Museum of Contemporary Art Collection: Robert Longo

August 25, 2012 1 comment Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Two of the coolest works of art in the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville are the stark paintings of iconic 80s painter, Robert Longo. Emblematic of the culture and times of the 80s, they were acquired at a time when the Museum was right in the thick of things in the national art scene. Join us after the jump for details.

I have long admired the Robert Longo works that the Museum periodically shows from its permanent selection.  I was a teenager when they were acquired and they were one of the things that drew me into the museum and the hard edged 80s culture.

In New York (and throughout the world of pop iconography and fashion, the Men In Cities series was an instant classic, and Longo would go on to help define a cultural ethos that saturated the era and has been copied and tributed many times over.

Its an interesting story how the museum acquired the works.  According to Ben Thompson, MOCA's mild mannered, laid back curator:

"The Longo pieces we have in the collection are from the “Men in the Cities” Series.  

The particular images we have are a diptych, “Larry” and “Joanna”.  

They’re lithographs and edition 20 of 48.  

They were purchased using Collector’s Club funds (currently attributed as part of the Acquisition Trust Fund) during that groups winter trip to New York in 1983.  

The Collector’s Club was a group of local collectors headed by Bruce Dempsey that included prominent collectors such as Jennifer Johnson and Dr. Anwar Kamal.

They had specific “wish lists”-----based on Bruce’s knowledge, but also what they needed to build the collection.
It would be interesting to know how they pinpointed Longo.  Obviously, he was at the height of his career but they really had vision to actively go to NYC, get a studio visit, and acquire.  They were in direct communication with the artist himself."

Purchasing the work in 1983 really was sharp work on the part of the Collectors Club, Longo had only begun the Men In Cities series in 1979, barely enough time for them to have made the rounds in the gallery scene of the day, and certainly it showed foresight on the part of the CC.  Longo had not yet produced his stylistically unmistakable video work for New Order (1986), REM (1987) or movies like Johnny Mnemonic (1995).

But then again, longtime patron, Jennifer Johnson, the attractive blonde heiress of the Johnson and Johnson fortune seemed to have an uncanny knack for art that Bruce Dempsey seemed to have a similarly uncanny knack for helping her act on.

Dempsey was the titanic figure that guided the Museum through its golden days on Art Museum Drive during the era when the Museum boasted such supporters as Johnson and Ira Koger.  Like Johnson, he is presently spending his days as the director of J. Johnson Gallery at Jax Beach.

Jacksonville is quite lucky to have Longos in its collection, and both of them will be on display in the upcoming 80s retrospective that is forming the museum's (most exciting director since Bruce Dempsey) Marcelle Poledniks "ReFocus" series of shows.

Robert Longo, (left), and his son (middle) in New York for a birthday party

Longo Biography and career

Longo (born January 7, 1953) is an American painter and sculptor. Longo became famous in the 1980s for his "Men in the Cities" series, which depicted sharply dressed men writhing in contorted emotion.

Robert Longo was born in 1953 in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Long Island. He had a childhood fascination with mass media: movies, television, magazines, and comic books, which continue to influence his art.

Longo began college at the University of North Texas, in the town of Denton, but left before getting a degree. He later studied sculpture under Leonda Finke, who encouraged him to pursue a career in the visual arts. In 1972, Longo received a grant to study at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Italy. Upon his return to New York, Longo enrolled at Buffalo State College, where he received a BFA in 1975. While at Buffalo State, he studied under, and was likely influenced by art professor Joseph Piccillo. At this time he was associated with artist Cindy Sherman, who was also studying art at Buffalo State.

While in college, Longo and his friends established an avant garde art gallery in their co-op building, the Essex Art Center, which was originally a converted ice factory; the gallery became Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center. Through his gallery efforts, Longo met many local and New York City artists. Longo eventually moved to New York City to join the underground art scene of the 1970s.


Although he studied sculpture, drawing remained Longo's favorite form of self-expression. However, the sculptural influence pervades his drawing technique, as Longo's "portraits" have a distinctive chiseled line that seems to give the drawings a three-dimensional quality. Longo uses graphite like clay, molding it to create images like the writhing, dancing figures in his seminal "Men in the Cities" series. (1979)  One drawing from this series was used as the album cover to Glenn Branca's album "The Ascension".

Working on themes of power and authority, Longo produced a series of blackened American flags ("Black Flags" 1989–91) as well as oversized hand guns ("Bodyhammers" 1993–95). From 1995 to 1996 he worked on his "Magellan" project, 366 drawings (one per day) that formed an archive of the artist's life and surrounding cultural images. "Magellan" was followed by 2002's "Freud Drawings", which reinterpreted Edmund Engelman's famous documentary images of Sigmund Freud's flat, moments before his flight from the Nazis. In 2002 and 2004 he presented "Monsters", Bernini-esque renderings of massive breaking waves and "The Sickness of Reason", baroque renderings of atomic bomb blasts. "Monsters" was included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial.

Longo had major retrospective exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1989 and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago in 1990, a touring exhibition throughout Japan in 1995, and more recently a "Survey Exhibition 1980-2009," at Musee D'Art Moderne Et D'Art Contemporain de Nice in France in 2009 and at Museu Coleco Berardo in Lisbon, Portugal in 2010.

To create works such as Barbara and Ralph, Longo projects photographs of his subjects onto paper and traces the figures in graphite, removing all details of the background. After he records the basic contours, his long-time illustrator, Diane Shea, works on the figure for about a week, filling in the details. Next, Longo goes back into the drawing, using graphite and charcoal to provide "all the cosmetic work".  Longo continues to work on the drawing, making numerous adjustments until it is completed about a week later.

Other media

In the 1980s, Longo directed several music videos, including New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle", Megadeth's "Peace Sells" and "The One I Love" by R.E.M. He is responsible for the front covers of Glenn Branca's The Ascension from 1981 and The Replacements' 1985 album Tim, while his work has inspired others such as Circlesquare's music video "Dancers".

He also directed the cyberpunk movie Johnny Mnemonic, starring Keanu Reeves, Dolph Lundgren and Takeshi Kitano, and a short film named Arena Brains. At the time, Longo was quoted as saying, "making a painting is one thing, but making a film kicks your ass." During the late 1980s and early 1990s Longo developed a number of performance art theatre pieces, such as "Marble Fog" and "Killing Angels", collaborating with Stuart Argabright, the guitarist Chuck Hammer and Douglas Sloan (filmmaker).

He was the leader and guitarist of a musical act called Robert Longo's Menthol Wars, which performed punk experimental music in New York rock clubs in the late 1970s. During the same period, he also performed with Rhys Chatham in Chatham's Guitar Trio, producing a series of slowly fading slides entitled Pictures for Music", which was played behind the musicians.

New Order Bizarre Love Triangle

Johnny Mnemonic

The One I Love, by REM

Arena Brains (and yes, that is what Michael Stipe used to look like, as many many Jacksonville kids from the 80s remember)

His work from the "Men in Cities" series is also prominently displayed in the apartment of fictional character Patrick Bateman in the film of American Psycho.

Article and graphics by Stephen Dare
Paintings by Robert Longo