“The Big Breakthrough came when I started living with Gretchen Bender. Gretchen was the breakthrough in trying to figure out how to draw women. She is an artist smart enough to understand what I was after. She became a reach archetype in the drawings. She became another collaborator in my work…Her image was capable of being so many various kinds of females. I understood how movie directors could use the same actor over and over and see someone else every time, and besides, I was in love.” Robert Longo, quoted in R. Price, Men in Cities, New York, 1986, p. 90.
Rendered in the artist’s signature charcoal, Untitled by Robert Longo embodies the creative milieu of New York in the early 1980s. Stretching nearly seven feet tall, the work constitutes a compelling portrait of the artist Gretchen Bender, who, along with Longo, was associated with the Pictures Generation. The Men in Cities series is perhaps the most iconic series of works produced by Longo and has arguably come to represent the decade in which it was created. Inspired by the charge that electrified New York City in the late seventies and early eighties, Men in Cities is a series of “pictures” Longo created from photos he took on his rooftop of friends including Cindy Sherman, Gretchen Bender and Jeffrey Deitch. “Robert shot us in free fall, looking like we were dead…A feeling of force and energy emanates from these photographs. Now I see their choreographic aspect. I see youthful optimism. Creating these poses became a sort of dance, and I think that’s why I remember having such a good time." (Cindy Sherman, quoted on http://www.phaidon.com/agenda/photography/events/2012/april/12/robert-longos-shots-of-a-contorting-larry-gagosian/). Longo describes how “We’d count off one, two, three, and she and all the models would have to jerk, fling, fall. Cha cha cha,” (Robert Longo, quoted in R. Price, Men in Cities, New York, 1986, p. 91).
However, a darker undercurrent to these dramatic large scale drawings is the dramatic sense that these figures were in a state of violent torsion. Longo explains that “I’d pick a specific place on the body and pretend they were getting shot in the shoulder or something” (ibid.). Inspired by his black and white television set and the notion of “film stills,” Longo produced around sixty of these iconic drawings in different scales over the course of three years. None other is more impassioned and personal than those he created of Gretchen; in fact, she is the only subject he identified by name in these generally untitled drawings. Lined up in a distinct palette of black and white, rendered in sumptuous ink and charcoal, the Men In Cities drawings also exemplify Longo’s masterful technique and ability to seamlessly render a body in motion.