Can Bad Art Be Made Good by Changing Political Times? The Case of Robert Longo’s All You Zombies: Truth Before God

Photo: Philippe Servent

Can older bad art be made good by changing political times? The short answer, I think, is “No.” Really bad art may be a metaphysical constant, and in the case of rediscovered, long overlooked masterpieces I tend to believe the work was always good and we just weren’t capable of seeing it yet. But when thinking about how times change works of art, we probably need to get away from using words like good and bad. Let’s focus instead on values that make art useful: surprise, energy, redefinitions of skill, a willingness to fail flamboyantly, originality in pursuit of different ideas of beauty, ugliness, urgency, the shedding of biography, or 1,000 other things. Look through these lenses and older art will often look very different in newer times. Any image of black face or lynching reverberates horribly today, as it should.

Which brings us back to bad art. In 1986 when it was made and exhibited in his gallery, I felt ashamed that I liked Robert Longo’s All You Zombies: Truth Before God. I kept that feeling secret. This incubus-y grotesquerie is a huge cast-bronze demon-figure turning on a rotating base in front of a large curved painting of red-velveteen opera boxes. The sculpture is made of over 500 parts — including guitars, bullets, and toys. It sprouts warrior horns, wears a samurai helmet and an ammo belt, has two alien gaping mouths, a gun for an eye, a female breast under one arm, a penis unsheathed inside a missile silo, a hand coming out of his chest, is covered in bumps or barnacles, and waves a tattered two-sided flag — one with the U.S. Stars and Stripes, the other, the Russian hammer and sickle. It is a cartoon of hypermasculinity. Just describing it is embarrassing.

Even back then, Zombies was seen as beyond the taste-pale, and seems to have been locked in some Basement of the Eighties. I only ever saw it one other time, out of town. So I was safe. Now, to my shock, it’s back on the Whitney Museum’s 8th floor terrace, prominently displayed as a recent gift to the collection from the artist Alex Katz, whose foundation must have bought it back in the day. Few museums have gone this far in revisiting the vicissitudes of that period, which makes it a fascinating opportunity to rethink what it all meant the first time around.

Step back to the 1980s for a minute. Longo was one of the art stars of the early part of the decade, emerging with artists like Julian Schnabel, Anselm Kiefer, Francesco Clemente, and all the other male painters. He showed in the same gallery with Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, Laurie Simmons, and the other Pictures Artists. Longo was sort of unique in that he had a foot in both the Pictures and Neo-Expressionist camps. He was included in “Pictures,” the legendary 1977 Artists Space show of four white men and one white woman. Because of his mad ambition and blown-up scale, he also came to be seen in the painters’ camp too. (It’s critical to remember that all these divisions were fluid and that all those designations were and are only shorthand for much larger pictorial and stylistic concerns.) His big splash came in 1981 with a body of huge drawings of actors in contorted poses, sending photos of the actors to professional illustrator Diane Shea, who worked the images onto large sheets of paper, with Longo finishing them in jet-black graphite. Thus Longo became artist-writer-producer-director of his work. Born in Brooklyn in 1953, he had a major traveling retrospective by the time he was 36. The catalogue was even written by theory critic Hal Foster. Like Schnabel, Salle, Sherman, and others of the era, he also made a full-length movie — Johnny Mnemonic, a crazed, cyberpunk action-thriller starring Keanu Reeves. Yet by the time it was made, Longo and some of the other painters were already being seen as somewhat suspect and were falling out of favor. I don’t think any of the theory critics ever wrote about any of them again, putting their critical chips on the academically approved Pictures Art. The more Romantic painterly painting of early 1980s was giving way to the ironies, coolness, commodity, and social critique of the late 1980s. Artists like Jeff Koons and Peter Halley were in ascendance. Longo and his ilk were odd men out. Longo has continued to show; notably some huge, fantastic black-charcoal drawings of the U.S. Capitol as well as spectacular black-and-white drawn facsimiles of famous Abstract Expressionist paintings.

Maybe because the art world has all but worn out its obsession with the art of the 1970s and 1960s, or maybe the market is just looking for overlooked merch, but recently the 1980s artists have reappeared in the limelight. Schnabel is admired by younger artists; ditto Salle. Eric Fischl’s post-election painting of a naked man in a fetal position gripped audiences — even though it was only seen online. Indeed, the Whitney itself has a collection show devoted to the painting of the period. Loathe it or not, anyone who knows how condemned some of this painting and that ethos has been will grant that just having an exhibition is daring. To install Longo’s great monstrosity makes the show all the more impressive. Or ugly, depending on your point of view.

Longo’s sculptural excess and atrociousness speaks new languages and is more acrid than ever. In an email about it, he told me he used “machismo as a tool to criticize and critique the institution of American media through the languages it was using … the incredibly amped-up violence,” cartoon masculinity, Vietnam revenge narratives of the period. He says the sculpture’s nickname was “Rambo’s Child.” Of the two-sided flag, he wryly says, “I find it ironic that that shit hasn’t changed since 1986.” He’s right. Zombies was a reaction to “Reagan who would not even say the word AIDS and who was doing nothing … a line had been drawn in the sand and everyone had to take a position.” Again, familiar. He writes, “Reagan was the original Make America Great Again guy and shared Trump’s idea of America defined by Hollywood and Reality TV.” Amen. As he says, “The Whitney has a monster on the roof and we have a monster in the White House.” Which is exactly the force that the piece hit me with when I saw it on the terrace. Longo’s isn’t some cool, intellectualized, disembodied minimalist gesture grounded in post-modern syntax: It’s full-on rage, anxiety, an almost Francis Bacon–like hysteria and contestation of power, an engine to carry unashamed bitterness.

The present calls to us again with a message that it doesn’t seem time to hold back, or shroud our thoughts in jargon, insider talk, bulletproof theories about “late capitalism,” and the like. I grant that Longo’s Zombies is over the top; that it’s ugly. But he was willing to fail flamboyantly. And at the height of American power right now there is a similar metaphysical figure — this gives Longo’s medieval illuminated monster on the roof new agency; this body in crisis is also a self-portrait of all of us coming to terms with a nonfunctional, legally ambiguous madness on full display. At least Zombies gets a chance to come to life, walk among us again, and impart some of its complicated magic.

Can Bad Art Be Made Good by Changing Political Times?