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Already a Big Man on Canvas, Robert Longo Goes Multimedia

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Hunched over a drafting table as he draws with a Magic Marker, Robert Longo is the center of his own artistic cosmos. Sketches for an opera set lie at his feet. A movie script he hopes to direct sits on the shelf. Tiny pencil drawings on a wall carry images he’ll use in a rock video for the ultrahip band New Order. And around his huge New York City loft, half a dozen artisans assemble four gigantic, mixed-media sculptures he has designed. A young man glues jagged Plexiglas spears together; a young woman dabs at a 14-foot-high, bow-shaped canvas. Every few minutes, Longo jumps up to help. “If I don’t touch my works, they slip out of my hands,” he says. “I’m like the guy who puts a number in your underwear so you know there’s quality control.”

There are a lot of works with his number on them these days. Currently exhibiting in major shows at Manhattan’s Metro Pictures gallery, Chicago’s Donald Young Gallery and Tokyo’s Wacoal Art Center, Robert Longo, at 33, is one of the world’s most heralded young artists. New York Times critic Michael Brenson has called him “a poet of urban life,” and top museums, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, own his work. Longo came to the fore in 1979 with Men in the Cities, a series of big charcoal drawings of people in anguished, contorted poses. Now he is expressing his pacifist, anti-nuclear, pro-environment beliefs through hulking, 7-to 34-foot-wide works that combine painting, sculpture and graphic design and sell for $50,000 to $200,000. Moreover he creates them in abundance. “You have to watch out for him,” says James Sheppard, who helps construct the pieces. “He forgets to sleep.”

“My art comes from an incredible amount of discontent with the world,” Longo says, but despite the monumental scale, he states his feelings with surprising subtlety. No gallery notes point out that the human figures in a sculpture about city violence are made of bulletproof glass, and no footnote explains a sculpture silk-screened with the names of the young and homeless who died on New York streets last year. “Part of the process is making people curious enough to ask the gallery staff what the names mean,” he says. “I don’t get upset if somebody doesn’t get the point immediately. These works have to be like time bombs, giving off more information over the years.”

Growing up in Plainview, Long Island, the youngest of three children of a CPA and an administrative assistant, Longo hardly looked like a revolutionary artist. A strapping football player in school, he suffered from undetected dyslexia—and coped by rebelling. “To get out of taking tests, I would, say, throw my desk out the window,” he says. “I always broke my parents’ hearts.” When his hopes of being a college football hero ended with a knee injury, Longo went hippie and headed for North Texas State University “because I wanted to be near where Easy Rider was filmed.” He flunked out after a year but still convinced a foundation to give him a fellowship to study art restoration in Europe. Bored, he quit halfway through that and toured galleries till he had a revelation. “I don’t want to save art,” he remembers saying to himself. “I want to make it.”

His next stop was State University of New York at Buffalo College to study art, but scholastic life still wasn’t enough: He and some friends focused their energies on Hallwalls, a gallery they opened, with grant money, to attract young artists to the city. After school Longo moved to Manhattan, drove a taxi, helped run a performance art center and hung out at CBGB, a club where artists and rockers mingled. (Talking Heads’ David Byrne became a friend and later posed for a Longo piece.) Success in the early ’80s allowed him to work full-time on his art, but at a price. By 1984 his use of cocaine and other drugs to stay awake seemed uncontrollable. “That period was like primordial ooze,” he says. “I knew I had to stop when I began to produce crappy art.”

Jolted by the death of his father in 1984, Longo kicked drugs, cut down on the art-club scene and began living a saner life with his current girlfriend, video artist Gretchen Bender, 34. ” ‘Cool disease’—being cool—is a salable item,” he says now. “What a lot of young artists don’t realize is that what makes you the ultimate cool is the ability to do great art.”

Today Longo works nonstop at his various art enterprises. When a package from a foundry arrives containing seven swords he designed for one of his works, he eagerly rips off the wrapping. “What’s great,” he says, “is that I can get people to spend time making things like this for me.” Then, laughing with pride, he throws his head back and arches his chest, contorted like a figure in a Longo work. “My dream,” he says, “is to somehow watch a film that I made while listening to music that I wrote as I’m making my own sculptures.”