By Michelle Trauring
When Robert Longo answered his phone last Wednesday afternoon, he didn’t offer a warm salutation. Instead, competing with noise in the background, he distractedly yelled, “Yeah?”
The greeting proved to be appropriate, as the artist was in the zone at his studio in East Hampton, working on his newest body of drawings — a flurry of disorder and mayhem, a reflection of both his world and the one at large, as of late.
“I have to stop for a second. I’m kind of on autopilot,” he said, stepping away from his work. “Everything that I’ve been doing since this pandemic has been somewhat like a storm, or like a chaos. I was scheduled to do a big show in Los Angeles in September, which was pushed to February, so I’m rethinking things. I’m supposed to do a show in Paris in April, too, and who knows if that’ll even happen. We’ll see.”
Longo is not alone, joining legions of artists across the world whose highly anticipated gallery shows and museum exhibitions have met the same fate, due to the unrelenting COVID-19 crisis. But he would not let that be the case at Guild Hall this summer — even though it won’t be the solo exhibition he was promised.
After the East Hampton institution was forced to cancel its annual summer gala and auction, Longo suggested postponing his own show until 2021 in lieu of a benefit exhibition, “All for the Hall,” featuring donated work from 60 artists ranging from established powerhouses to burgeoning names, on view starting Saturday, August 8.
“I realized the gala was their way of making an enormous amount of money for their budget, and I realized this is not the time to do a solo show,” Longo said. “This is the time to do a benefit.”
He started reaching out to his closest artist friends — first Cindy Sherman, then Rashid Johnson, Shirin Neshat and Tony Oursler — and they all agreed to participate, “with a little twisting of the arm,” Longo said with a laugh.
Then, he pitched the idea to Guild Hall’s museum director and chief curator Christina Strassfield, who helped him wrangle the rest, including contemporary icon Ross Bleckner, who revisited his famous flower series for the benefit show.
“It has less with the flowers being represented and more with them being kind of the negative of the positive,” he said. “It’s almost like taking away, or going toward an invisibility. The forms are painted in and everything is kind of removed, so you get a bit of a ghost — a ghost of a flower.”
The theme feels relevant in a new way, he said, in particular the vulnerability of imagery, how it’s carried and translated, and ultimately forgotten.
“It’s a kind of theme that I’ve gone back to,” he said. “I’ve gone back to micro-medical themes my whole career — the vicissitude between micro and macro, looking at something very closely and then projecting it far into the universe.
“My life now is phenomenologically bracketed by two epidemics,” Bleckner continued. “When I was in my late 20s, it was HIV and AIDS, which was really decimating a population that I was close to in New York, which was cultural, artistic and gay. And now this one, which is everybody. But both of them created a sense of dread and early mortality and vulnerability.”
There can be light in that darkness, participating artist Laurie Anderson was quick to point out, who described the last five months as “up and down.”
“As with the rest of the world, I spent the first couple months worried and disinfecting things, and trying to get food and making sure that people were safe,” Anderson said. “Gradually, you realize, ‘Oh, this isn’t actually going to end anytime soon,’ and then four months later, you realize we’re in this for awhile, and now that we’re six months almost, it’s almost a way of life at this point, because we don’t know where this is going — and it’s going so many places it wants.”
Recently, the multi-media pioneer has poured her energy into creative endeavors, including a new weekly radio show, “Party in the Bardo,” which airs on the Connecticut-based station WESU 88.1FM at 4 a.m., “a time when people’s minds are open to anything and logic begins to fail,” Anderson said, as well as composing music and drawing. A storyboard for her newest opera, “Ark,” coming in 2022, will be on view in “All for the Hall.”
“It’s kind of wonderful to work sideways,” she said of no longer creating on a strict timeline. “I think we can find ways to look at what’s happening and why, and try to make something beautiful and to resist the constant media barrage of fracturing your attention. I think people really do pay much better attention now — to their partners, to their families, to the trees. These are incredible discoveries.
“I thought I would never live to see something like this,” she continued. “It’s blowing my mind, I have to admit, and I’m trying to, like most people, make the best of it, rather than see it as something terrible. It has both the terrible and the beautiful in it, almost in equal measures.”
For Longo, his hyperrealistic drawing, “Study of Angel Wing,” is a symbol of hope and, ironically, a departure from his current focus, he said.
“I think all art is political in its nature,” he said. “My work has been, over the last four years, politically amped up, and I realized I don’t need to make those images anymore because they’re happening all the time. I realized I needed to make something really hopeful, and I hope that this show has the capacity to open up people to see the community out here better.”
“All for the Hall,” featuring work by 60 artists, will open on Saturday, August 8, at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton, with a corresponding virtual gallery posted on the institution’s website. The show will remain on view through December 31. All proceeds from sales, with price points starting at $500, will benefit Guild Hall. For more information, visit guildhall.org.