Artist Robert Longo and Filmmaker Sophie Chahinian on the Artist Ghosts of the Hamptons, and Their Recent Collaboration
Watch a new video interview with the artist on the occasion of his exhibition "A History of the Present" at Guild Hall
by Katie White
When the filmmaker Sophie Chahinian interviewed Robert Longo for her documentary series on contemporary artists in 2017, he was surprised to find that the conversation was unlike so many others he’d had in the past. Chahinian, who he recalls came prepared with copious notes, brought him out of his rote responses and into a world of personal reverie.
This year, Chahinian and Longo followed up with a longer format documentary to accompany the artist’s new exhibition “A History of the Present,” opening at East Hampton’s Guild Hall tomorrow, and ahead of his show at Pace Gallery, “I do fly / After Summer Merrily,” opening September 10. (Both Chahinian, who lives in East Hampton, and Longo will be in attendance at Guild Hall’s summer gala tonight, and the members’ day tomorrow.)
Chahinian’s series, the Artist Profile Archive, which produces films with artists telling their own stories, in their own words, debuted three new projects this summer alone: with artists Virginia Jaramillo, Marnie Weber, and Alexander Grant.
We sat down with the filmmaker and artist to talk about the film, the importance of hearing artists in their own words, and the artistic heritage of Long Island’s East End.
Sophie, why did you start your series of artist interviews, the Artist Profile Archive?
SC: I had a background in film and then spent time working as a studio manager for the artist Eric Orr. I was seeking a more formal education then, and so I went to graduate school in London for my Masters, studying contemporary art. It was a wonderful experience for me, learning from books and criticism and what have you. But it wasn’t the same language that artists use. It was all second-hand sources. With my background, I thought it might be valuable to have primary source records from contemporary artists.
Your first film with Robert debuted in 2017. Were you acquainted or how did the interview come about?
SC: Robert Longo was on my list of artists I wanted to speak to. Someone mentioned that he was doing a book signing at Petzel Gallery in Chelsea. This was in 2014 or 2015. I thought I would just go to the book signing and buy the book and see if I could mention the project to him. He said OK, but then I couldn’t get anywhere with his studio. I ran into him again and brought it up. Then, in December of 2017, we finally completed the interview.
The films are much more reflective than simply talking about an exhibition. In fact, the interviewer doesn’t appear at all. Robert, do you have any memories of the interview? What was the process like?
RL: I was very uncomfortable at the beginning. I have—much to my luck—done a bunch of interviews in my lifetime. But I tend to go into autopilot. Sophie actually made me aware of when I was floating into telling my story that way, with the same stuff all the time. Her interview style was really quite loose, which I like. But when we met she had this pile of papers in front of her and it kind of scared me. It was quite amazing the amount of research she had done, and that she does on everyone she interviews. I’m kind of jealous because she has this all in her head, all these interviews and knowledge of how artists think and operate. She was a bit of a can opener and that’s a compliment to her for sure.
Sophie, what are the challenges of interviewing artists? Robert mentioned falling into the habit of repeating the same lines again and again. How do you overcome these kinds of challenges?
SC: I try to be patient and consistent and try to get artists to also think of things that they haven’t said before, sometimes just by talking about what the potential of art is in society. I want to stay away from this repetitive information. Of course, we hope that there is some sort of revelation or new personal insight. Sometimes the challenge is that the artist just won’t open up and there is nothing revealed.
Did you have any revelatory moments during Robert’s interview?
SC: I was pretty nervous about that interview and I did have a lot of notes that I was referring to. He was like, “what’s in your papers? Why don’t you ask me a question from your pile of notes?” And I said “OK.” I read a question written “Do you ever revel in your own virtuosity” and he started to laugh. Then I said, “No, seriously. Do you ever look at work and say, ‘I can’t believe I made this’?” Then he came up with one of his answers which is that it’s a gag to make you look, that it’s all part of trying to make you see something.
Robert, you’re opening this new exhibition at Guild Hall in East Hampton this month. Do you have a connection to the area?
RL: In my younger life, I spent a lot of time coming out here to surf. My family had a house on the North Shore, not too far away. Once I turned 16 and got a driver’s license it was a really important thing, coming out here. But as I got older, I was a bit turned off by the whole Hamptons thing. It wasn’t a place where I necessarily wanted to be. But I started coming out here in the last four years or so and I’ve started to see things that are quite historic. My connection to Abstract Expressionism has changed coming out here, too, I’ve seen the connections to nature. I’m not a nature guy. I’m a city kid, you know? I like the ocean. I like the beach. I like the sameness of the ocean. The Earth is really clutter to me, but to be in nature here—it’s pretty wild. I went to Jackson Pollock’s grave. And I saw where a lot of the Ab-Ex artists got their inspiration. For this show at Guild Hall, one part, “Gang of Cosmos,” focuses on the artists who were out here, or came at one point. Plus, [artists] Eric Fischl and April Gornik are like royalty out here and they’ve been very welcoming. They’ve done amazing things for the arts out there.
The exhibition at Guild Hall is divided into two parts, “Gang of Cosmos,” which you mentioned, and “The Agency of Faith,” which echoes our current state of affairs and poses questions about our national and environmental narratives.
RL: Guild Hall is a very intimate space. I’ve been stressing out about calculating and making sure my work fits through the door. The reason I work big is because of the Abstract Expressionists—there’s is epic. They are the American classical art, now. I always joke about the fact that I make big art because I’m an American, but the scale of my work is because I’m inspired by that generation, who were in turn influenced by murals and the WPA.
I think of that generation of artists as my ancestors who emerged from one political climate; they were living in a world that had to tried to destroy itself. I think we live in a world that is trying to change itself. “The Agency of Faith” has to do with this, not reckoning, but a changing America, from the George Floyd protests to the pandemic. We’re looking at our history in a different way. I think that when I planned the show I was thinking in a more aggressive way, but now that we have a new president and we have the vaccine, I’m wondering if there is anything to be optimistic about.
I know you’re both attending the Guild Hall gala to help fundraise for its 90th anniversary, which coincides with the exhibition’s opening. What do you like about Guild Hall?
RL: There’s a looseness about them, which is really a nice thing. They’ve shown a lot of artists who I’m sure have confused the locals. And that space certainly has a lot of ghosts. I can feel them. The presence of the artists is there for sure. I can only imagine what the town’s people and fishermen were thinking when they were showing Jackson Pollock.
Sophie, what’s the best place to interview an artist?
SC: In their studios, but that’s really just a treat for me to see inside their worlds.