Robert Longo (American, born 1953)

Untitled, 1980
From the series Men in the Cities, 1979–82
Charcoal and graphite on paper, 60 x 40 in.
Museum Purchase

The writhing, contorted figures in Robert Longo’s series of charcoal-and-graphite drawings Men in the Cities have become iconic. Caught mid-fall, head back, arms and legs flailing, the man depicted in Untitled captures the Zeitgeist of a jittery period whose unofficial motto might have been, "If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space." Longo’s images of men and women embody the convulsive energy and poses of punk rock as well as the social strife of the Reagan years. Like Cindy Sherman’s self-portrait photographs representing scenes in imaginary B-movies and Jenny Holzer’s distillations of vast philosophies into pithy one-liners broadcast on posters and led signs, they are emblems of early 1980s art.

According to Longo, the idea for Men in the Cities came from a clay relief figure he made based on a publicity photograph of a murder scene in the German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's An American Soldier (1970). Longo was impressed by the way a character in the film, dressed in a hat and tie, is shot in the back and leaps forward, chest arching violently--forming a terrifying yet elegant airborne arabesque. The director Sam Peckinpah and actor-director Clint Eastwood were popularizing graphic, melodramatic death scenes in their movies, and Longo wanted to capture that stylization in his drawings, along with the "hot and fast" new movements developed by singers in bands such as The Contortions and Talking Heads. (1) He invited friends, including Cindy Sherman and his then-girlfriend, artist Gretchen Bender, to model for him on the roof of his New York apartment building, snapping pictures as he threw tennis balls at them to provoke spontaneous, full-body dynamism. Longo and his assistants transformed the figures through aggressively scraped and worked drawing into stark, high-contrast, nearly life-size images.

The critic Carter Ratcliff referred to the figures in Men in the Cities as "failed caryatids," collapsing members of an empty contemporary culture that grants them no legitimate burdens. (2) But Longo himself took a more positive attitude: "[M]y art aspires to freedom and truth and hope," he said. "It tries to mediate between power and peace." (3) The ancestors of Men in the Cities, Longo recently asserted, include Greek and Roman sculptures and the paintings of Caravaggio, Edward Hopper, and Egon Schiele. (4) Like the heroes and antiheroes in those works, the figures in Men in the Cities embody the spirit and struggles of their time.

--Toby Kamps, curator of the Menil Collection

1. Richard Price, "Save the Last Dance for Me," in Price, Men in the Cities, 1979–1982, exh. cat. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1986), 88.
2. Carter Ratcliff, "Robert Longo: The City of Sheer Image," Print Collector’s Newsletter 14 (July–August 1983), 98.
3. Longo quoted in Howard N. Fox, "In Civil War," in Fox, Robert Longo, exh. cat. (New York: Rizzoli and Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1989), 48.
4. Richard Price, "Interview with Robert Longo," in Price and Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo: Men in the Cities – Photographs, 1976 –1982 (Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 2009), 11.
Robert Longo (American, born 1953), 'Untitled,' 1980. From the series Men in the Cities, 1979–82. Charcoal and graphite on paper, 60 by 40 inches. Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas. Museum Purchase