Robert Longo--the conceptual painter, the avante guard Hollywood director, the expatriate New Yorker--is in the habit of referring to himself as "Longo," just one simple all purpose word, like Sinbad, or, perhaps more relevantly, Bono, the lead singer of U2. When he left a message on our answering machine he said, "This is Longo," and when we called back we got an answering machine saying, "You've reached Longo," and when we visited his studio--located across the street from the police building down on center street, in a building full of Chinese garment factories--the sign on the door said "Longo."
Longo's pursuits are considerably less singular. Inside his studio we found a gold record by New Order, for whom he had directed a video, a mock-up of a set design for an opera which seemed to feature huge cockroaches crawling about the audience, a basketball hoop hung high on a pole, a tow haired five years old named Victor sprawled on the floor playing with a doll, an electric guitar propped against the wall, and also paintings and drawing of guns tacked to the wall. Then there was Longo himself--long brown hair in an unruly pony tail, dressed in black, wearing clunky motorcycle boots, a smudge of charcoal on his left cheek. On the whole he looked like a portly and somewhat good-natured pirate. His desk was cluttered with plastic bags filled with live ammunition.
A year ago Mr. Longo returned to New York from a two year stint in Paris. "I was being blamed for the eighties and I didn't want to be sitting around New York feeling bitter and worrying about what the press was saying. What the press gives, it takes away. In Paris though, it was like I became even more American. And I began thinking, what's the most pornographically American thing there is?"
The answer is on display at Metro Pictures gallery, through November 27: large ten foot high drawing of guns, done in charcoal on graphite, in a style quite evocative of the 'Men in the Cities' series for which he first became known.»
"For a while I was just obsessed with guns," he said. "I was doing all this research. I was in touch with the FBI, who were very helpful. They provided me with all kinds of things: bags of bullets that had impacted, statistical charts of various kinds. I wanted to build a topographical map of the death rate in every American City, built with bullets. But then I started to become like one of those Whitney Program students with too much information. So I changed my mind and did these drawings instead."
This January he is to begin directing his first feature film, Johnny Mnemonic, based on a short story by William Gibson. The project has been in the works for about five years, and his summary of its path to existance is: "I couldn't get funding for a two million dollar movie so I had to make a twenty two million dollar one."
With two months to go before shooting begins, it is still in a great deal of flux. Val Kilmer, who was to play the lead, has dropped out. Juliet Binoche, the female lead, has not confirmed, and neither has Bono. Barbara Sukowa, his wife, has confirmed, as has Dolph Lundgren, who plays "a blind religious fanatic who looks like Jesus and is a hired killer."
A number of other art world figures, such as David Salle, Julian Schnable and Arnie Glimcher, have gotten involved with movies, but Longo is quick to distance himself from them. "There's a misconception about me and Hollywood. I spend very little time out there, and I have no contact with celebrities and movie people. The people in Hollywood don't own my work. When Malibu caught fire, none of my art burned."
At the moment Longo is somewhere between guns and movies, which seems to suit him. When we looked at one of the bags of ammunition and asked for a souvenir, he handed us a large bullet.
"Dirty Harry?" we asked.
"Dirty Harry is a 45," he said. "That's a 38. That's Full Metal Jacket."