If there exists, in insular London, an artistic “sceptre”, to use John of Gaunt’s phrase in Richard II, then it has changed hands many times and is now grasped by the Austrian dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, who has recently set up shop in Mayfair’s Ely House, which shares its name with where John of Gaunt died.
Prior to Let the Frame of Things Disjoint (which takes its name from a line in Macbeth), I first saw Robert Longo’s work at Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris, in 2015. His lead-grey Jasper Johns-flag appropriation art seemed part of the hubris of an arrogant gallery. However, his recent work, shown now at Ely House, is more interesting, dwelling as it does on X-rays of Old Masters, re-drawn in charcoal. These betrayals of the afterthoughts, feints and backtracks of genius, set in an absolving black over white, are beautiful – for example, Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.
Seeing Longo’s repertoire, I think of myriad comparisons, from Cy Twombly, in his love of Italy and the classics, to Richard Mosse, for his infra-red renderings of contemporary Middle-Eastern migrants, to Joseph Kosuth, for his pictures of chairs, to Richard Prince et al in the whole US appropriation art movement of the 1980s, to Damian Hirst, for his fantasising recreations of ancient sculpture.
Longo’s main comparator in reference and theory could be Robert Rauschenberg, while his charcoals bear semblance to those of contemporary artist Matt Saunders, in their webby, shrouded palette and use of hidden techniques (X-rays, overpainting on negatives). Longo’s Venus with a Mirror, 1555, after Titian somewhat confusingly copies Rauschenberg’s copy of Rubens’s Venus in Front of the Mirror.
Rauschenberg said: “I want my paintings to look like what’s going on outside my window, rather than what’s going on in my head.” Longo feels the same, with his headless St Francis referencing the current violence of our “crusades” and a beautiful Guernica Redacted showing how Picasso’s evocation of grief is now losing currency, even as we head towards turmoil. There are also two turbulent, daring charcoals of Francis Bacon X-rays, as well as The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli.
The monochrome and the daring of the artist is enough to capture the imagination, and charge us with desire.
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