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March 24, 2023

Acquisition: Four Drawings by Robert Longo

Robert Longo, "The Rock (The Supreme Court of the United States—Split)"

Robert Longo
The Rock (The Supreme Court of the United States—Split), 2018
charcoal on two sheets of paper mounted to aluminum
overall: 307.66 x 371.79 cm (121 1/8 x 146 3/8 in.)
left panel: 307.66 x 180.82 cm (121 1/8 x 71 3/16 in.)
right panel: 307.66 x 180.82 cm (121 1/8 x 71 3/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Gift of Clifford Ross
Photograph courtesy the artist

Robert Longo (b. 1953) is perhaps best known as a leading artist of the “Pictures Generation”—a group of artists who were influenced by the self-reflective, critical principles of Conceptual and Pop Art during the 1970s and 1980s. These artists were the first generation to experience the cumulative impact of television, video, film, and computer technologies, alongside print media and radio, and were intrigued by how this shapes our perception of the world. The National Gallery of Art has acquired four recent drawings by Longo that affirm his role as an essential chronicler of our times. Often focusing on concerns regarding justice and the dynamics of power in contemporary society, Longo invites us to question not only what we see but also why we are seeing it.

The acquisition of the three drawings was made through an extraordinary donation by artist Clifford Ross. These drawings—The Forest (White House) (2019); The Whale (United States Capitol) (2012–2013); and The Rock (The Supreme Court of the United States—Split) (2018)—form a suite entitled Engines of State: Whale, Rock, Forest. Ross saw the U.S. Capitol drawing when it was first exhibited in 2014, and then again as part of an exhibit in 2022, where it was on view alongside The White House and The Supreme Court drawings. Depicting the three coequal branches of the United States government (the executive, legislative, and judicial), the drawings are based on preexisting photographs and video images selected by the artist that are then combined or altered. Translated into charcoal with painstaking detail, their astonishing size, laborious creation, and the stark black-and-white tonal palette set them apart from the stream of live and full-color images we encounter daily.

Defying the associations of intimacy and directness of the artist’s hand often associated with drawing, Longo uses a combination of cinematic scale, hyperrealist style, and collaboration with studio assistants to execute the drawings. From afar the viewer might mistake the drawings for photographs, but closer inspection reveals carefully orchestrated compositions of hand-drawn, powdery abstract forms and marks. The artist's aesthetic choices contribute to the emotional tenor of each work that surpasses a simple visual transcription. For example, the brilliant white painted sandstone of the White House and white marble of the Capitol assert a dominating presence through the heightened contrast of untouched areas of white paper against the black/gray charcoal background. Conversely, Longo emphasized the dark veins in the marble of the Supreme Court that imparts a nervous tension to the image and an aged character to the neoclassical structure that recalls the ancient ruins of the Roman Empire.

The Forest (White House) portrays a wide-angle view of the White House’s north-facing elevation. Comprised of three approximately eight-feet-tall panels, the entire building is depicted within the ten-foot-wide center panel while the surrounding trees and landscape fill the two side panels, each nearly seven feet wide. The cloud-filled sky, bare trees, and the unusually low vantage point in which the viewer appears to stand in the bottom of a giant sink hole lend an ominous overtone to this drawing, enhanced by the raised flag indicating that the president is in residence.

The Whale (United States Capitol) depicts the building from the National Mall side, where presidential inaugurations take place, in seven, ten-foot-tall panels that span nearly 24 feet when aligned. The multipaneled format may allude to divergent political factions and interests that must come together to pursue the aspirational practice of democracy that the Capitol embodies. The flag flies above the left wing housing the Senate chamber, indicating that the members are in session, while the empty flagstaff above the House chamber at right suggests that the House of Representatives has adjourned. The statue of freedom on top of the dome is obscured, suggesting unease about its future. The immensity and authoritative presence of the structure is emphasized by deeply cast shadows on the steps and in between the classical columns while slightly blurred passages of charcoal on the walkways suggest traces of the many people who have traversed the hallowed halls.

The Rock (The Supreme Court of the United States—Split) is comprised of two panels featuring the steps and portico to the Supreme Court building. The diptych format suggests the political division of the Supreme Court justices at the time the drawing was made, 2018. The four conservative justices included John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Samuel Alito; the four liberal justices were Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor. Notably, the word “justice” on the entablature of the portico is cleaved in two by the two-panel format, further underscoring the political divides that weigh on the Court’s decisions. The close-up view of the building, the towering columns of its portico beneath a storm-clouded sky, and the humble viewpoint from the bottom of the steps remind us of the power embodied in the Court. The image is tightly cropped at the edges of the plinths that flank the steps where the statues personifying “Contemplation of Justice” and “Authority of the Law” sit.

Also executed on a grand scale, Longo’s drawing Untitled (Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol; January 6th, 2021; Based on a photograph by Mark Peterson) (2021), intentionally aligns the “snapshot” subject of flag-draped, gas-masked insurgents and selfie-takers storming the U.S. Capitol with monumental history paintings from past centuries. Both the scale and the labor-intensive translation of the original photographic image into a charcoal drawing have the effect of fixing this frenzied event in one’s memory and in time, isolated from the news media. This acquisition of this drawing was generously funded by National Gallery of Art Trustee Board member, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, and her husband, Marc Andreessen.

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