Selection of Texts for Robert Longo Exhibition

Overview by Valery Ledenev

Douglas Crimp. Pictures

October, Vol. 8 (Spring, 1979), pp. 75-88

In 1977, Robert Longo was among the five artists featured in Pictures, a seminal exhibition organized by the American art critic Douglas Crimp, which also included works by Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine and Philip Smith. Crimp’s article for October is a reworked essay he had written for the exhibition’s catalogue, but, rather than focusing on the artists selected for the show, it discusses the broader phenomenon their work exemplified.

 Artists of the generation that Robert Longo represents, as Crimp points out, do not confine themselves to any particular medium—they have shattered the integrity of mediums like painting and sculpture by choosing to work with common and nonspecific “pictures”. Used colloquially, the word “picture” can refer to a very broad range of images: from photos in newspapers, film stills, and advertisements, to book illustration, logos and symbols loaded with political connotations. Exploring the nature and the essence of pictures, artists of Longo’s generation rejected Greenberg’s ideal of a pure medium that resonated with the modernist tradition.

 Borrowing pictures from film (Longo), mass media (Levine) or archives (Brauntuch), or creating fictional narratives, like Cindy Sherman, these younger artists look into how pictures are constructed and how we perceive them. Today, no image is independent as modernist artists intended it to be. Every picture is part of a broader narrative, and it is the context—the frame that the viewer adds to the image—that makes pictures meaningful. Every image exists at the intersection of several levels of communication and representation, social conventions and myths: all of those layers become visible if we extract the picture from its “natural” context and put it in the “neutral” exhibition space.

 According to Crimp, artists’ refusal to stay loyal to a specific medium has marked the beginning of postmodernism: not just a change in style, but a radically new way of understanding art. ‘We are not in search of sources or origins, but of structures of signification’, Crimp explains, ‘underneath each picture there is always another picture’.

 It was due to Douglas Crimp that the generation of artists he describes in this essay came to be known as the Pictures Generation. Their practices form the context that can help us get a better understanding of Longo’s works. 

The Pictures Generation, 1974–1994

New York: Metropolitan Museum of Arts, 2009. – 350 pp.

In 2009, the artists featured in Douglas Crimp’s landmark exhibition, were brought together again for the exhibition The Pictures Generation, 1974–1994 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This retrospective show was initiated by Douglas Eklund, the Met’s curator specialising in contemporary photography, who also wrote three essays for the exhibition catalogue.

 While Crimp’s Pictures at Artists Space in New York opened in September 1977, Eklund argues that the story of the Pictures Generation began much earlier, and that the group of artists who belonged to the “generation” was in fact much wider than Crimp’s essay suggests.

 Instead of New York, Eklund sees the roots of the movement in California, among the students of the conceptual artist John Baldessari at CalArts. Jack Goldstein who would later take part in Crimp’s Pictures was one of them.

 The mass exodus of young Californian artists to the East Coast has had a great influence on the New York art scene, and in particular on Robert Longo, who was among the founders of Hallwalls art center with Charles Clough. With CalArts at the time being funded by Walt Disney, its students’ interest in popular culture seems unsurprising, if not symbolic.

 Baldessari’s academic career coincided with the heyday of conceptual and pop art, and his students were no doubt very familiar with both movements. However, unlike Warhol and Lichtenstein, young Californians did not work with vulgar vernacular images, and at the same time, unlike conceptual artists, they did not opt for abstraction and the non-material.

 A separate chapter in the book is devoted to the discussion of the 1977 exhibition and an analysis of works featured in Crimp’s show, including those by Robert Longo. However, to Eklund, Pictures was but one of the later episodes in the history of the movement he associates with a very broad group of artists, whose texts and debates are very much present in his analysis.

The Exhibitionist. Journal on Exhibition Making #2 / June 2010


The issue of The Exhibitionist that came out after the opening of The Pictures Generation, contains a number of articles discussing the context in which Robert Longo made some of his best-known works.

 Writing for the influential Italian magazine on contemporary art and curating, Robert Storr offers an analysis of Douglas Crimp’s 1977 essay. More than a mere attempt to describe a new phenomenon, Storr asserts that Crimp’s text was to set him apart from the art historical establishment of the era, dominated by Clement Greenberg’s and Michael Fried’s views, which Crimp does indeed argue with.

 Jenelle Porter, who was the first to recreate Crimp’s seminal exhibition in 2001, writes on the influence that the artists of the Pictures Generation have had on her peers, whose works she exhibited along with those displayed in the original Pictures.

 Commenting on a number of Pictures reconstructions, Jane Simon argues that the artists of Longo’s generation have created a ‘sense of critique, affection, and disaffection for the visual world around us’. ‘And I know that my critical, cynical, and complicated attachment to anything commercial is influenced and informed by Prince’s Marlboro man and Sherman’s movie star’, she concludes.

 Eva Díaz offers a critical analysis of the 2009 exhibition, which to her is an example of the strange revisionism that has been creeping into contemporary curatorial projects. Reminding the reader of Crimp’s background in philosophy, and his interest in French Marxism and the poststructuralist program (which also shows in his later writings), Díaz argues that Eklund’s interpretation of the Pictures Generation does not do justice to Crimp’s critique of media and representation in the original project. With thirty artists featured in Eklund’s project (as opposed to five in Crimp’s), the links between them, she claims, are rather obscure.

Appropriation / edited by David Evans

London: Whitechapel; Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. – 238 pp.

This MIT anthology on appropriation, discusses some of the strategies used by the artists of the Pictures Generation. Authors include Louis Aragon, the French surrealist poet, Raoul Hausmann, the Austrian dada artist who pioneered collage, as well as Guy Debord, writing on the tactic of “detournement”, and Okwui Enwezor, who represents the postcolonial discourse—where appropriation becomes a political gesture.  

 A chapter by Thomas Crow is devoted to the New York art scene of the 1980s, which was strongly influenced by Robert Longo and Sherrie Levine, while Elizabeth Sassman offers a critical analysis of the exhibition Endgame, featuring works by Peter Halley and Philip Taaffe, who take an opposite stance to the artists of the Pictures Generation.

 Jean Baudrillard’s text on simulacra is published next to Sherrie Levine’s manifesto explaining her artistic strategy and her pioneering use of appropriation.

Robert Longo: Men In The Cities. Photographs 1976-1982

Munich : Schirmer/Mosel, 2009. – 128 pp.

Garage Library also holds two publications devoted exclusively to the art of Robert Longo.  The first is the catalogue for his 2009 exhibition at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice.

 ‘The director of the Los Angeles County Museum, Earl A. Powell, concluded his remarks in the catalogue of the great retrospective twenty years ago with the statement that Longo’s works evoked both the most deep-seated fears and the greatest hopes of contemporary civilization’, Werner Spies writes in his article for the catalogue. ‘What has become of this dichotomy between fear and hope since then? Nothing in Longo’s most recent works points beyond a profound melancholy. At best, one might speak of a cynical inversion of horror into a compelling sublimity. Because what we see—a vortex of all-consuming floods, or billowing mushroom clouds <…>—all these are literally images of the world’s end, chiliastic images after which no further images can come.’

 The second catalogue was published in Munich in 2009 and is devoted to the artist’s best-known project Men in the Cities, 1977–1983—a series of images of men and women caught in strange positions, as if dancing or writhing under the blows from some unseen force. The images have been borrowed from mass media and cinema, and the models for the project include the artist Cindy Sherman, the critic Hal Foster and the art dealer Larry Gagosian. The catalogue also features essays by Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince.