In partnership with The Broad: "The Un-Private Collection" is a talk series, featuring unexpected pairings of cultural leaders and influential artists in the Broad collections, taking place at venues around Los Angeles.
As part of The Broad Museum's The Un-Private Collection series, renowned artist Robert Longo chatted with his long time friend and musician/ journalist Henry Rollins in Downtown Los Angeles on May 17, 2016. They discussed Longo's "Men in the Cities" series and his artistic process.
What follows is a condensed transcript of their conversation.
Henry Rollins: Robert, I know you’ve been asked about this series like a hundred times but I’ll make this really brief. Many of you have seen these images of these well-dressed men and women who look like they’ve been hit by some massive invisible fist or they’re having some kind of glorious seizure. You’re the creator of this work so I would like to ask you what’s your intent and what you wanted to get across in the “Men in the Cities” series.
Robert Longo: The thing is as an artist you have to figure out what are the images that you’re going to make. One of the things that was interesting as a kid growing up was watching how James Cagney died in a movie just by going, "Uhh.” As a kid, I played a game called “Who Could Fall Dead the Best.” That was a game where one guy pretends to have a gun and the other kids run at you and you shoot. Whoever dies the best gets to be the guy with the gun. You following me?
Anyway, we were part of this thing called the Pictures Generation, [creating] some bullshit appropriations. I found this image from a still from a [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder film called “The American Soldier.” It was this image of a guy being shot and I made a cast aluminum relief of it. It was in this show called “Pictures.” This piece got an enormous amount of attention.
I realized people were paying attention to that piece, and they weren’t paying attention to the bands I was playing in, the performances I would do and things like that. So I decided to dump everything else and really focus on “Men in the Cities,” which the title comes from a combination of “Alice in the Cities,” the [Wim] Wenders’ film, and the record called “In the City” [by The Jam].
I couldn’t find any pictures in magazines anymore, so I thought instead what I’ll do is start photographing my friends. The clothes that we were wearing at the time were much more severe than the traditional punk stuff that everyone was wearing. Basically, like shorts and ties then lapels, stovepipe pants and things like that. I got my friends to wear basically the stuff they normally wore and I would take them up on the roof of my studio that was down by the Brooklyn Bridge and I would throw stuff at them and take photographs of them.
I would shoot tons of pictures to find one picture that was really great. The thing was I was looking for a psychotic impulse.
HR: I have a question, two questions actually about your process and I want to bring up a photo called “The Bullet Hole and Broken Window” which from what I understand was taken from the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. What I want to ask you is what is your process, your emotional commitment to going from a photo of something that awful and having to spend hours, days, weeks, bringing that to bear? What are you going through in this process?
RL: As an artist, I don’t want to be political by choice. I mean, I feel I’m compelled to. When I saw this image I thought about the great tradition that happens in art, of people making great art from catastrophes.
I thought how history hasn’t changed that much but I saw this image and I thought about the moment of impact versus how long… This became an issue of how long did it take to draw a bullet hole versus how long it took to make the bullet hole. The idea of seeing beauty in this thing was really important to me and at the same time, I wanted to deal with the shock of it. I wanted you to look at something and think it was really beautiful and at the same time realize, “Holy shit. This is really crazy.” I mean, that was really important to me.
What happens is I end up, for lack of really horrible way of describing it, I tend to beautify it. I try to make it even more beautiful than it is because I want to make it more seductive for you to get into it so that then you go, “Whoa. What the fuck am I looking at?” I think that’s really important that you have this moment where you all of a sudden go, “I’m thinking this bullet hole is really beautiful.” I think it’s really important to me and this happens a lot when I work.
HR: The great writer, Hubert Selby Jr. once characterized himself as a scream looking for a mouth. Have you ever had a situation where you had a feeling or some artistic compulsion but you had no image to attach it to? You’re just looking for a place to put that energy but you had no image to affix that intent to. If you had that situation, how do you get out of it?
RL: [Laughs] Then I’d be really fucked.
HR: Has that ever happened, kind of the cart leading the horse or the tail wagging the dog?
RL: I’m an image thief, that’s one thing. The world seems to provide me with endless materials to work from. A really great example was when I did the Ferguson drawing. Okay, I did these cops. I was so freaked out by this when I first saw these images of Ferguson. At first I thought, "This is like the Ukraine or maybe this is like Islamabad or this is Iraq or something." Then I saw off in the distance McDonald’s. You see McDonald’s up there way off in the distance on the left hand side? Then the Exxon sign. This is the fucking United States. I was like so outraged, so I felt I had to make this drawing.
The irony was I wanted to do the protesters. I wanted to make a matching drawing to go with them and the problem was whenever I try to do them, I couldn’t do them justice. I mean, it sounds really horrible what I’m going to say but all these people with their hands up, the way I was doing them they looked like they were doing the Macarena. And, it wasn’t working until the world gave me the Saint Louis Rams’ wide receiving core which we all know are the crazy fuckers on the football team. They all came out when they’re being introduced with their hands up which blew my mind. I thought, “This is my solution.”
I thought, “Here are football players dressed like the cops, in equipment like the cops, being idolized by primarily a white audience, but the kid that was shot on the street was the size of a football player.” And at the same time, you start realizing that football was a way of keeping America like the way the Romans kept it -- they had gladiatorial games -- a way of keeping us in a constant state of war. In that sense, it was like here’s an answer in an image when I didn’t have one, and all of a sudden the world delivered it. I mean, I can count on the world being fucked up enough to give me stuff, I guess.
HR: One thing I wanted to ask is a thing about choice. In my opinion, you are in pretty much in control of the image. You’re determining the size, how many panels, because some of these works are epic size. There are two series [in particular], just in my opinion, where you weren’t always... you weren’t really in control. That you seem slightly overwhelmed and they are the series of “Waves” and the series of “Mushroom Clouds.” My question is, did you draw the images or did the images draw you?
RL: That’s interesting because I think making art for me is this really critical balance -- like remember the old radios where you can tune in a radio station? I think it’s about tuning in between something that’s highly personal and somewhat socially relevant. The waves and the bombs have a very personal connection to me because I have three sons.
My middle son Victor wanted to learn to surf and I had always surfed as a kid. I remember taking him out in the water and at that time, I had just finished "Magellan." I was kind of lost. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was in the water pushing him into the waves.
My work in the ‘80s was always about mediations and power and here I am in nature. This is like real power. I went back to my studio one day during the Christmas vacation. I wanted to draw a picture of a wave but I realized I couldn’t find any of my normal material which was graphite and I ended up using this charcoal. The first wave was made in like 1999 and the waves kind of happened almost by themselves. They became almost like psychological profiles because the more I learned -- and each series that I’ve done I do research about the work -- I found out how the shape of a wave is dictated by what happens deep underneath it. The shape becomes like a weird psychological profile, but the irony is that when I was working on the waves, 9/11 happened.
I started taking parts of the smoke from the newspaper and putting them into the waves because I was so freaked out by this whole thing. Someone sent me a picture of the towers falling down with a lot of smoke. They thought it would be cool for me to see and when I printed it out, it came out upside down. It was the clouds with the building. I went, “Holy shit. This looks like an atomic bomb.” I thought about Bush being this lunatic that he’s going to use an atomic weapon and I started thinking about my kids.
I [always] saved “Life Magazine.” I grew up with picture magazines -- that was really important. So, I took these magazines home to look at and I remember showing the atomic bombs to my kids and asking my youngest son, “What do you think this is.” And he said. “It’s a hurricane.” I thought, “Wow. This is like man trying to be God.” I felt I had no choice, I had to make these images and at the same time the government had just released a whole bunch of new images of atomic bombs. These images became interesting.
These images also created this whole issue of scale for me that I can make big things small, small things big. I started fucking with scale like roses became really big. I started realizing I was trying to deal with things at their moment of being. Like a wave crashes, a bomb explodes, a rose blooms.
I got really involved with this kind of issue. But what happened is at that point I realized I wasn’t driving anymore. The work was saying go this way and the next thing that would happen would [be this] series. I almost didn’t predict when they would happen. They kept on going like after the “Waves” came, the “Planets” and after the “Planets” came two “Sleeping Children.” After “Sleeping Children” came the “Sharks” and after that, I stopped. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was completely lost.
Then I have this cousin, Regina, who’s a Born Again Christian. She’s a bit nutty. At Christmas dinner one time she said to me, “You know, your work is like Genesis.” I said, “What are you talking about?” She left and I remember looking at the Bible. Then when I looked, I realized that I had made basically Genesis.
Each category kind of fit in, the sky, the planets, the water, the sharks, I mean… All of a sudden I felt free to make a world. At that point, the work literally exploded. That’s when I became in control. Then, I didn’t wait anymore for the work to tell me what to happen next. All of a sudden, I want to do forests, I want to do flags, I want to do riots, I want to do airplanes, I want to do this. All of a sudden it just exploded.
HR: To me, you have a lot of New York in you. There’s a New York energy to your work where it’s just so immediate but there’s also a lot of violence and I know that you’re not someone who admires violence or you’re not a violent person but it is a part of the work, it’s an energy that informs your work. I want to ask you about violence in your work.
RL: Well, the thing is because of being dyslexic I got into lots of fights growing up. I was always in fights and then I was steered towards boxing and I played football. I really liked violence. I like impact of that stuff and that’s when I remember hearing the Sex Pistols. I really loved hearing those slashing guitars, stuff like that.
I like the idea of violence but I just don’t like the idea of hurting anybody. I like smashing shit. I mean, don’t you guys like to smash stuff? There’s something great about that experience. Again, it’s about this high-impact moment for sure. On the other hand, I think violence is not in what I’m doing. It’s something different. Sometimes, I think [there are things] I can’t express in words… that’s why I make art. I do believe that art is a form of understanding which I think is really important. Like I think you heard me say this, “science and sociology are understandings, but maybe art has the capacity to help us maybe understand our contemporary situation.”
Top images by Robert Longo.