Neal Benezra on Robert Longo’s “Pressure”

See also: Youth Under Pressure: Robert Longo, Deathrock and the Eighties

Pressure by Robert Longo

Pressure by Robert Longo

Robert Longo’s Pressure might well be the most representative work of art of the 1980s. Now in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, the 1982-83 diptych is, like much of Longo’s work, large and complex, measuring over eight feet in height. The lower part of the work features an introspective young man in clown’s whiteface, who sits pensive and brooding, staring off into space. Projecting out directly above him is a massive, anonymous architectural façade. Although the figure is crushed metaphorically by the weight and implication of the structure, he sits detached and disillusioned, absorbed in his own thoughts.

Pressure is a signature work of the 1980s, both formally and iconographically. Like many of his peers, Longo rejects the formalist obsession with abstraction and purity of medium, preferring instead a rich synthesis of painting, sculpture, and photography. And, like much current art, Pressure—by virtue of its evocative title and tantalizing juxtaposition of forms—hints at narrative. By capitalizing on the well-worn image of the sad clown who, despite his theatrical guise, is oppressed by his own concerns and the world outside, Longo’s work also makes use of cliché and parody. Finally, Pressure is paradigmatic of the art of the eighties because, despite its emphatic means, the content of the work is essentially neutral, its subject implicitly acted upon by urban forces that are apparently beyond his control. Longo’s young man is disillusioned, but also inscrutable, seemingly powerless to affect his destiny through heroic action. Ultimately, despite its dramatic scale and expressive means, Pressure is an unheroic work of art.

Neal Benezra, Overstated Means/Understated Meaning: Social Content in the Art of the 1980s, Smithsonian Studies in American Art Vol. 2, No. 1 (Winter, 1988), p. 19

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