Sotheby’s: How did Mr. Longo contact you about the Men in the Cities project?
Eric Barsness: Robert and I met socially. I was a 24-year old dancer when I moved back to New York from San Francisco in 1981 to strike out on my own and to move in with my new and current boyfriend, Joe. I landed right in the midst of Robert's milieu. Joe had been sharing a loft with Robert's then girlfriend, the artist Gretchen Bender (a frequent Men in the Cities model), and he also played in a band with Robert, modeled for some of the drawings, and had performed in a live performance art piece Robert did at The Kitchen.
Robert Longo, Eric, from the Men in the Cities series, lithograph, signed in pencil, dedicated ‘For Eric’
Lot 49, The New York Sale, April 1st. Estimate $8,000 – 12,000.
Sotheby’s: What was your background? Why do you think Mr. Longo wanted you to be part of the project?
EB: Robert knew I was a dancer - could see I was tall and thin and he asked if I'd model. At that point I'd been a professional dancer and choreographer for five years. I had my own small company and studied ballet and was a scholarship student at the Merce Cunningham studio. Robert knew me, and probably figured that as a dancer I could take direction about physical actions, and would be flexible and strong enough to hit some new shapes and postures.
Sotheby’s: How did Mr. Longo describe the Men in the Cities and your potential participation?
EB: I don't think he described the project at all. He just asked me to show up at his studio so we could go to the roof of his studio by South Street Seaport and do a shoot. Robert is a smart man of few words.
Sotheby’s: Describe the shoots. How did he conduct them and how much direction were you given?
EB: Not much direction. He'd say something like "throw yourself around a bit." If something worked, he might say, "Jump like that again, but can you throw your head back this time?" However, he was pretty clear about what he wanted me to wear. It was basically a slightly more cool version of what we all wore anyway in those days. A smart man of few words.
Sotheby’s: Were you and Mr. Longo conscious that you were successfully capturing something of the feeling and atmosphere of New York?
EB: The setting for the shoots on Robert's roof near South Street Seaport couldn't have been more "New York City." The shoots were just Robert and his camera, me and the . . . city traffic noises bouncing up from the streets and The Fulton Fish market. No music. On one side the Brooklyn Bridge loomed, on another the Woolworth Building, and the World Trade Center twin towers would block the afternoon sun. It couldn't have been more "iconic New York" on a purpose-built Hollywood set. That must have influenced both my movements and the way Robert captured them. I sensed that the drawings and prints were very powerful, but I couldn’t have put my finger on it at the time.
Inscription from Robert Longo to Mr. Barsness in Mr. Longo’s 2009 publication: Robert Longo: Men in the Cities – Photographs.
Sotheby’s: What do you think you captured about New York or New York in the 1980s that has made the image stand the test of time? Is there a sense of nostalgia for you?
EB: New York at the time was full of raw energy. The city seemed to be run by young artists. And while the city itself wasn't young (it was dirty and crime-ridden and was falling apart at the seams) it felt as if anything could happen. There was a huge amount of activity in the visual art, dance, and music scenes, and there was a lot of crossover between those worlds - in the studio, but also in clubs and in the social scene. I definitely feel nostalgic about those times in New York . . . [with its] sheer combustion and excitement of a few compact neighborhoods densely populated by hundreds, even thousands, of creative people. At a personal level – I'm still full of energy and enthusiasm, fortunately, but my hair's grown thinner and my body thicker, and I'm now in my late 50s, not my mid-20s. So there's poignancy in seeing images of myself when I was so young and so lithe.
Sotheby’s: Early editions of Men in the Cities were printed in the first half of the 1980s; the most recent in 2009. Why do you think your image has stood the test of time for both the Men in the Cities series?
EB: Robert somehow succeeded in capturing the excitement and raw power – as well as the sense of risk and danger – in New York at that moment. Even if the Brooklyn Bridge or Manhattan skyline isn't represented in the drawings and prints, you somehow feel that urban presence. The figures somehow look like they're on their way home from the Mudd Club! I'm glad I was a part of all that, and that I helped Robert capture that essence in some way.