Artist Robert Longo on How Art Can Help Us Understand the World
From his East Hampton studio, Longo shares the story behind his benefit exhibition at Guild Hall and how art can inspire during difficult times
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit crisis point in March and a full lockdown was imminent, the celebrated New York artist Robert Longo packed up and headed to the home he bought a few years ago in East Hampton. Since then, he has been living and working there full time.
Longo was due to have a major solo exhibition at Guild Hall, which also would have served as the cultural center’s big summer fundraising benefit dinner, but when the pandemic started to get more serious, he felt it wasn’t right to have a solo show. Instead, he proposed to postpone it and curate a group charity exhibition instead, with all proceeds benefiting the storied East Hampton institute. “I called a few of my friends like Shirin Neshat, Cindy Sherman, and Rashid Johnson to see if they might be interested,” Longo tells Galerie. “Artists get asked a couple of times a day to donate work to a benefit, but almost all the artists wanted to participate, which says a lot about what Guild Hall means to the artist community.”
On view through the end of the year, the exhibition features works by some 60 artists, including Longo’s own contribution: a poignant black-and-white drawing titled Study of Angel Wing (2020), made with his signature technique of hyperreal charcoal and graphite. “I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to give them at first,” he says. “I have done drawings of wings for a while and the first version of it was quite dark, but this one is light and seemed more hopeful.”
While the Hamptons art scene is certainly heating up this summer (galleries like Hauser & Wirth, Pace, and even Sotheby’s have opened temporary spaces), Longo, for his part, is relishing the quiet to reset, reflect, and mull over new ideas. “Out here I can experiment, and no one sees it,” says the artist, whose New York studio is like a well-oiled machine, filled with assistants and multiple projects slated for his busy schedule of exhibitions around the world. “I can make things I am embarrassed of and can even throw away. Lately it seems like what I have been making is a total storm of chaos, and I am not sure where I am supposed to go from here.”
When not in the studio, he spends his time by the pool, playing tennis, or driving around and taking in the beautiful natural landscape with his partner, Sophie Chahinian, the founder of the Artist Profile Archive, whom he credits for opening his eyes to the cultural side of the area. “I feel incredibly grateful to be out here. I love the nature part of it for sure,” he says. He is quick to point out the difference in pace, too. “When I am in the city, I wake up and go straight to the studio to work all day, for usually around ten hours. Now I wake up in the morning and think about what I’m going to eat or have to cook for dinner—like where am I going to go hunting for my food?” he jests.
The Hamptons, of course, have long lured creative types, a history with which Longo is well acquainted. “When I first started coming out here, I knew the story of the Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. I saw the nature that they were inspired by and that moved me.”
Indeed, Longo’s original planned solo show at Guild Hall this summer was to be almost an homage to that history. “Guild Hall has these two spaces, and it was going to be this idea of the house divided,” he says. “I was planning to show these drawings I had done of Abstract Expressionist paintings in one room, and works about the now and the future in the other.” Longo hasn’t confirmed just yet what he’ll be making for the postponed edition but suspects it might be of a darker theme if the election turns out a particular way.
As the state has been slowing its COVID-19 infection rate, Longo has started driving back to his studio in the city for two days a week to reconnect and prepare for an upcoming exhibition at the end of the year. “When I went back there for the first time, it was like suspended animation,” he says. “We totally stopped working on March 12 and just covered everything up. It was like going back in time.”
Longo says his work has always been political, but around ten years ago, he ramped it up, hoping to shine a light on what was happening in the country. “My feeling about art is that it is a form of understanding. Similar to psychology, art has a capacity to hold so many things that allow us to see differently. Art does something that nothing else can do. It’s not TV, it’s not like movies, it’s not the newspapers. It opens us up to really see.”
“All for Hall” is on view at Guild Hall in East Hampton through December 2020.