The Brooklyn-born artist Robert Longo began drawing in charcoal in December 1999. According to his foreword in the new book Robert Longo: Charcoal, printed by the German publisher Hatje Cantz, he was snowed in his studio at Christmas and ran out of materials for drawing. But there was charcoal, and so he decided to experiment. The results were to his liking and so Longo continued on a series of drawings. If you’ve ever seen these, you may have been awed by two things – their monumental scale and their photographic likeness.
Scale has often become important in contemporary art to hide lack of talent or ideas (see: Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst). But with Longo’s art scale serves his purpose, which is to inspire awe in the most direct sense of the word. Some of his multi-panel drawings measure over three meters high and over eight meters wide. Scale also serves to underline just how talented of a painter Longo is. We often admire photos for their painterly quality, but we rarely admire contemporary painting for its photographic quality. But perhaps in the age of everyone gunning for the abstract straight out of art school, it’s time that skill and quality or representational art has staged a come back.
What does Longo’s representational art represent? The world, in a word. There are paintings of nuclear explosions, refugees, places of worship, representations of major classical art, forests, fighter pilots, the American flag, bullet holes, and so on. There is the shark that looks straight out of The Jaws, and the door to Freud’s cabinet. (My favorite are the the stunning drawings of a cathedral and a mosque.) In other words, a complex mosaic of the river of thoughts that goes through one’s head trying to make sense of the increasingly insensible, trying to hold on to the conception of the world that’s constantly slipping away.
The Charcoal tome contains 157 images in its 252 pages, and contains several more essays on Longo’s work than its first edition, which was published in 2012. The thick natural paper of the book is perfect for printing triton grayscale. The edges of the pages are black, and the cardboard cover half-bound in cloth adds to the book’s brutalist feel. According to the publisher’s press release, Longo was heavily involved in the making of the book, and it shows. It’s an impressive tome, no matter how you look at it.
Robert Longo: Charcoal (Hatje Cantz, $120). All images courtesy of the publisher.