Roberto Longo, born in Brooklyn in 1953 and raised on Long Island, is an American painter and sculptor known for his bold drawings and sculptural works which fuse fine art and pop culture. His childhood fascination with mass media – television, movies, magazines and comic books – continues to influence his work today.
In 1972 Longo received a grant to study at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Italy. Returning to New York, he studied sculpture at Buffalo State College, where he received a BFA in 1975. At Buffalo State, he studied under and was influenced by Joseph Piccillo. Longo and his friends, Cindy Sherman among them, founded the avant-garde art gallery Essex Art Center in a converted ice factory. Through the gallery, Longo met many New York City artists and eventually moved to New York to join the underground art scene there.
The influence of sculpture pervades Longo’s drawing technique. His portraits have a distinctive, chiselled line which seems to give them a three-dimensional quality. Using graphite-like clay, Longo moulds his materials to create images like the writhing, dancing figures in his seminal Men in the Cities series. For this series Longo photographed his friends lurching backward, collapsing forward or sprawling on invisible pavements. Enlarging the pictures with a projector, he then drew them in a range of sizes, from three-quarter scale to larger than life – often dramatizing the poses, but always standardizing the attire into formal, black-and-white clothing directly in contrast with the expressive male and female shapes writhing in contorted emotion. The idea for this work came from a still image in the film The American Soldier by Fassbinder. Some four years after seeing the film Longo turned its vision of a man shot in the back into this monumental series of drawings, producing about sixty Men in the Cities images between 1979 and 1982. This series made Longo one of the most widely publicized, exhibited and collected artists of the 1980s.
During the mid-1990s, working on themes of power and authority, Longo produced a series of blackened American flags (Black Flags) as well as a series of oversized hand guns (Bodyhammers). From 1995 to 1996 he worked on the Magellan project – 366 drawings (one per day) which formed an archive of the artist’s life and surrounding cultural images. These were followed by Freud Drawings in 2002 which reinterpreted Edmund Engelman’s famous documentary images of Sigmund Freud’s flat moments before his flight from the Nazis. In 2002 he presented Monsters – Bernini-esque renderings of massive breaking waves and, in 2004, The Sickness of Reason – baroque renderings of atomic bomb blasts.
Longo has had retrospective exhibitions at the Kunstverein and the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, the Menil Collection in Houston, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago as well as, more recently, the Musee D’Art Moderne Et D’Art Contemporain de Nice in France and the Museu Colecção Berardo in Lisbon.