Delivering what’s undoubtedly his best work in years, Robert Longo’s two-space exhibition channels a heroic phase of American postwar art through the artist’s own baby-boomer memories, before landing in our plutocratic present. “Gang of Cosmos” at Metro Pictures features Abstract Expressionist masterpieces in charcoal, appropriated from Pollock, De Kooning et al. Meanwhile, “Strike the Sun” at Petzel comprises American-themed works, including a glowering, gargantuan drawing of the U.S. Capitol; another of the empty cavalry saddle that sat on the horse leading JFK’s funeral procession; and an enormous black slab imprinted with the Stars and Stripes. A mash-up of a Johns flag and a Richard Serra sculpture, the monolith juts from the floor at a precarious angle and is titled Pequod, after Melville’s doomed ship.
The AbEx drawings are drained of color, because that’s how Longo encountered the work as a kid—as black-and-white reproductions. They’re at once cultural X-rays, registering the brush’s every drip and a judder in astonishing relief, and testaments to the power of first impressions. Similarly, the saddle speaks to the reach of childhood recollection. But the catastrophe it conjures also serves as a dividing line for Longo’s view of recent American art and history. That divide, the one separating America then and now, could be described as the difference between republican virtue and imperial corruption.
Longo argues that we’re no longer capable of achievements like Abstract Expressionism. More ominously, he wonders if the same holds true for our grip on democracy—a question only time, and our willingness to hold fast, can answer.—Howard Halle