- George Condo: Paintings, SculptureBy George Condo
- The Imaginary Portraits of George CondoBy George Condo, Ralph Rugoff
Progression of Art
In this painting, several bizarre objects (including, from left to right, a red and brown object that looks like a toppled mushroom, a carrot-like plant, a white bust of a bald human head, and two flaming furnaces) sit in an empty green field under a stormy blue and grey sky. In the background, the edge of a forest is suggested. The "naturalness" of the scene is called into question by the inclusion of a straight red band across the bottom edge of the painting. In front of this red line, in the right hand corner, sits an irregular dark form, recalling a volcanic rock formation, or an old tree stump.
Even in this early work, Condo was exploring combinations of different viewpoints on art history in a way that overcame the limitations of direct citation and appropriation. Condo is experimenting here with replicating the mood and feel of early twentieth century Surrealist works such as those produced by René Magritte and Salvador Dalí. The inclusion of a moody twilight sky, and long, dark shadows, recalls Magritte's interest in the relationship between day, night, and dusk. The bizarre collection of foreground objects, meanwhile, recalls Dali's use of strange objects like melting clocks and anthropomorphic tree trunks.
Commenting on his early works in 1988, art critic Roberta Smith wrote that "Mr. Condo makes things that look like paintings, that have the presence, completeness and frontal tautness of paintings, yet in some essential way are not so much paintings as artifacts, signs of another time and place, layered thickly with talent and nostalgia and a particularly dandyish form of conservatism. These artifacts are, at times, also extremely smart Conceptual objects".
Surrealist Landscape precedes Condo's move to Paris by two years, and comes six years before he articulated his concept of "artificial realism". We see here then his early attempts to experiment with the discrete art historical styles and movements that would later serve as the source material for works in which Condo would blend these various styles.
Oil on canvas
Dancing to Miles
This enormous painting, which Condo completed in Keith Haring's studio in the East Village, is packed with a frenzy of figures rendered in a Cubist style. The dominant colors are brown and black while the painting as a whole marries the improvisational feel of the Beat movement and jazz music with a more cogitated aspect which Condo took from contemporary French philosophy.
In this work, as in many others, Condo references a variety of styles and earlier artists, including Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, and Willem de Kooning. We also see the influence of Analytic Cubism, with fragmented geometric shapes and a monochromatic color palette. By blending these various influences in a single painting, Condo demonstrates his philosophy that the function of contemporary painting is not to invent, but to repurpose and recombine preexisting styles. In his view, the blending and juxtaposition of various influences serves as a metaphor for the fragmented and multisensory nature of contemporary life.
Art critic Holland Cotter says of the painting that it looks "from a distance, like [an exercise] in nuanced color and tone. But as you come closer, intricate, all-over networks of imagery come into focus: popping eyes, open mouths, breasts, hands, heads, all recognizable from the portraits. The patterns are so detailed and attention demanding as to be exhausting". The title of the work refers to jazz musician Miles Davis, whose free-form jazz music was often turbulent and restless (Condo paid homage to Miles Davis in other works too, including his 1991 etching and aquatint series More Sketches of Spain - For Miles Davis). Condo represents this auditory upheaval in a visual manner. The painting thus serves as an illustration of Condo's "psychological cubism" technique in which he seeks to represent various emotional states within a single canvas.
Oil on canvas - The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica
In this painting, a single female figure is presented against a black background. Her body and face are grotesquely distorted, with her head being disproportionately small to her body; her bulbous nose sitting between two eyes of different sizes, and her shoulders slanted asymmetrically. She wears a red button-up top with a white collar. An apple sits atop her head, and an arrow appears to pierce her head through the ears. Her hair is made up of several colors, including purple, blue, brown, and gray.
Condo believes that one of the most consistent aspects of his work involves the representation of human consciousness. Indeed, he has painted several bizarre characters like this, including Cave Woman (2001), The Cracked Cardinal (2004), Boxer (2006), The Butler (2007) and The Homeless Hobo (2009). In these portraits, Condo prefers to show the sorts of regular people that make up the world, rather than the "glamorous" individuals that we usually see on magazine covers and in various other forms of media. Referring to The Secretary, art critic Jennifer Higgie writes that "Condo is not, to put it mildly, averse to a little exaggeration. Eyes, for example, are a part of the body the artist rates highly, as, obviously, have many painters before him - but in his cosmos they're transformed from windows to the soul into little holes of horror or inflated glutinous orbs, jelly rocks that occasionally roll from their sockets to balance lightly, say, on the end of a perky-haired girl's nose".
In his portraits, Condo references various moments from art history, blending the formality of Old Master portraits with the cheeky humor of Pop Art and cartoons. This work blends various artistic influences designed to confound the viewer about what type of art they are actually looking at. Many of his portraits involve cartoonish aspects. Condo explains that "The cartoon is a very bizarre weapon against the sort of intellectual concept of what our supposedly high-art culture is all about [...] I think the interest is that it's a sort of an entry into a certain kind of serious component of the human psyche".
Oil on canvas - Private collection
This work is one of several "drawing paintings", created by Condo in recent years, in which he uses a variety of materials in a single work. In this red image, black lines and white shading (used sparingly) create one female and one male figure, represented in a cartoonish, Cubist style, as well as a series of abstract forms at the top of the work. The male head rests atop a female torso, with one breast exposed.
The bow tie the male figure wears identifies him as Rodrigo, a character described by Condo as "a kind of lowlife, the one who parks your car and [is] basically a scoundrel". Rodrigo is recurrent character in Condo's paintings and elsewhere the artist has described him as "the piano player at a wedding, doing the worst song you've ever heard [...] the valet wearing his red jacket and his bow tie [and] the disapproving butler".
An important aspect for Condo, in making drawing-paintings, was to assert the equality of the two art forms (painting being generally viewed as higher of the two). The combination of the two techniques is mirrored by the sort of "harmonious dissonance" created through other elements of the work, such as the delicate female form and the grotesque male figure, as well as the simultaneous significations that can be read into the deep-red hue, namely passion and/or violence.
Typical of Condo's oeuvre, the work involves a blend of artistic influences, evidenced here in the Cubist style of Picasso, the Color Field Painting of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, while the female figure's engaged neck recalls that of Parmigianino's Mannerist work Madonna with the Long Neck (1535-1540). Curator Ralph Rugoff says of Condo's characters, "these figures can be seductive and repulsive at the same time. They embody a position that is simultaneously frightening and appealing. This is something that also comes across in the way that they solicit different kinds of looks from the viewer, and how they often look back at us with eyes that don't match or don't even seem to belong to the same face".
Acrylic, charcoal and pastel on canvas
In this predominantly black painting, a single figure is visible, shown from the chest up. The neck and upper body are delineated through the use of straight blue and red lines. The figure's head hardly seems human at all, comprised as it is of several three-dimensional geometric multi-colored shapes. A small black sphere against a white recessed space implies an eye, while two white rounded discs indicate cartoon-like Mickey Mouse ears.
Condo painted this work during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when he was left without electricity and was cut off from the outside world. This painting itself was directly inspired by Picasso's Head of a Woman (1960). In his characteristic manner, however, Condo blends high and low art references in a single work, for instance, with the Mickey Mouse-like ears referencing Pop Art. The painting is also influenced by the dark, brooding tones, and classical figure proportions of Rembrandt's Self Portrait (1660), while the use of blue and maroon striped marks against the black background hint at Francis Bacon's Study after Velzquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953).
By blending realism and abstraction in a single work, Condo exemplifies the postmodern idea that "recombines" (rather than "reimagines") existing genres. In a 2011 interview, he stated that, "Representational pictures are the artist's mind, abstractions are pictures of the artist's mind". Curator Ralph Rugoff, meanwhile, asserts that Condo's tendency to present faces "as a scrambled pictorial landscape sabotages our impulse to read it in terms of an individual psychology [instead] dismantling the face's role as a primary emblem of subjectivity". In this way, Condo exemplifies Guattari's belief that "painting has never ceased to have as its goal the deterritorialization of faces - either through the reactivation of corporeality, or through the liberation of lines and colours, or both at the same time".
Oil and oilstack on canvas - Skarstedt Gallery, New York
Figures in Motion
This painting, dominated by bright yellow and punctuated by bright red, blue, green, and pink, bears various elements of Condo's signature style. Simple lines and fields of color work together to create a dizzying, frenetic scene, in which fractured, grotesque figures are superimposed upon one another. The vibrant, uplifting colours and vivacious sense of movement in this work seem joyful and celebratory, especially when one considers that this work was painted shortly after Condo's experience of contracting the often-fatal Legionnaire's disease.
As usual, Condo combines a variety of artistic influences in a single work. Here, we see traces of the caricatural figures found in Willem de Kooning's Woman series of the late 1940s and 1950s, the dynamic gestural abstraction of Jackson Pollock, and the tribal masks of Paul Cézanne. Figures in Motion (as well as Dancing with Miles (1985-1986) is part of a series of what Condo calls "expanding canvases," which are large-scale, visually busy paintings with no central focal point. Curator Ralph Rugoff describes Condo's "expanding canvases" as works "in which seemingly abstract fields of intricately squiggly lines are composed from fragments of cartoonish anatomies. Fusing heroic modes of abstraction and debased forms of figuration, [these works] articulate a stance fundamental to much of Condo's work - namely, that the transcendent aspirations of 'high' culture are inevitably tangled up with our more clownish natures and desires".
Condo connects this idea to the concept of musical variations on a theme, which he attempts to give visual form in his expanding canvases. Rugoff writes that "Condo's facility as a painter continually lures our attention away from the image to take in the choreography of marks across the picture plane: the loose grace of the brushstrokes, their varied touch and texture, the interplay of unexpected color relationship". Likewise, Condo's friend, French philosopher Guattari, once told him "Your paintings are like non-arpeggio chords which unleash their harmonies and their melodic potential". In this respect, one might say that Condo had achieved through his love of art what seemed somehow impossible through his love of music.
Acrylic, charcoal and pastel on linen - Private collection