During his youth Robert Longo developed a fascination with media, specifically movies, television, and magazines. After dropping out of the University of North Texas, he took up an apprenticeship under the sculptor Leonda Finke. He earned a grant to continue his artistic study at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Italy, and upon his return he began an MFA program at Buffalo State College, where he met fellow MFA student Cindy Sherman.
Longo's first critically acclaimed art works were his Men in the Cities series, to which this triptych belongs. The famous series depicts white men and women in black and white business attire frozen in active recoil. In this piece we see a man and woman, both dressed appropriately business-like, on either side of a red sculpture relief. The man faces us with his arms spread Christ-like as he appears to fall back. The woman is turned away from us with her head and torso collapsing over the side of her body. When one looks at the figures it is hard to discern if these people are dancing or dying. In explaining the origins of this series Longo clears up any ambiguity. He describes that he got the idea for the work “from the scene still from An American Soldier… from the scene at the end of the movie where two gangsters get shot.” One should note that Longo is trying to recreate the dramatization of death as well as the act of death itself. When making these drawings, Longo would throw objects at his models and tell them to pretend like they were just shot. The union of both the real act and its dramatization represents the growing importance and ubiquity of pop culture that existed in the 1980s.
Not just a statement about the media, this piece, and indeed the whole series, is very much connected to New York City. The pieces of this triptych were all made between 1982 and 1984, right when the Wall Street Boom and yuppie culture were taking off, and the figures are dressed in the banking uniform of suits and dresses. The red sculpture in the middle depicts three clear skyscrapers with the central one, the artist tells us, representing the Empire State Building, arguably the most iconic symbol of New York City.
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