at the Museum of Contemporary Art

On view at the Museum of Contemporary Art through April 15 is a retrospective of the still-young artist, Robert Longo; it includes drawing, sculpture, painting, and some video, almost 40 pieces in all. The work is dramatic and arresting, its images sometimes violent. Inspired by movies and TV, the 37-year-old Longo bombards us with images of people struggling: either fighting one another or alone, contorting themselves from the pain of an unseen force. In other works, elements that are not related in form or content are brought together to create an uneasy combination at once seductive and frustratingly ambiguous.

Unfortunately, the longer you look, the more disappointed and unfulfilled you feel. Like most of the visual imagery of our time, Longo’s art can be taken in quickly but is then exhausted. If you spend time with a piece, flaws in its execution become apparent, and the work loses its power to express the artist’s intentions.

The much-talked-about “Men in the Cities” drawings are life-size images of corporate youth: people in their 30s dressed in the standard business attire of the 80s, in contortions and staggering as if having seizures. The large size of the figures and their placement against a completely white ground make for a stark, potent visual effect. It’s like sitting too close at the movies, or standing a few feet away from a billboard, face-to-face with a person who appears to be suffering uncontrollably.

But the “Men in the Cities” drawings, graphite and charcoal on paper, fail to satisfy as drawings. The figures are stiff and flat-looking, the details seem disconnected, as if they’d been produced using a draw-by-number kit. Though the figures’ contortions provide interesting positions–excellent opportunities to show off virtuosity–Longo’s drawings are doomed by what anyone who has studied the figure has tried to overcome: sausage fingers. If there is any question about an artist’s facility in drawing the figure, it can be answered by a careful scrutiny of the hands. The hands in Longo’s works reveal a limited understanding of their structure–they tend to be reduced to flat, formless shapes.

To produce these works, Longo first photographed his friends dressed in business attire and leaping around on a New York City rooftop. He then projected the images on paper, tracing the outlines of the figures and eliminating the rest of the scene. Later he hired illustrators to complete the drawings.

As in many of Longo’s works, the process is convoluted, seemingly to legitimize the product–guarantee it be considered fine art, and not just photographs of his friends, say. In the catalog that accompanies the show are pictured some of the photographs Longo used to make the drawings. The disturbing, intriguing quality of the images is only increased by seeing an actual person in agony against the New York skyline. Making these images into drawings means they lose some of their original punch–the photographic form of reproduction might have served the artist’s intentions better. Though Longo may be attempting to add expressiveness by ritualizing the process of making the work, the result is that he takes some of the steam out of a lively idea.

In some cases Longo’s determination to be an art “producer” works to his advantage. Ornamental Love is a “combine”–a mixed-media work 8 feet high, 17 feet wide, and 1<4 feet deep, with three distinctly different parts brought together to form one piece. At the left, a horizontal image of a wrecked freeway is silkscreened on an aluminum sheet. It joins a close-up image, tinted red, of a couple engaged in a hearty kiss, eyes closed, mouths open and connected. On the right hangs a gold-colored deep relief of big, virile, tropical-looking flowers and leaves. The peoples’ faces entirely fill the central vertical panel, the tallest part of the composition, and are rendered in a way that makes one wonder if this is a kiss of passion or an act of violence. The flower relief could be what the person on the right is thinking about, while the person on the left imagines the aftermath of an earthquake.

With Ornamental Love, Longo has juxtaposed, in a cool and confident way, disparate images and subjects to create both terror and passionate exhilaration. The sheer size and simplicity of the work give it ample power, while the individual parts have been rendered sufficiently well to contribute to rather than distract from the work.

This is more than can be said for the piece directly to the right of Ornamental Love. Now Everybody (for R.W. Fassbinder), I. is an 8-foot-high, 16-foot-wide drawing, in four panels, of a war-torn city street. About ten feet in front of the drawing, a bronze figure of a man flees the scene with his back arched and his hands in the air as if he’s been shot in the back in mid-stride. Here Longo combines a 2-D work with a sculpture to make a 3-D scene like a stage set. As in the “Men in the Cities” drawings, Longo’s inability to render and model the figure, or his unwillingness to hire someone who has the ability, makes the work seem hackneyed and poor. The bronze figure appears to have been molded from the outside in–the sculptor makes clothes over a figure, rather than a figure under clothes. What makes figurative sculpture powerful is the figure, not what it’s wearing.

At the Art Institute is one of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais, Jean d’Aire. Even though this figure is heavily draped, his face and hands and feet, with their taut muscles and tensed gesture, express deep sorrow and anguish. The subject’s suffering is expressed by the parts of the body left exposed, and even the drapery itself shows the flexed forms beneath. Longo’s bronze figure has all the expressiveness of a three-inch-high green plastic soldier, and its position is as dramatic and convincing as that of a yelping boy falling down dead in an after-school game of army. The drama in this piece is earnest but overdone, as in a high school play.

On the second floor is another life-size bronze figure, All You Zombies: Truth Before God. This figure looks like a creature from Star Wars Meets the Road Warrior, complete with machine gun, ammo, chains, dragon feet, two snarling mouths, a guitar neck in one hand, and in the other a flag with the Stars and Stripes on one side and the hammer and sickle on the other. A close look at this piece is entertaining, because all the parts seem to have been cast from real objects. The accuracy of this rendering lends the work credibility and invites long contemplation, as the viewer seeks to identify the myriad parts that make the man.

As in many of Longo’s figurative works, however, the parts don’t work together as a whole. Like the bronze in Now Everybody, the creature in All You Zombies, made up of many elements brought together piecemeal, lacks a basic structure. The gawky figure stands pigeon-toed, bent down to one side in an unnatural-looking position–we’re not given any reason to believe that a living thing is present. The figure stands off-balance in a way that guarantees it would fall over if it were not pinned down on its rotating plinth.

All You Zombies, like Now Everybody, manifests the comic-book approach to the figure: loaded with accoutrements, including a half-Viking, half-Nazi helmet and a snarling expression, it has no spine or any implication of a bone structure, nor does it withstand the same gravitational pull as those who view it. The last straw is an explosion of lightning bolts, emanating from its rear end, that’s located in the wrong spot. All You Zombies provides only a fantasy costume, in which a frat boy might spend a night terrorizing his friends.

Another of Longo’s works that fails because of its figurative inadequacies is Corporate Wars: Walls of Influence. This triptych has an intriguing composition: a pair of blocky, dark-lacquered reliefs of buildinglike forms at unsettling angles flank an aluminum relief of people in a free-for-all. As in the “Men in the Cities” drawings, the people in this relief are distinctly yuppie–youthful and in business attire. This group seems Longo’s target of choice; and in the mid-80s, criticizing yuppies was sanctioned and fashionable, a safe bet. Longo’s tendency to avoid risk and confrontation in his work helps ensure his popularity yet discourages the communication of profound or complex ideas.

It is said that relief is the hardest sculptural form because, instead of the figures being made full in three dimensions, they are flattened and illusory, somewhere between sculpture and painting. Taking a look at some of the great relief works in the Western tradition, like Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise in the baptistery of the Florence cathedral, we see that although the panels are very shallow, the artist has created a sensation of deep space through the play of light and shade on a subtly modulated surface.

But it may be unfair to compare Longo’s piece to Ghiberti’s, because Longo hasn’t attempted to depict deep space, while Ghiberti was exploring the limits of a newfound device: perspective. A more recent and similarly conceived sculpture is Rodin’s Gates of Hell, but again the comparison makes Longo’s work look clumsy and ill conceived. Rodin’s Gates are composed with a dynamic sense of movement; the writhing figures lead our eyes up and down the work, back and forth, causing us first to take them in and then to reexamine them. Like Longo’s Corporate Wars, Rodin’s Gates makes no attempt to depict deep space; instead the artist makes your eye rove over the surface at length. In Longo’s Corporate Wars, the rectangular panel is filled with figures that seem to be arranged conveniently but with little dynamic effect. Here again Longo’s concept is good–loaded with potential–but the realization lacks the skill, the nuances, to be truly expressive. As a result, in Longo’s relief the people wrestle as convincingly as TV wrestlers, stomping the mat with every punch to create the sound of the blow.

There are some other pieces in the show besides Ornamental Love that manage to convey ideas without tripping over themselves the way the figurative works do. Black Palms is an eight- by ten-foot relief made of two distinct parts joined horizontally. The top portion, another dark-lacquered rectangular building listing like those in Corporate Wars, sits on a flat, silhouetted image of a Greek ruin inverted, as if it and the sky were reflected in water. Here Longo shows he is capable of some of Ghiberti’s savvy, for the positive image–the ruin–is cut into the background of the sky. Unexpectedly, and with subtle results, the relationship of figure to ground is reversed. The building form that makes up the top part of this piece is also shown to advantage, leaning at an angle that suggests the earth is rotating too fast. The juxtaposition of the ugly, cumbersome modern building and the ruin reminds us of how far we’ve come since the time of the ancient Greeks, and how unsatisfactory our technological solution to building can be. Indeed, through all the centuries, we may only have strayed from what is most important in architecture: proportion and rhythm.

Another of Longo’s interesting and poignant statements is in a piece called End of the Season. In it, a red cross hangs upside down in front of a black rectangle. From the bottom edge of the black ground, seven chrome-plated footballs hang from their points, like carcasses strung up by the hooves for slaughter. Longo takes some considerable risks here, not only by putting a cross and footballs together but by making it all look dead and disgraced. Although the objects–the cross and footballs–are literal, Longo leaves room for interpretation, possibly because he is more comfortable about his position as an artist in this later work, from 1987.

End of the Season might be expressing the feeling we have after the last play of the Super Bowl when the other guys win, but Longo invites us to think about other kinds of seasons, too. The work may suggest the end of the American life-style as we know it, or the more unthinkable end of life on the planet. The elements of this piece come together precisely; Longo’s “memorial” offers a somber, austere experience.

Most of these works reveal that Longo is capable of interesting and even great things, but too often his pieces fall flat because of inadequate craftsmanship. These pieces don’t seem to have been produced for attentive contemplation, and we are forced to conclude that Longo himself hasn’t taken the time to really consider and realize their potential.

Maybe this is the art of the future–art bites intended to be absorbed and processed in a few moments, and then on to the next one. But if we are to learn from looking at art, we need to be given material that unfolds for us bit by bit and keeps unfolding, revealing more every time we are willing to consider it. Longo seems in too much of a hurry to be able to provide this experience more than occasionally. Quality or quantity? seems a nagging question for this young artist, but if he were to slow down and bring his ideas to a more complete fruition, the results could be good.