Robert Longo: Untitled (Ferguson), 2014
Robert Longo (Petzel shows his most recent work) has flirted around the edges of political art for a long time, forming a punk band when the Velvet Underground was a punk band, drawing from photographs figures seemingly in some sort of physical angst, an idea he claims from a still from Fassbinder's The American Soldier. He redraws iconic abstract expressionist works – a photo of his studio shows a Motherwell on the wall. He did album covers; he has an assistant who actually does the details of his drawings – such is the contemporary art process: the artist thinks of the piece, the assistant realises it, the artist finishes it. He directed Johnny Mnemonic; he did a memorable photo shoot for Bottega Veneta. This is a post-70s New York Lou Reed manqué artistic career that appears to be political but perhaps is merely black and white. And he is married to Barbara Sukowa.
This 10' long charcoal drawing, Untitled (Ferguson), is redrawn from news coverage of the Ferguson riots. It is beautiful in a way that black and white photography often is, as is charcoal. Jonathan Jones in the Guardian is very taken with it, classifying it along with Warhol's silkscreened 'Birmingham Race Riot', 1964, taken from a news photo, Rauschenberg's Dante drawings and Richard Hamilton's Northern Ireland triptych, especially The State. With Longo, the artist has stepped back somewhat from manipulating the image: this is a straight translation into charcoal from a digital image projected onto a ten-foot sheet of paper. The process means that it is not a print, it is from the age of reproduction, it is not reproducible.
Jones feels that because Longo chose the image, that makes it significant art, much in the way that Duchamp chose everyday items from which he made art. I'm not sure that this is a strategy that still holds, a century after Duchamp and the surrealists investigated it. Longo, and all the rest of us, have a keen eye for the 'significant image'; we are not as graphically naïve as we were during the Civil Rights movement, or the Vietnam War. The rise of photojournalism, war photographers, and the sheer volume of images of wars and riots and terrible incursions have trained us to read images of war aesthetically.
Longo's Untitled (Ferguson) is terrifically forbidding and full of foreboding, sobering and monumental — a piece of art to mark the Ferguson travesty of justice and its aftermath, but first of all it is beautiful, romantic even, in its theatrical smokey lighting and its linear array of protagonists, as if the artist simply can't help aestheticising the smell of tear gas. I suppose I've become cynical in the power of contemporary art to be really angry and this mise-en-scène is about as close as we will get.