01 December 2011

Getting Hammered (Love is Colder Than Death)

Consider this an extrapolative riff on the previous post; about which a friend popped up with something in the comments box that got me to thinking. She pointed out that my selection of header image -- one of the many variants from Robert Longo's Men in the Cities series -- turned up in the latest edition of Adbusters magazine.

Which prompted me to realize something about the cultural status of Longo's series, how it entered into the larger culture back in the early 1980s and has more or less stayed there ever since -- frequently reproduced, recycled, visually quoted, and etc. It's fair to say that its a body of work that's emblematic of its era, if not of a certain aspect of the larger culture that was emerging during the Reagan years. Plenty of people have seen some image from the series used in one context or another over the years, even if they can't identity it or know where it originally came from.

The series of large drawings, which Longo produced in 1979, were based on photographs the artist had staged and taken himself. In the years that immediately followed, these images were commonly viewed as some cheeky social commentary, on yuppiedom specifically -- contorted caricatures of business-district types spinning amidst the whirl of the accelerating and increasingly diffuse rush of contemporary life -- buffeted and dizzied to point of practically being yanked out of their shoes.

Longo's series was something of an instant hit, and for something that came out of the fine-art world, it circulated broadly throughout the culture at large. For instance, I recall seeing reprints from the series turning up in Spin magazine sometime around 1986. It was a backpage piece, maybe one penned by Glenn O'Brien or one of their regular contributors at the time, in some piece titled "Do You Want to be a Rock'n'Roll Star?" Something about those images spaced across the top of the page with that header running under it made immediate sense. The rock'n'roll reference drew out something about the images. Specifically, it underscored how these urban yuppies types appeared -- obliterated on their evening's intoxicant(s) of choice, mindlessly dancing away in some club, and how each figure -- floated by the artist in a blank white field -- looked like a specimen isolated in its own little egocentric universe. Or, looked at another way, some of the figures' flailing about made it look like they were playing air guitar. Something about playing air guitar deeply resonated in those years -- paralleling and coalescing with the alternate economic universe that was coming into being at the time. Yeah, here's to living in your own movie.

Like I said: Emblematic of an era. All too, the more I think about it.

But Longo didn't just pull that series of images out of the air. Like a number of NYC artists of his generation, Longo was a big fan of the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The German filmmaker cranked out an insane number of films over the course of his shortened career, and these films has been very chic among the New York cultural set during the 1970s. Longo was taken with one Fassbinder film in particular, Fassbinder's 1970 neo-noir/gangster film homage The American Soldier. More specifically, Longo seemed to be obsessed with one particular part of the film -- its closing scene, in which the main protagonist, a contract killer named Ricky, and his friend Franz (played by Fassbinder himself) are gunned down in a railway station corridor by the police. As soon as the fatal shots are fired the scene kicks into slo-mo, and the viewer is treated to a brief totentanz as the figures of Ricky and Franz twist and spin about from the impact of the bullets...

When the film finally turned up in Manhattan cinemas in 1976, Longo gravitated to this final sequence, quickly incorporating the figure of a man frozen in the throes of death into a series of performance works entitled Sound Distance of a Good Man. Shortly thereafter, he began reworking the that same motif a number of ways in what would become the Men in the Cities series. Here's Longo himself talking about the series, from a clip about his recent project of reviving Men in the Cities as a series of colorized digital prints...

The original idea having originally come from a cinematic shooting. And it was this stealthy theme that I thought I saw echoed in his later Body Hammers series of large graphite & charcoal drawings -- a set of severe, blown-up renderings of various models of handguns. It was as if Longo was revisiting the core idea for Men in the Cities, but reversing the perspective; this time turning the focus towards the fatal weapon itself, toward the instrument from which the bullets issued.

So there's that matter of the violence and morbidity that lay at the core, with the germinating source, of Longo's Men in the Cities series. I suspect that this was the sort of thing that Gail Day, in her review of the current V&A "Postmodernism" exhibition, was referring to when she stated that postmodernism often "treated the reminder of death as a deliberate leitmotif." A sort of momento mori several degrees removed, remotely masked behind a layering of veils. And there's that other hallmark of postmodernism -- its incestuous intertextuality, the way cultural products perpetually references and comments on other culture products, forming an endlessly intertwining series of riffs, tangents, and juxtapositions.

Like many of his peers of that '80s generation of NYC artists, Robert Longo's fame dwindled considerably in the decades that followed. But in that that period during the early and mid- 1980s, he was among the forefront of NYC's new gen of rising "art stars," he was hailed as something of a po-mo wunderkind. Much of this was because his work often straddled numerous media. Drawing, yes; but also performance, the odd free-standing sculptural work, as well as film and video. And it was his work in this last area that provided him means of sometimes crossing over into the "pop" domain, most often by doing projects with musical artists. For example, one of his works was used as the sleeve art from the Replacements' album Tim. And he also ended up directing a number of music videos; most notably for R.E.M., Megadeath, and New Order. That last item, apparently included in the V&A exhibit, was for the song "Bizarre Love Triangle" -- both of which (the song and the video) have come to be regarded as zeitgeist-defining cultural artifacts over the decades.


Lutz Eitel said...

I find it interesting that the photo shoot on the roof receptionwise sort of has taken over, I’ve seen them reprinted or quoted time and again (and you’re also using them as the lead in your first post), whereas the drawings by now are more or less filed away under stuff from its time (is everybody agreed on a pomo label? makes no sense to me here). I think this switch is sad and the (atrociously executed) drawings are great, while the photos are just a brilliant gatefold lp cover, still it does make sense, they seem fresher, more creative, more about people, and are frightfully obvious and boring in their jolly goodnaturedness. These photos, like eg the original comics Lichtenstein painted from, should be buried somewhere, so that the paintings can regain some of their original creepiness. Of course, sadly, without them the series would be dead by now.

Greyhoos said...

Hi, Lutz: 
You raise a lot of points, and frankly I'm inclined to agree with most (if not all) of them. But for the sake of clarification:

1. Historically, whenever an artist starts revisiting & reworking parts of their earlier career, it's usually a bad sign. An indication that they've (a) hit a dry patch, or (b) they're resting on their laurels and trying to milk a little extra mileage/$$$ out of some bygone "greatest hits," or

2. (c) A combination of both. Which was probably what Longo was doing by dumping all the old photos on the market, & colorizing them, & etc.

3. And yes, the original b&w drawings (or most of them) are by far the stronger work, while the colorized photos are quite pointless for more reasons that merit going into. 

4. Personally, I've never felt Longo was a particularly strong or consistent artist to begin with. Nonetheless, the series in question holds an iconic status. Which is why it wound up in the V&A exhibition.

5. Since you don't offer any specifics, I don't know what your specif beef with the 'postmodern' label is. As I said in the previous post, it has always been (in terms of visual art of a certain vintage) a deeply dubious & problematic label from the start. But it was a label that Longo & many of his peers got saddled with in the whirlwind of marketing hype that surrounded the art scene of the 1980s. And it seems like (from everything I've read) that same label was one that the V&A curators were more than willing to unquestioningly honor/uphold in putting together their potpourri survey of that era. (An issue that, I thought, Gail Day addressed quite well in her review of the show.)

Lutz Eitel said...

Finding the strongest image possible for something/whatever (for both your situation in society and your inner demons!) just doesn't seem like a postmodern strategy. Like, it makes no sense for me to call Koons' basketball tanks (probably his best work, 3 years after the first of these Longos) with their allegorical heft postmodern, but the V&A have his Louis XIV, that makes sense, of course. On the other hand they label Ai Weiwei's Urn with the Cola logo pomo, just because, you know it's Cola logo, on a historical artefact, it must mean that, like anything goes . . . that's curators for you (shakes head in disbelief).

Lutz Eitel said...

PS: The haircut of the woman in Johnny Mnemonic was postmodern, and it singlestrandedly ruined the whole movie !-)

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