Robert Longo was born in 1953 in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Long Island. He had a childhood fascination with mass media: movies, television, magazines, and comic books, which continue to influence his art.
Longo began college at the University of North Texas, in the town of Denton, but left before getting a degree. He later studied sculpture under Leonda Finke, who encouraged him to pursue a career in the visual arts. In 1972, Longo received a grant to study at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Italy. Upon his return to New York, Longo enrolled at Buffalo State College, where he received a BFA in 1975.In college, Longo and his friends established an avant garde art gallery in their co-op building, the Essex Art Center, which was originally a converted ice factory; the gallery became Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center. Through his gallery efforts, Longo met many local and New York City artists. Longo eventually moved to New York City to join the underground art scene of the 1970s. Although he studied sculpture, drawing remained Longo's favorite form of self-expression. However, the sculptural influence pervades his drawing technique, as Longo's "portraits" have a distinctive chiseled line that seems to give the drawings a three-dimensional quality. Longo uses graphite like clay, molding it to create images like the writhing, dancing figures in his seminal "Men in the Cities" series. One drawing from this series was used as the album cover to Glenn Branca's album "The Ascension".
Working on themes of power and authority, Longo produced a series of blackened American flags ("Black Flags" 1989–91) as well as oversized hand guns ("Bodyhammers" 1993–95). From 1995 to 1996 he worked on his "Magellan" project, 366 drawings (one per day) that formed an archive of the artist's life and surrounding cultural images. "Magellan" was followed by 2002's "Freud Drawings", which reinterpreted Edmund Engelman's famous documentary images of Sigmund Freud's flat, moments before his flight from the Nazis. In 2002 and 2004 he presented "Monsters", Bernini-esque renderings of massive breaking waves and "The Sickness of Reason", baroque renderings of atomic bomb blasts. "Monsters" was included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial.
Robert Longo had major retrospective exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1989 and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago in 1990, a touring exhibition throughout Japan in 1995, and more recently a "Survey Exhibition 1980-2009," at Musee D'Art Moderne Et D'Art Contemporain de Nice in France in 2009 and at Museu Colecção Berardo in Lisbon, Portugal in 2010.
To create works such as Barbara and Ralph, Longo projects photographs of his subjects onto paper and traces the figures in graphite, removing all details of the background. After he records the basic contours, his long-time illustrator, Diane Shea, works on the figure for about a week, filling in the details. Next, Longo goes back into the drawing, using graphite and charcoal to provide "all the cosmetic work". Longo continues to work on the drawing, making numerous adjustments until it is completed about a week later.
The process of making a lithograph is equally involved. Studio assistants do the basic work, a practice that has a long precedent in classical art.
In the 1980s, Longo directed several music videos, including New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle", Megadeth's "Peace Sells" and "The One I Love" by R.E.M. He is responsible for the front covers of Glenn Branca's The Ascension from 1981 and The Replacements' 1985 album Tim, while his work has inspired others such as Circlesquare's music video "Dancers".
He also directed the cyberpunk movie Johnny Mnemonic, starring Keanu Reeves, Dolph Lundgren and Takeshi Kitano, and a short film named Arena Brains. During the late 1980s and early 1990s Longo developed a number of performance art theatre pieces, such as "Marble Fog" and "Killing Angels", collaborating with Stuart Argabright and the guitarist Chuck Hammer.
He was the leader and guitarist of a musical act called Robert Longo's Menthol Wars, which performed punk experimental music in New York rock clubs in the late 1970s. During the same period, he also performed with Rhys Chatham in Chatham's Guitar Trio, producing a series of slowly fading slides entitled Pictures for Music", which was played behind the musicians.
His work from the "Men in Cities" series is also prominently displayed in the apartment of fictional character Patrick Bateman in the film of American Psycho.
Longo's ground breaking series, "Men In The Cities", draws its strength and inspiration from Longo's fascination with the works of many artists in many media, but particularly from Hollywood's stylization of violence. His figures are captured in mid-motion; one wonders whether they are dancing or dying. Their creation and popularity have come to represent the high-speed, high-pressure decade of the 1980's. Longo describes the subjects in this series as "...doomed souls. They're people who built the buildings that would eventually fall on them."
He views his work as abstract symbols, "...more like Japanese calligraphy, or logos" . Longo works with assistants to create an image and, as an artist, focuses on the communication in his images rather than the craft of producing the image.
Asked about his influences, he names the "New York Post," the films of Sam Peckinpah, modern artists such as Vito Acconci, Sol LeWitt, Robert Smithson, Edward Hopper, and Egon Schiele, and further, Greek and Roman sculpture. Longo was born in New York City's Brooklyn and lives and works on the East Coast. He has exhibited his thought-provoking drawings in New York, Texas, Milan, Munich, Naples, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Paris and Tokyo, as well as many other United States galleries.