‘His art suggests that we had best approach cultures as anthropologists do, perhaps to find a way out of Creation, because the accelerating pace we ourselves are imposing on it may very well be the death of us’ (T. Kellein, ‘A Kingdom of Images’, in Robert Longo Charcoal, Ostfildern 2012, p. 80).
One of Robert Longo’s largest scale charcoal drawings, Untitled (Last Tiger), presents us with an immaculately rendered tiger that stands in front of us with an impressive sense of gravitas. Fully demonstrating his meticulous photo-realistic draughtsmanship, Longo exploits the rich tonality of charcoal to imbue the work with an intense chiaroscuro, much like the Old Master artists before him. Theatrically cropping the pictorial space, Longo presents us with a monumental close up of the tiger’s head – to such a degree that the regal animals seems to come to life in front of the viewer’s eyes. Harbouring a latent power and brazen regality, the tiger stares intensely at the viewer as though caught in the moment in a photograph or movie still. Just as Henri Rousseau had so famously done before him, Longo takes up the iconic subject matter of the tiger and positions him in the contemporary moment of our global age. Executed in 2013, Untitled (Last Tiger) demonstrates the artist’s more recent concern with the precarious state of the planet. Longo has long tackled a variety of environmental phenomena, including his signature wave drawings. As the artist explains, ‘as you get older you obviously think about what you’re going to leave behind. I’m not talking about how my work will be viewed in the future, but rather what kind of world, and what possibility for the future, we will leave behind’ (R. Longo, quoted in ‘Working Towards Affection: An Interview with Robert Longo’, Border Crossings, no. 115, September 2010, p. 48). Presented on a monumental and awe-inspiring scale as the ‘last’ example of his species, the tiger confronts the viewer with the pressing urgency of its extinction.
For all their seriousness, Longo’s works are also enduringly playful and captivating in their technical achievements. While working in the traditional medium of charcoal, Longo’s photo-realist drawings, much like Gerhard Richter’s famous photo-paintings, are indeed based on images borrowed from the world of media and demonstrating the artist’s interest in the conceptual kinship between photography and drawing. Longo, who rose to prominence in the 1980s with his seminal Men in the City series, explains his embrace of the underprivileged medium of drawing as driven by the desire to try ‘something that wasn’t mainstream…There was painting and sculpture and then there was drawing…They always seemed to be these intimate things, so the idea of elevating drawing to painting scale seemed to be radical…I wanted the works to operate on a really grand scale. It was important to compete with what was going on in the world, in the media and the art world’ (R. Longo, quoted in ‘Working Towards Affection: An Interview with Robert Longo’, Border Crossings, no. 115, September 2010, pp. 40-41).