Robert Longo and the Temple of Doom

My work has always been about power,” says Robert Longo, scanning the perimeter of his dusty studio, its walls covered with massive drawings of churches and slack-jawed sharks. The 57-year-old New York-based artist is best known for his Men in the Cities series, a collection of life-size, white-collar workers in contorted poses, realistically rendered in charcoal and graphite. He calls them his “doomed figures.” (So ill-fated are his sharply attired creations that they adorn the walls of Patrick Bateman’s slaughterhouse bachelor pad in the film version of American Psycho.)

Created at the beginning of the 1980s, his work is now held up as a scathing critique of corporate America, although when first executed it was anything but; then, the figures looked like regular people, not “yuppies.” Longo says, “They were my friends. That’s the way you went to a club at night, that’s the way you dressed if you played in a band.”

In the intervening years, the images have accrued meaning, coming to symbolize the excess and moral vacuity of the period. “I feel like I was one of those artists that was blamed for the ’80s,” Longo says.

Perhaps that’s the price he paid for escaping art-world obscurity in that era, but it has also pushed Longo to move past the age of Gordon Gekko. After a brief, misguided foray into filmmaking—he directed Keanu Reeves in 1996’s ludicrous, William Gibsoninspired thriller Johnny Mnemonic—Longo has spent the better part of the last 10 years making drawings of giant waves (Monsters, 2000), sharks (Perfect Gods, 2007) and temples (The Mysteries, 2009).

As is the case with the majority of Longo’s work, his recent offerings eschew color in favor of a grayscale palette. “But,” says Longo, whose self-titled monograph was recently released by Rizzoli, “I’m trying to get away from black and white.” It’s an unexpected shift of gears for the tireless firebrand, who admits that, roughly every 10 years, he hates all of his work. But drive keeps him focused. “The art world has a hard time dealing with me, but I just don’t go away,” he says. “This isn’t a 50-yard dash. It’s a long-distance run.”

Photo by Eric Ray Davidson. Grooming by Kumi Craig, using Shu Uemura.