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Joanna and Larry by Robert Longo

Today we look at Joanna and Larry by Robert Longo for Artwork in Focus. Join me Divvya Nirula as I explore and present my experience of the selected artwork.

Artwork in Focus

Title: Joanna And Larry
Series : ‘Men in the Cities’
Artist : Robert Longo
Year : 1983
Medium : graphite on paper
Dimensions : 72 x 36 in
Location : private collection

Joanna and Larry, 1983 by Robert Longo
image courtesy : Sothebys

The Experience of the Artwork

When we first see Longo’s work – specifically Joanna and Larry – there is an instant double-take. Is it a photograph, surely it is – says the mind. It is in that second-glance that the eye soothes the mind. It says – yes it could be a print, but it is not. There is a visceral, energy that is manifest on the paper. It invites you in, Longo’s work here creates a veritable visual story. There is a palpable tension between the duo.

We want to know more – who they are, why they are!?

The drawings have been executed on separate sheets of paper. But the subjects or protagonists are joined together by virtue of an invisible link. There is a sense that they have both charged towards a goal. Their get-up is a witness and a hint to us the viewer to our earlier questions. Perhaps they are corporate slaves, existing and maybe even dying in the minutes before they reach their goal. It is all very explosive, even though it is monochromatic. The black and white, the masculine and feminine, all come together to capture our interest and imagination.

Part of a Larger Story

Joanna and Larry are part of Longo’s series ‘Men in the Cities’ (1979-82). Inspired by film noir and Hollywood death scenes, Longo adapted or recreated them with the help of his friends atop his studio. He then captured these sometimes static, sometimes moving poses through his camera. The photographs that resulted in this experiment became the source material for this graphite on paper series. Trained in sculpture, Longo favoured drawing as his primary medium, with a deep love for graphite. It was in 1999-2000 that the artist would find himself (out of necessity) turning to charcoal. He admits to the process of charcoal being different that graphite as the earlier is a more slippery medium. Longo’s use of graphite in this work and others gives a certain definition to the work that reminds us of the photographs he must have taken.

This was the series that cemented Longo’s place in the American artistic space. Along with becoming a go-to pop-culture reference for many artists. The first that comes to mind is Tarantino’s 1992 debut film Reservoir Dogs, and each character wearing these fitted suits. It is probable that Tarantino had been exposed to Longo’s visuals, and appreciated the artists punk roots. Longo’s depiction of a young group of men and women, individual or otherwise, in the grip of some invisible power that holds them in thrall – is understood by every generation. He sums it up best when he says,

“I saw James Chance and the Contortions, and I said: ‘These are psychotic impulses.’ And when I was a kid – making art is the way you find something socially relevant that is also highly personal.”

Robert Longo

Longo and Sherman

During this time when Longo was producing this series – Men in the Cities – he was also living with artist and photographer Cindy Sherman in New York. I mention this as there seems to be a conscious or unconscious artistic transference here. I am sure it is no coincidence that during this almost exact time period – 1977-1980 Sherman produces one of her most recognised and seminal series – Film Stills. As the name suggests these were inspired by the depiction of female leads in films. From the classic Hollywood films of the 50s and 60s to the European Art House Films, Sherman had to create. So, Sherman posed herself for these works. Guising herself using makeup and costumes to embody the femme-fatale, the housewife, and even the vamp. Through all this creative output, Sherman and Longo were no longer living together by the end of 1979.

Though their romantic relationship came to an end, their life-long friendship and support of one another’s artistic journeys continued. For me they will forever be intertwined as two seminal artist in the Pictures Generation.

Other Details

As we look at today’s artwork in focus, interestingly, while the image here denotes a power struggle it also invites us to look beyond or image beyond the page. Take for example that the subjects faces – hidden or seen – tell a story of strife and struggle. We as viewers want to know how they ended up here – almost dead, or dying, in pain and stumbling. I share here with you what Longo shared about the inspiration and process behind the works.

Drawing on a childhood game, which was popular in the 50s called “Who Could Fall Dead the Best”. The objective was that the shooter would aim and release the lethal shot and the protagonist would have to dramatically fold over and pretend to die in slow motion. Whoever aced the move, got to be with the guy with the gun. Simple. Longo used this technique to get his friends to participate with abandon on his rooftop for this series. Longo repeatedly says, whenever asked, that the images that remains in the head are the ones that are responsible for eventually finding their way out as art.

Want to read more of my views on artworks that hold my attention ? Visit the archive for Artwork in Focus.

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