A History of the Present at Guild Hall

Pictured Above: Untitled (Protest for George Floyd; Minneapolis, Minnesota; May 28, 2020), 2021. Charcoal on mounted paper, 88 1/4 x 70 inches. Courtesy of the artist; Metro Pictures, New York; and Pace Gallery.

Guild Hall in East Hampton is currently presenting a series of 19 monumental charcoal drawings by artist Robert Longo that act as mirrors into recent history.

Robert Longo is an artist, filmmaker, and musician, and a leading protagonist of the Pictures Generation, working across drawing, photography, painting, sculpture, performance, and film.

The exhibition, “Robert Longo: A History of the Present,” is on view through Oct. 17. 

It’s a celebration of and a critical investigation into the span of American history bookended by Abstract Expressionism and the current moment in which we live. 

In two adjacent galleries, Longo juxtaposes America’s past with its present through 19 monumental, highly labor-intensive charcoal drawings. 

The exhibition begins with Longo’s “Gang of Cosmos” series — highly sensitized black and white translations in charcoal — based on prominent paintings from the American Abstract Expressionist movement. 

Many of the artists who created the works on which these interpretations are made lived and worked on the East End, making the ubiquity of the local landscape in the abstractions at once mesmerizing and inevitable. 

Abstract Expressionism, which reached its peak in the 1950s, was championed for being monumental in scale, romantic in mood, expressive of freedom, and uniquely American in spirit. 

“These works embody America’s willful rise out of the ashes after the world tried to destroy itself during the Second World War,” says Mr. Longo.

Pictures in the second gallery are from the series “The Agency of Faith,” echoing our current state of affairs, and posing questions about our national and environmental narratives. 

A massive drawing of a wave anchors the visual energy of the gallery and serves as a reminder of nature’s enigmatic, unrelenting power. 

Mr. Longo’s connection to the ocean and surfing on the East End goes back decades and inspired his creation of the largest wave he has made to date, specifically for this exhibition. 

A quiet wing of a fallen bird evinces nature’s vulnerability. But once the viewer encounters a drawing depicting a field of cotton alongside a drawing of a closely cropped Native American headdress, the seeming innocuousness of the natural imagery begins to expose a more provocative narrative. 

Mr. Longo presents us with captivating images both of our American crimes and answered calls to action, unleashing an urgency to acknowledge our shared burdens and shared responsibilities. 

His signature velvety charcoal chiaroscuro activates the power of beauty, seducing the viewer into a state of, if not unadulterated optimism, renewed faith in our agency to create possibilities for our future.

“As a curator, I am so thrilled to be able to work with Robert Longo, as he is an artist whose work I have admired for years,” says Guild Hall Museum Director and Chief Curator, Christina Mossaides Strassfield. “His generosity last year in giving up his summer exhibition slot to help create All for the Hall, an exhibition/fundraiser during the pandemic, was beyond our wildest dreams. A History of the Present is composed of two bodies of work, Gang of the Cosmos and The Agency of Faith, and could not be more perfect for Guild Hall. They are a tribute to our past as a showcase and proponent of Abstract Expressionism and a snapshot of where today’s society stands. Robert’s work is cached in depth and meaning from an artistic as well as social perspective, pushing the boundaries on all fronts.”

Ms. Strassfield will give a tour of the exhibition on Saturday, Sept. 25 at 3 p.m. 

The gallery is open Sundays, Thursdays and Fridays from noon to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 8 p.m. and is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. For more information, call 631.324.0806. 

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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