The American legend Robert Longo (born in 1953), whose works can be found in the collections of major museums across the world, was in Paris a few days ago as he has two gallery shows, one at Thaddeus Ropac in Le Marais, the other at Cahiers d’Art in Saint Germain des Pres.

Both exhibitions reveal an artist who is concerned with revisiting canonical works of art. Longo doesn’t take himself seriously, he constantly reinvents himself, and is an excellent artist. But to truly grasp his work you have to see his complete series, like the sublime project on Sigmund Freud’s apartment that contributed to an unforgettable show at Vienna’s Albertina  museum in 2003.

The real point about his work is the choice of subjects. He  explains how he selects them: 

In fact, his output succeeds in bridging all the different tastes in art today.

– For fans of the figurative tradition, his works mostly slot into this category, even if they appear abstract from very close up.

– For those who love dexterity and technical prowess, we should emphasise that Longo likes to execute his works himself. They employ a classical charcoal technique, which he masters commandingly. He uses different shades of black (he claims to have at least six shades), which he gets his assistants to produce for him.

– We should also add that for fans of conceptual art, he repurposes a wide variety of images. He remodels them before enlarging or reducing them and projecting them on special paper onto which he sketches a first draft before adding volume with his blacks, one by one.

At Cahiers d’art he’s revisited a series of images of well-known works by Picasso, through which he’s put thick black lines: it’s a process of revealing through concealment. Guernica is so rich that you struggle to take it all in in one go. The stripes allow you to focus better. It’s beautiful.

Here he explains his thinking around Picasso:

At the Ropac show, the most arresting canvas is a large format charcoal of Rembrandt’s Bathsheba At Her Bath. But rather than representing the original image, he’s chosen to depict an X-ray of the canvas. At first sight, the most striking thing are those nails fixing the canvas to the frame. In classical iconography, the nail is the symbol of suffering… of Christ.

To source the image, Longo went to the third basement floor at the Louvre where they take X-rays of their collections, and he explains his interpretation of the artist’s gesture. There are two heads in the X-ray version. ‘Rembrandt hesitated between two attitudes for his heroine. Bathsheba’s husband went to war for King David and David came to see the beautiful Bathsheba. Will she succumb?’

And all of a sudden he scribbles on your notepad to clarify one of his own works of art, or a work by Jannis Kounellis, his favourite artists.

On the subject of his almost exclusive use of black and white, he says: ‘When I was young I was dyslexic. I mainly watched TV, which was black and white, and read magazines. Life Magazine, for instance, had very seductive covers in full colour but inside it was black and white. Perhaps I started thinking that truth was in black and white.

When I enquire whether he needed to go to a therapist to come up with this explanation, he answers, ‘Well, I go to a therapist but not for that. I go so someone will listen to me complain. When you’ve enjoyed success like I have, you don’t have the right to complain any more.’

And that’s how an interview with the very cool Robert Longo unfolds.

Until 22 May. Ropac Gallery

Until 1 October. Cahiers d’art

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