Intertitle: Art and Violence
Robert Longo: …and I was younger— That thing, that quote, “I make art for brave eyes,” usually followed with the statement, “I want to make art that changes the world.” I caught an enormous amount of crap for that, you know. It’s like really weird. It’s like society basically wants artists to kind of be a certain, you know… It’s really difficult being an artist when you realize your income is basically based on excess cash of the wealthy, you know. It’s a… I mean, I’m very fortunate that I can do what I do. I mean, it’s like a… But, I think art changes the worl— Art has and will change the world in its visual mechanisms of how you see the world. I mean, it just happens that way. It just…it just… It influences design, influences fashion, it influences even to a certain point politics at times.
I think that for me what I’ve tried to do over the years is… I had the really fortunate opportunity to have my Men in the Cities images actually kind of become iconic. At the same time, it’s a bit of a curse. Because then I spend the rest of my life running away from this stuff. When these Men in the Cities drawings were showed at The Met during this big pictures exhibition, they were shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they were hung in the lobby. And they’re big drawings—they’re like eight by five feet, and they’re hanging up, and… I was there with my son and his friend, they were like 13 years old at the time. And his friend says to me, “Did you get the idea for those drawings from the iPod ad?” Which had been out, you know—
And I said, “No, those drawings are like thirty years old,” you know. To realize that the work had gotten so iconic that its authorship didn’t exist anymore… Do you know what I mean? There are bands using the— If I look on the Internet, I can find bands using my images and stuff like that without any credit for it. And at first I got kind of outraged by it, then I realized this is an incredible compliment. But the same time it’s like I’m the guy that made those goofy-looking figures, you know.
So, style has always been a problematic thing to me, because the thing about telling—trying to deal with truth as an artist is you have… You can fashion the truth, or you could try to tell the truth. You know. I think I hope I’m trying to tell the truth, and in that sense stylistically I’ve tried to avoid a style that is recognizable as a kind of like…that what Men in the Cities encapsulated. And I think that like, all these black and white drawings are basically reflective of the landscape of the world we live in. I think that my black and white drawings are… They exist somewhere between traditional representation and modernist abstraction—it’s almost like I translate photographs or something. I mean, we still see the world in photographs, in that sense. And I think black and white is actually highly abstract in that sense.
But in that sense I mean… Someone jokingly said to me, they said that, “Your ego must be so out of control now because you think you’re trying to like own all the black and white images in the world.” It’s like whenever you see a black and white image, you’re supposed to think of my work. And I find it really flattering that he had made that connection, but I can’t tell you the endless times that someone says, “Oh, I saw this picture in the newspaper. It looked just like your work.” But it’s actually the other way around. My work is inspired by what I see.
Intertitle: Violence of the Real
Longo: I’ve always thought the work has a kinda… It somehow has to balance itself between like, you know… It has that schizoid thing in between like, you know, falling off the precipice you know, to oblivion and hope. And like, the guns are a simple example of that.
My oldest son at the time was really… He was playing basketball on West Third— We used to play basketball together on West Fourth St. in the cages. That afternoon he went without me. He was 13 I think at the time. And he was really interested in hip hop music and the whole… We had just moved here from Europe, okay. And he was just excited about being in New York and stuff like that.
And he comes home and he says like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe what just happened.” It was a fight in the cages, and it was between a white kid and a black kid. And the white kid busted a bottle and was gonna cut him. And then this little kid reached into a gym bag, another kid reached into—and pulled out a gun. And everybody screamed, ‘Gun!’ ” And this image of like when you drop a pebble in water and the kind of ripples— It’s like everyone ran away and went down the subway, disappeared. And this little kid put the gun back in his bag and he just walked really slowly into the subway.
And I realized my kid was excited. He thought this was like the greatest thing he had seen. And it was like I’m going oh my fucking god. My kids live in this fucking crazy city? And it was all of a sudden this point saying “go that way.” And I started to research guns. Got in contact with the FBI. And the FBI…I actually asked them questions, they’re actually quite helpful. I got a list of the most popular handguns in the United States. I got a list of how many people died that year of handguns. And I had to go through a kind of illegal way to get the guns to photograph them? It was a whole complicated story which I’d rather not go into. Because I couldn’t get guns myself, because I had no license.
So, what was interesting about making the drawings of the guns is I wasn’t there to say they’re good or bad, you know. I was more like, the idea of I’m gonna rip them— I’m going to take this issue that’s bothering me and rip it out of the culture and stick it in front of you and say, “What do you think?” What do you think about these things?”
And it was ironic that at the time, one of the drawings, the Museum of Modern Art wanted to buy. And they took it up to the Modern, the curators all wanted it, but the board of directors—the head of the board directors was a woman, I think her name is Agnes Gunn (which is kind of ironic).
What had just happened that week when they were reviewing buying the gun, this man had shot a bunch of people on the Long Island Railroad, and they decided not to buy the gun. That’s exactly why they should have bought the gun! Do you know what I mean? It’s like, it’s an issue. It’s an issue that you have to deal with and not hide it. Okay, well maybe not.
So, I thought this was a really interesting example of like how I’m not saying they’re good or bad. I’m asking you, “This is something that’s putting pressure on me to think about, what do you think about it?” in that sense. And I think in that sense as an artist…I don’t like art that tells me about how crazy I am or neurot— I mean, we’re all fucked up. I mean, it’s like…it’s not worth it in that sense. I mean, I think we’re supposed to be…as artists we’re supposed to be antennas, and we’re supposed to somehow…
It’s like when you walk down the street, and I remember when I was a kid walking down the street… I was with my friend and I saw this tree. And in the tree I swore I saw Jimi Hendrix’ head. And I said, “Look! There’s Jimi Hendrix in the tree.”
And he said, “I don’t see it.”
I said, “Well look. Look over there, you can see the nose…”
And he goes, “I see it! I see it.”
That’s what being an artist is like. It’s like saying like, “Look. Do you see this?” you know? And maybe some people see it, some people don’t.
Intertitle: Against the Banal
Longo: I think a lot of times people like to look down at art, you know? What’s interesting about somebody like Jeff Koons, is quite brilliant about Jeff Koons is this idea of banality, is that people like to look down at things rather than at things, or look up at things. I think that’s one reason why the Americans elected George Bush. I mean, they wanted… You had a choice of a smart person and a stupid person. Both times, Gore and John Kerry. And the American people chose the stupid guy because they didn’t want a president that was smarter than them, you know.
So anyway, I wanted to make work that was aggressive to the viewer, for sure, in that sense. And I thought particularly Reagan at the time, after all the kind of wishy-washy moral free-for-all of like the 70s and hippies and stuff like that, that kind of failure to certain extent, Reagan being elected kind of drew a line in the sand and all of a sudden you had to take a stance as to where you were on things like that.
I also didn’t like a lot of the art that was being made at that time. A lot of it was just kind of like messy expressionistic art. And I thought a lot of that art was about what art was. And I think myself and most of the other artists that I was hanging around with wanted to make art that was what art could be. It was like what art was, and I was interested in what art could become, in that sense I mean.
Intertitle: Moments of Impact
I like violence. I don’t like violence that hurts someone, I like the moment of impact, of smashing something. I like punching a punching bag. I like the moment of impact. I have a young— My youngest son who’s 16, and we were talking about this actually this morning. We were joking about like how… Wouldn’t it be great if you could get to go into like, you, know Bloomingdale’s for one hour with a steel pipe and do whatever you want. Just smash the whole place up. I mean, there’s something interesting in that moment of high impact that I’m fascinated by. And I think that my early work Men in the Cities is really about that moment of impact. It’s about that split millisecond of that moment of when it happens, and I think that’s something I’ve really…I’ve always been somewhat interested. I mean, as I’ve gotten older obviously it’s changed and mutated. I’m a parent and I’m dealing with responsibilities and stuff like that. But I still very much have it.
I think also it probably comes from my ethnic background. I’m Italian. My parents screamed and yelled and you know… I mean, I married a German and a real big difference in our family is like you know, we live in a house that has three stories, and when the phone rings on the ground floor and its for my kid on the top floor, I scream up and tell him you know, “Come down and get the phone!” Whereas my wife will actually go up the stairs and tell him he has a phone call.
Intertitle: Psychotic Impulses
I didn’t want to tell you what this image was. I didn’t want to say the guy’s dying. I didn’t want to tell you he was dancing. I didn’t want to tell you he was having an orgasm. I didn’t want to tell you what was happening. I wanted you to make the decision as to what was happening in that picture. And that’s kind of always been somewhat of a position that I’ve tried to take with the work where I don’t feel like…I don’t want to preach, I think, or lecture, or… My work can be bombastic at times but it’s still I think trying to keep a borderline on the edge of what the position is. I want you to make the decision. And I think that in that sense it tells a lot about the viewer and reflecting of it.
Men in the Cities is also about psychotic impulses. It’s about that space of time that exists between when you reach for a cup of coffee, it’s between that thought of thinking about reaching for the cup of coffee and actually grabbing. It’s that space in between. I was a real big fan of Robert Smithson, who dealt with the idea of entropy. And I wanted to kind of go against that idea and try to take a tiny moment of time and turn it into forever as well, in that sense.
But also, they go back… I think that making art to me has always been about, if you remember those old radios where you actually would physically tune in a station? You could feel the station come in, like if you went one way or another you’d lose it. I think it’s about a balance between something that’s very very personal, and something that’s very much in the world. So, in that sense these drawings and all my work have kind of existed in this kind of range where I can find the point that I think is really personal, and I can also find it in the world.
The Men in the Cities drawings were evolved out of watching Sam Peckinpah movies. The way people died in movies was a radical break in… Like, James Cagney would get shot and he would just kind of fall down, whereas in a Sam Peckinpah movie, the guy’s chest would explode and he’d go through the wall.
When I was a kid we used to play this game call “who could fall dead the best,” where one guy would pretend to have a gun and all the kids would run at you and you would shoot them. And whoever died the best got to be the guy with the gun again. But at the same time I was really interested in the violence that actually existed in the world. I mean, it was ironic that… I think artists tend to have a Cassandra curse? You know, we could see the future but we can’t do a whole lot about it. It was really interesting when I… I was probably maybe a year into the Men in the Cities drawings when Reagan was—the attempted assassination of Reagan. And there were all these photographs of these guys, the Secret Service guys getting shot. They all ended up looking like the drawings, you know.
But in that sense it also had a lot to do with the way people were dancing at the punk clubs at that time. Like I said, there was a balance between the social and the personal that’s always been really important to me.
What did—9/11 have an affect on me? I mean, that’s just a really big question, I mean. The thing that— I live in Brooklyn. And I work here in Manhattan. I usually go every— Almost four or five days a week I play basketball in the morning with a bunch of guys. It’s on the top floor of a Jewish synagogue, the gym is. And I could see the World Trade Centers when it happened.
And… When I saw that smoke coming out of the towers and stuff like that, it was this very clear moment when we were realizing that my world was radically going to be altered for the rest of my life. I didn’t know how it had happened, but the image that I saw was the World Trade Centers and this huge black cloud streaming across the horizon, the sky, for miles. And I remember going home and watching it on TV. Very bad reception, the TV, because we had an antenna. We didn’t have cable at the time.
And a…a whole series of things occurred. I mean, one thing that’s the most interesting thing that I realized recently about that, it hit me because after doing these drawings of Mecca and the burqas and things like that, is that 9/11 was like, the greatest crash course in education in Islam for the Western world. It was like, I knew nothing about Islam. I knew they wore these really weird things, and they worshiped Muhammad, but I didn’t know anything about the religion. And because of 9/11, myself and many other people that I know now I have become quite educated in what Islam is. So it was like this really weird form of like okay…here’s a quick [makes smashing sound] crash course—you gotta know who these people are.
But at the same time, 9/11 was… As an Americ—America is like a… There’s a great book called Dangerous Nation. America is not this shining light on the top of the hill anymore. Or, I don’t think it ever really was. But America is different than the rest of the countries in the world because it’s the only country I think that’s based upon the idea of team sport. Other countries are based on race, religion, tribe. The United States is the only country in the world that’s based on the idea of a team. Because there’s all these diverse different people, and we all work together for a goal.
The problem is that America, because it is a team, its main objective is to win. And everyone in America’s incredibly competitive. And winning is this kind of…schism that exists that basically will ultimately destroy us.
So what happened with 9/11 was…dare I say, this incredibly brilliant act of terrorism happened, by using our own airplanes to fly into the buildings To have these incredible monuments of American capitalism fall down. That it was like knocking out the front teeth of the big bully. It was such an out— Americans were so outraged by it, that someone did that. It was as if— The reaction was like that another team had scored the goal that we thought actually was a shitty team. And now we gotta win the game, and we gotta really… So for every one that died at 9/11 you know, 10,000 have to die of you guys.
But we didn’t know who those guys were. I mean, it was like this total ignorant reaction to not trying to comprehend how much anger and hate and pain the United States makes in the world…to cause people to do this. It was like there was no attempt to try to understand it, which is really kind of a frightening thing.
At the same time, the aesthetics of it were quite extraordinary. I mean, the images that came out of it. I mean, those guys falling out of the buildings… I mean, I can’t begin to tell you how many people sent me photographs saying, “Oh, doesn’t this look like your drawings!” I mean, it’s like, well…
But the thing that was interesting is I was drawing these waves at the time. And the waves had slowly mutated and were started to look more and more like fire and smoke and stuff like that. And people were sending me images of 9/11 for smoke. And one image came out—I printed it out of the computer, that I wanted. I thought I could fuse some of this smoke and clouds into the waves. It was the image of the towers falling down and the smoke. But when it came out, it came out upside down so it was the smoke and the towers. And my reaction was oh my god, this looks just like an atomic bomb.
And I grew up looking at Life magazine. And I didn’t really start reading until I was thirty, I was dyslexic and stuff like that. So picture magazines are really important me—National Geographic, stuff like that. And I saved a lot of these Life magazines. I took them home, and I was looking at them, at the atomic bomb tests and things like that. And my youngest son was maybe six or seven at the time, and I said, “What do you think this is?” this atomic bomb. And he said, “It’s a hurricanes, it’s a tornado.” And I had just been doing these waves which was like power as an issue in relationship to the force of nature. And seeing an atomic bomb was like all of a sudden realizing it was man trying to be God.
And I was thinking about Bush at the time and his reaction to the whole 9/11 thing, and I realized that my children actually may have to live in a world where these things will be used. And I find a lot times in my work that sometimes the signposts are right there; they say “go that way.” And I stopped doing the waves and I started doing the atomic bombs.
And I think those are all consequences of this whole— I mean, I realize on a daily basis the consequences that 9/11 implements on one’s life. You think about it all the time. I mean, you travel. You know, making art, how much— Like when I made the burqas, am I offending people? It just becomes a whole issue of the whole kind of feeling of like, how to walk— It’s like walking on thin ice sometimes.
Intertitle: The Haunting
The structure of the piece I can’t quite…explain how it happened. But what I wanted to have happen— I’m very aware of the reflections that occur because of the glass in my work. I’m very aware that you see yourself, or you see other drawings in the work. I mean, I’m not ignorant of that. And and I use that. I don’t know if in Nice, if you realized it, you could see like, in the shark’s mouth you could see the plane crashing. Or you could see different things that were— The reflections really worked with each other.
So I wanted that piece to have it so that when you stood in front of that peace, the airplanes were crashing into you. Because it was that big black section, and basically one kinda goes into your head and the other one kinda goes into your heart if you like, my height, in that sense. So when you stand in front of it you see yourself in that middle section, that black middle section.
Ironically about working in black and white for me is that I realize the impact of like, journalistic photography had had on me when I was growing up. I remember Life magazine like, the color photographs were usually of Marilyn Monroe, or celebrities, or you know, the king’s house or something like that. And then the black and white photographs were like of Vietnam, or the earthquake, or you know, prostitutes in Calcutta. And it was, all of a sudden I started realizing that black and white I associated with the truth. And color, I didn’t believe. And somehow…
So by turning these images into black and white I was trying to like basically try to see them in terms of my own work, and to see what they taught me. And drawing them was really interesting because it was like wait, I actually got to alter history. Like, if I didn’t like the Guernica exactly the way that one section over here—I could actually make it darker. I mean, not to compare myself anyway to any of these artists by any chance, but it was… It was more like a revisiting of my own education, in that sense.
And the fact that those images have any kind of thematic element is also educational in relationship, for me, to my own work. I mean, I love Caravaggio… And it was really interesting the paintings that I like of Caravaggio tend to be the more aggressive ones like The Taking of Christ.
Intertitle: Competition Nation
What’s interesting about American sports is that American sports is almost like a kind of like…a kind of template of American history. Baseball was the first sport invented in America. It’s an agricultural-based sport. It starts in the summer, you know, and it goes into the fall. Which is basically kind of like the agricultural period of time, when the harvesting and the planting… It has no timeframe. It’s supposed to be nine innings, but if the score is tied, it can go on forever. It could be like a hundred innings. There’s no timeframe.
It’s an agrarian sport in that sense. There are distances to how long the bases are, but how big this field is can be as—there’s no rules to how big a field is. It’s a team of individuals— Even though it’s a lot of people working together, it’s a sport that occurs, and when the event happens, it’s always an individual— Like, the guy throws a ball, a guy hits the ball, the guy catches the b— It’s a focused individual.
Now comes the industrial age… Also what’s interesting about American sports is each jump in American sports corresponds to when there is a war. The American Civil War…after the American Civil War, baseball—had started slightly before the Civil War, it kind of like exploded afterwards. American football happens after the American Civil War, during the beginning of the industrial age. And what happened is sports in America was the way that you know, American soldiers, American boys and young men who went away to war, after they came back they still wanted to have that atmosphere. I mean, there’s something quite unique about the camaraderie of playing on a sports team or being in a military unit, that you have this kind of artificial sense of friendship, and bond— Like, “I’ll die for you. I got your back.” And then, after the season’s over…you know, you never talk to the guy sometimes, you know what I mean?
So, the thing is that football becomes like the beginning—it also becomes like, the industrial age. It’s like, in baseball everyone has to be able do every everything. Everyone has to catch, hit, throw. In football, everyone has a specialized job. This is the guy who throws the ball; this is the guy who runs the ball; this is the guy who blocks; all these very specialized positions. They even have rules where you can’t… Like, linemen can’t touch the football, you know what I mean? Only these certain guys can touch it. The football fields have to be an exact size. There’s a clock. The game has to end at a certain time.
American sports don’t have ties, you know what I mean. Someone has to win. And American sports start to escalate once transportation got around. So then rivalries didn’t— Like in soccer or in Europe, where rivalries were like the towns next door to each other. Also, now you had rivalries that went all over the United States, in that sense. So football becomes the beginning of the industrial age, where all of us work together, as a factory or as a team, to win. You know?
And then the idea of warfare becomes more amplified in football because now you have the bomb… You have the ground game… It just becomes all metaphorical towards war. I mean, the Romans used gladiatorial games to keep the populace in a frenzy of war. It kept the bloodlust always there, so that you know— You go to the Coliseum, watch a bunch of people kill e—okay, by the way next week we got to go and kill all these like, barbarians. So sports in America keeps us in this kind of constant perpetual state of war.
Intertitle: Veiled Art
My wife in a burqa was really interesting. My wife’s an actress. She’s a really great actresses. She’s far better at what she does than what I do, but. But she has incredible eyes. We were at the Louvre in Paris, and we’re going in, and standing next to us, I look down there are these like, these incredible high heel shoes. And as I kind of follow this up, I realize there’s these young girls completely dressed in like Chanel, decked to—just incredible. And then as I get all the way up I realize they’re wearing burqas. They’re wearing these black veils. And their eye makeup is like incredible, you know. I mean, it was quite beautiful and sexy.
And I said to my wife, “So what do you think of that?” And she says, “You know, sometimes I really wish I could wear one of those.” She says it’s really great to be able…“not have to worry about my hair, not have to worry about my makeup, just put a little eye makeup on, you know. Even the whole thing, it would be great. That way I don’t have to worry about my clothes and—”
It seemed like…something that, the West seems so shocking seemed actually quite practical, you know, in a weird way. She said, “That way men staring at me,” she said, “I wouldn’t have to worry about that, you know, if they were looking at my boobs or whatever.”
And it was like, the difference, the line, between those two things seemed extraordinary to me. So I wanted to do something about this kind of image because I also love this image of the mask. I had used it before— Airplane pilots wear those weird kind of masks that cover their whole face except their eyes before they put the helmets on and stuff like that. I used it in a picture a long time ago called Tongue to the Heart where I wanted to look like— I used my eyes in a mask and I wanted to look like an airplane pilot that was going like so fast he was gonna see God or something like that.
But I think that the idea that on one hand it had this kind of like interesting idea of practicality, and the other hand it had this really frightening oppressive element to it. And I asked my wife to do a— I photographed her and took a number of different expressions. Her eyes angry, sad… And then we found burqas on the Internet. The Internet has been an incredible tool for me because now I just like…I want a subject matter of something, and I look on the Internet and… Like [Q?], my assistant, is like this expert on the Internet. He knows— He can go to Chinese Internet, he can go to like—he goes to all different places. And we took burqas and we took them off, and we put them on, and we manipulated it all. So in that sense I— I also like that they’re so big. They’re like eight feet tall by six feet wide, that when you stand in front of them you see yourself in front of them.