For those of us on the East Coast, the last dregs of summer bring the big waves generated by hurricanes born in the south Atlantic. The unrelenting shorebreak drags posh beachfront real estate and frolicking beachgoers right out to sea without prejudice. This is the best time of year for east coast surfers. It certainly is for me. But this summer, the biggest waves I've seen are on paper in Robert Longo's studio. We've had shit for surf all summer because there haven't been any hurricanes.
Earlier in the summer I decided to do a video project that I'm calling "Artists Who Surf." It is the perfect no-brainer, a moderate amount of studio interview time and a whole lot of surf time. Robert Longo, Bill Komoski and Michael Halsband were my first choices among a growing list artist-surfers. The way I see it, a good art video is one with a little chat with an interesting artist and then a lot of wave action. Don't you agree?
I visited Longo because I knew that he was working on a major series of drawings of ocean waves that are scheduled to go on view at Metro Pictures this month (along with a show of new works by Jim Shaw), opening Sept. 21-Oct. 26, 2002.
Early in 2001, Longo had a show at Metro of his charcoal drawings of Sigmund Freud's house in Germany, before the Nazis kicked him out in 1938. The drawings were big and somber and unspectacular. We looked at them and were nonplussed because Americans are over Freud for now. I know I didn't feel Freudian. The New York Times critic Ken Johnson gave Longo a few catty flicks. Donald Kuspit in Artforum was the only American critic intrigued enough to see that the Freud drawings were a warning of yet another attack of intellectual fascism. Despite the quiet reception here, the drawings were a big hit in Europe and were all sold.
Robert Longo first hit the big time in the 1980s. He had a big '80s pompadour and lots of black clothes and, if I remember, big black boots. It's hard to forget an image like that. In 1981 he exhibited a set of spectacular black and white drawings that he titled "Men In Cities." Big hit. In 1983 he showed "Corporate Wars." A bigger hit. Longo's well-dressed figures flailed in skinny neckties and arty new wave abandon.
Longo worked with industrial precision on a massive scale. He employed dozens of assistants and models. He had five shows in the '80s at Metro, along with a string of exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe. In one show at the University of Texas, the football team was enlisted to hang Longo's works. Success brought fame, money, women, rock and roll videos (for bands like New Order, REM and Helmet), drugs, media hype, ego mania, etc.
By the end of the '80s, a sea change sent New York art stars like Julian Schnabel, David Salle and Robert Longo running for cover after the art media started pelting them with rotting tomatoes. The art world's love affair with Longo in particular soured in the late '80s with his exhibition, "All You Zombies," a particularly aggressive batch of works. He was quoted in glossy magazines making comments that bordered on the Napoleonic. His popularity went south.
Longo started the '90s by moving to Paris and a more forgiving Europe. The old world embraced Longo's art, and he met his future wife, film star Barbara Sukowa. By the mid-'90s he was married with children, living in Brooklyn and working out of his Manhattan loft again. He was humbled, sober and grateful. If I weren't the one saying this I would choke a bit, too.
His Manhattan studio is humongous. Must be 5,000 square feet with 18-foot ceilings on the top floor of a nice semi-Chinatown building he has been in since the '80s. A complicated interior -- a classic SoHo custom-made kitchen and an entry wallpapered with art mementos. The décor overall is kind of a mix of Road Warrior meets teen serial killer, hardcore skulls with mohawks, studies for past sculptures, surfboard blanks, posters of Yukio Mishima, and of Keanu Reeves for Longo's 1995 movie Johnny Mnenomic; hundreds of snapshots, all the stuffed and mounted history of a big-game hunter.
That opens into a white cube clearing. The studio is as large as half a basketball court, and in fact has a well-used not quite regulation hoop. Looked a bit low (he said it got spiked down). He also said the loft was only half as big as it used to be. You can tell a lot about artists by seeing their studios.
At my visit, the studio walls were lined with wave drawings. Big wave drawings. Six feet high and 10 feet long. Charcoal on paper mounted on plexi and stretcher bars. Little studies of waves covered with smudgy fingerprints. Even miniature wave paintings mounted on the walls of a miniature model of the Metro Pictures gallery space, along with another model of a German museum the Freud drawings are going to.
The white studio is covered in a fine black silt. Longo is covered in a fine black silt. Other than that he looks like a normal artist.
The wave drawings are hot. Sexy. Environ-mental. They have a lyrical ferocity in shape and a classic scale closer to Renaissance cartoons before the glazing process. The cool detachment of his previous output isn't here. The professionalism persists. The spectacle is burnished to a gritty realism. Not that the waves are real, per se, because they are composite hybrids very much influenced by the waves he's looked at the beach on Fire Island, along with famous breaks from surf magazines. He doesn't have a platoon of assistants now, only one guy who does whatever assistants do. This is wild nature, inside the artist, and way outside anything human. Its old-fashioned image wrangling pretty much the way it's always been (at least since the first projection device). The artist is all there, buried deep in the blue.
If you didn't know who Longo was before, the new work would compell you to find out who he is now. For those of you who did, I won't posit anything other than to say Robert Longo isn't a fluke, he's a New York artist.
Longo didn't want to do a formal, audiotaped interview. Says he's through with all that. I loved the story too much so he had to fold. The waves are too kickass and timely to not take a look at the artist. It was the surfer thing that hooked him and the fact that we are friends through my girlfriend, Cindy. He lived with her in the late '70s. Life is a TV sitcom when good, and soap when its not. The art veterans are battle-scarred but the lucky ones have a larger sense of family. Robert Longo is still represented by Metro Pictures, his first gallery, as is Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley and Louise Lawler. Metro Pictures is still run by childhood surf bunny friends and original owners Janelle Reiring and Helene Weiner. One big happy family.
Bill Komoski is a painter represented by Feature, Inc., and Michael Halsband is an artist/photographer and film maker, with a new movie coming out titled Surf Movie. Then three of them will be part of Paul H-O's new Video TV show, Artlike.