‘Deft, Ingenious, Creepy’

George Condo: Mental States

an exhibition at the New Museum, New York City, January 26–May 8, 2011; the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, June 25–September 25, 2011; the Hayward Gallery, London, October 18, 2011–January 15, 2012;
and the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, February 23–May 28, 2012.
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Ralph Rugoff and Laura Hoptman
London: Hayward/New Museum, 192 pp., $50.00
George Condo
George Condo: The Executioner, 1984

The Executioner, perhaps the strongest and most genuinely disturbing work in George Condo’s show at the New Museum, might be called a representational painting about the allure of abstract art—or, to be more precise, the allure of letting yourself go in the making of a world of curving, looping, entangling lines. In the good-sized picture, painted in 1984 when Condo was twenty-seven and having his first significant New York shows, we look at a chunky and boyish fantasy character in knee-high pants whose little head has come off and sits by his feet. As with Edward Scissorhands, his black and squidlike hands have a life of their own: they sprout black lines that curl and wind above, around, and beneath him, making a kind of curvilinear stage set, and the spaces between these thick and thin lines are filled with more lines in the form of countless doodles.

Deft, ingenious, and creepy, The Executioner engages us as a literary puzzle picture even as it has a powerful sheerly visual presence. It presents a boy who couldn’t stop doodling and in the process lost his head. We see someone brought down by his own gushing gift.

This admittedly tidy and moralistic interpretation may not be the only one The Executioner provokes. But it comes to mind at George Condo’s exhibition, where we encounter an artist whose work has about it something of the trade-off that is one way of looking at The Executioner. A fantasist, Condo presents in his numerous kinds of pictures a blend of a Bugs Bunnyish surrealism, a connoisseur’s appreciation of earlier artists, and what might be called a cynic’s glee at human ugliness. And whether in his feeling for the linear in itself, or for color or brushwork, he is a maestro. He has a musician’s rhythm in the placement of shapes, and he brings off works of every size with an elegantly nonchalant, rough-at-the-edges touch. Yet the wacky, and increasingly grotesque and sour, realm he shows feels whipped up and insubstantial. And hanging over too much of his art is the sense that, assured as his sheer artistry is, Condo himself is less tangible than the artists of the past he evokes in his pictures. His art seems to be missing something, like the fellow in The Executioner.

George Condo is a member of a generation of artists who, first showing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, turned the art world upside down. After well over a decade in which graduate school art teaching and art magazine theorizing maintained that painting—unlike, say, the nascent and somehow connected fields of conceptual, video, and performance art—could no longer be a vehicle for serious thought or feeling, Condo was one of a number of artists, including David Salle, Keith Haring, Carroll Dunham, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Terry Winters, and Julian…

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