes it very different from how I paint — is that drawing is the opposite of painting. With painting, you start off dark and work to light. With something like this, I start with the light and work to dark. So we had to draw all these fucking stars. This is the earth about to explode.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Are the star fields improvised, or are they realistic?
ROBERTO LONGO — They’re semi- realistic. I need to start with something. I don’t want to play God too much. [Hanging on a wall of Robert’s office is a signed Chris Burden photograph of a famous Burden performance piece. In it, Burden is firing a handgun at an airliner.]
GLENN O’BRIEN — It’s funny how the bird in this photograph looks like one of your drawings.
ROBERTO LONGO — Well, there’s this kind of mechanism where the generation that comes before you has form-in-content and the generation that comes afterwards takes the form and makes it the content. I was really influenced by performance and conceptual art. What they gave me was pictures; my content became pictures. I particularly remember that Burden’s art was manneristic performance art. You had the cycle of formalism, romanticism, and mannerism. It’s like formalism happens when you’re really young and you don’t know what you’re doing, but you really want to do it. Romanticism is when you can really do it, and you know what you want to do. And mannerism is when you’re really, really great at what you’re doing, but you don’t know why you did it in the first place.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah.
ROBERTO LONGO — Burden’s performance art was so much about pictures. The book he did in 1971-73, the one with the red title on the cover, Chris Burden, had all that early shit in it. Those pictures were great!
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah, they were perfectly composed.
ROBERTO LONGO — I know! The nailing on the Volkswagen was fucking mind-blowing. I remember reading that Jasper Johns bought the nails. I thought that was so beautiful. So, the last series is of the kids. It’s about, you know, do you want these kids to actually wake up to the world? But I realized this is really about my youngest kid not being a kid anymore. It’s like me losing my kid.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah.
ROBERTO LONGO — The children somehow get weirdly erotic. Like, this looks like a little girl laying in the grass, or something like that. They all have a strange quality to them.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I have a lot of pictures of my kids sleeping. It’s really fascinating!
ROBERTO LONGO — The thing is, I don’t know who any of these kids are. I found these pictures on the Internet. So I changed their sexes. I didn’t like the drawing I did of my son so much. Some of these get a little creepy. They look like decapitations and stuff. These are the sharks. The first one I made was brought to me by Steve Ross, who owned Damien Hirst’s shark piece, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. One of my assistants pointed out that the title of this piece came from the title of a research paper that Damien wrote about my work when he was a student. [Laughs] It was like a really weird kind of circle coming around.
GLENN O’BRIEN — It’s funny — when I walked into your studio the other morning and I saw this shark, I was like, “I wonder if lawyers buy these?”
ROBERTO LONGO — That was the thing. [Laughs] When I first made them I was trying to deal with the idea of mythology and collective unconscious. I wanted to do these kinds of archetypes. Wait! — this is an incredibly primal image. It’s like a pussy and a cock with teeth. And then the first person that buys it is like a hedge fund guy and I’m like, “Oh, Fuck!”
GLENN O’BRIEN — It’s like that joke — Why didn’t the shark eat the lawyer? Professional courtesy.
ROBERTO LONGO — [Laughs] I know that one! What’s funny is that they’re all great whites — the teeth keep on getting bigger and bigger and they get a bit ridiculous. This one’s actually got three panels. This is the last one I made. It didn’t sell. [Laughs] All the other ones sold. Now they’re saying, “They’re a little too aggressive.” [Laughs] I kept on thinking, “God, I have to figure out how to do art that’s really smooth and really shiny, because in America that’s what’s considered beautiful. Do you know what I mean? So now I’m basically kind of lost with what I’m doing. I have no fucking idea what I’m doing. That’s why I’m planning the show at Metro. Going backwards and looking at all this old stuff has been really difficult for me. Because all I see is my mistakes. It just drives me out of my mind. I think, “God, I could have done this better, I could’ve changed that.” It’s a bit tortuous at times.
GLENN O’BRIEN — A lot of people are like that. Filmmakers, for example, they can’t watch their movies.
ROBERTO LONGO — I can’t live with my stuff. But I saved enough art for my kids. Like each kid has a wave and a gun. My wife always says, “Why don’t we have a wave in the house?” But there’s no way. [Laughs] I can’t have my art in the house.
GLENN O’BRIEN — You have to be a Julian Schnabel to live like that.
ROBERTO LONGO — I know! The dude has absolutely no self-doubt. I wish I could be like that.
GLENN O’BRIEN — He’s like a shark. I mean, it’s admirable in a way, but it’s also a little scary.
ROBERTO LONGO — Yeah, yeah. This is a sculpture. I’ve been trying to figure out how to make sculptures again.
GLENN O’BRIEN — When’s the Metro show?
ROBERTO LONGO — In May. Then there’s the Met show called Pictures Generation. I have to help restore one of my earlier pieces for it. I’ve had people help me fabricate some of my work, but I didn’t hire professionals, I hired guys who knew how to do woodworking and things. The piece I’m showing has a big huge center panel that’s made of lead. They were supposed to put a coating on it that would keep it from deteriorating. I went and saw it at Eli Broad’s. They unpacked it and I was like, “Holy shit!” I have to strip the whole fucking piece down. I have to help pay to restore it. It’s very funny.
GLENN O’BRIEN — The Men in the Cities series, the falling guys in suits, look so now. Like they could have inspired Mad Men.
ROBERTO LONGO — My youngest son said, “Are you copying iPod ads?”
GLENN O’BRIEN — That’s really funny!
ROBERTO LONGO — Yeah, I’m copying the iPod ads! [Laughs]
GLENN O’BRIEN— What was the inspiration for these pieces? This is probably your most famous work, right?
ROBERTO LONGO — Well, it’s what I’ve been running away from my whole life. I think the basic thing comes from when I was playing the game Who Could Fall Dead The Best. I was thinking of Sam Peckinpah movies, the way people died in them. And then I saw James Chance [the singer of The Contortions and James White and the Blacks] on stage, and that spasmatic kind of thing.
GLENN O’BRIEN — That’s funny. I can see it.
ROBERTO LONGO — And the whole punk thing, the way people moved. It was like psychotic impulses, like the space between gestures.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah.
ROBERTO LONGO — It was anti-Smithson. Like trying to stop time, rather than just accepting that you can’t stop it. I put the people in a situation of ambiguity. Are they dying? Are they dancing? But it’s also like calligraphy; they’re like abstract symbols. Basically, I always make these in groups of three and I always draw stick figures, maybe. Then I find the models and I photograph them. I used to throw tennis balls and film canisters at them to get them to move around. It was great. Sherman Mossel’s going to do a book of all the original photographs of these people.
GLENN O’BRIEN — That’s a great idea.
ROBERTO LONGO — Cindy [Sherman] is writing the text. She was one of my original models.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Was Anton one of your models?
ROBERTO LONGO — No, no.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Because these guys in the suits look like the way he used to look … suspiciously normal.
ROBERTO LONGO — A little bit, yeah. I met Anton in ’84 or ’85 when I did the first Golden Palominos Rock Fair. We stayed friends and I did two album covers for him. Then I didn’t hear from him for years. He moved back to Cleveland. He sold his drums on eBay or something like that. Then when we were looking for a drummer Anthony said, “Anton’s back in town.”
GLENN O’BRIEN — That’s funny. I knew him from The Lounge Lizards. He was so talented but so strange. He actually went to a 12-Step type thing for his marijuana problem. He’s the only person I knew that had a marijuana problem. I mean, I guess it’s possible, but I always thought it was very exotic. I mean, everybody else was a junkie.
ROBERTO LONGO — Yeah. I still go to meetings. That’s my dilemma. I should go more often. I got sober at the end of the ’90s. What’s really weird about using is that you think you’re doing it to unlock your mind, but all of a sudden it doesn’t work like that anymore — you’re just using to feel normal. When you’re not doing it anymore, you realize, “How am I going to get in the house?” And then you realize, “Well, fuck, I own the fucking house!” And you just break in. In that period I got my shit together, and actually found myself. I did a series called Magellan, which has like 365 drawings. I did a drawing every day. It was a kind of a cathartic thing. I didn’t have any assistants. This was 15 years ago. My youngest kid was born and I stayed at home every day and did a drawing. I showed them all at once. It was like going back to zero. It was a really helpful thing.
GLENN O’BRIEN — We had to call it a day at this point. Robert had to run out to go see his son’s basketball game (he plays point guard). But I felt like it was right to stop there. I felt inspired. Because here’s a guy who already knows how to do it, but he’s still trying to learn, still exploring the world. He’s a like the Magellan spacecraft, exploring the universe. And he can do it all right here on earth.
Heidi Bivens, style — Devra Kinery @ ART DEPARTMENT, hair — Dennis Lanni @ ART DEPARTMENT, make-up — Alexis Dahan, photographer’s assistant — Kinga Rajzak @ IMG, model.
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