LONDON – Dominating the picture plane, the monumental tiger's head in Robert Longo's Untitled (Tiger Head, No. 8) dwarfs the viewer with its majestic stillness. Holding our gaze, the regal creature's intense stare seems to make time stand still. 

As a child in the late 1950s and 1960s, Robert Longo was fascinated by magazines such as Time, Life and Newsweek. Images on the front covers of these publications – glamorous shots of Marilyn Monroe or a smiling politician – were always in colour, while the photographs inside of subjects such as war, poverty, natural disasters or nuclear tests were in black and white. This led Longo to make an association between black and white imagery and a search for truth, which would later inform his entire narrative œuvre. Although he trained as a sculptor, Longo soon began to favour the more intimate medium of drawing, elevating it to an epic scale. His drawings are based on photographs, whether his own or those that he finds in the media.

ROBERT LONGO, UNTITLED (TIGER HEAD, NO. 8), 2012. ESTIMATE: £450,000–600,000.

This work is part of Longo's Mysteries series, which he began in 2009. The sublime, all-American, brutally masculine charcoal drawings are populated with images that are triumphant yet sinister, Longo's universe both fascinates and intimidates. He coined his images of ocean waves on the point of breaking, atomic mushroom clouds rising towards the heavens, flags in the wind, suited yuppies caught in mid-fall, sharks going in for the kill and black and white reproductions of Abstract Expressionist masterpieces "frozen moments." Postmodernist critic Hal Foster calls them "moments of climax," but they are equally importantly, universal signifiers of virility and power, and after any peak, or climactic point, comes the inevitable downfall. At once powerful and endangered, the tiger exemplifies this duality and Longo's concern with the disastrous consequences of our interference with nature.


11 February 2016 | London