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 Schnabel, who arrived with the news that painting remained an endeavor filled with possibilities. Even more heretical, and abetted by similar work coming from Europe, they held that painting that had in it representational elements, whether taken as quotations from other art, cartoons, the world of natural science, or existing photographs, could be forceful and contemporary in spirit as well. Of these painters, Condo was among the last to arrive on the scene and he is almost the last to receive a major show at a New York museum.
A hugely prolific artist, he has restlessly, and a little bewilderingly, gone from one kind of picture to the next in the twenty-five years or so that he has been showing. He is, in other words, precisely the kind of artist who could have benefitted from a retrospective that mapped out his twists and turns. But a comparison of the New Museum’s selections with various publications on Condo over the years (plus a memory of his shows) indicates that a number of lively pictures have been sacrificed for a broader, more simplified telling of his story. What may be Condo’s best works, moreover, portraits of clownish and cartoonish beings done in the 1980s, have been radically underrepresented and are poorly shown to boot. Like lots at an auction, they have been placed on a large wall in a seemingly random way, mixed in with portraits from other times and with no thought for the fact that most of the very small canvases can hardly be seen at all.
Streamlined as the exhibition is, it is still a little like a group show. Along with fantastical portraits like The Executioner, Condo has made strangely stiff portraits of women, seemingly indebted to Raphael, and equally anachronistic images of faceless mannequinlike figures in Renaissance garb, which recall de Chirico’s ball-headed dummies (though they are painted in a glistening, ornamental, folk-art style that is closer to the later André Derain). Condo, who was based in Paris from 1985 to 1995, is also clearly obsessed with Picasso. In Spanish Head Composition (1988), for example, where many sketches on paper in a number of Picasso’s manners have been casually yet adroitly brought together to form a grand collage, he holds us a little spellbound, as a canny impersonator of Reagan or Nixon might. We know we are looking at pastiches, but they are both alive in their own right and subtly different from Picasso, and the experience of not being sure who we look at is tickling in itself.
Taking The Executioner one step further, Condo has made, too, what might be called doodle epics. As a beautiful untitled and abstract 1975 pencil drawing in the exhibition makes clear, he was already at age eighteen adept at showing tightly bound, pulsing worlds of interconnecting boxy shapes; and in often large works from the 1980s on, he has developed the idea of endless free-form linear improvisations. They are works that might look like abstractions at a glance but are infested, as it were, with cartoonishly drawn faces, figures, and objects.
And two of the improvisations, Expanding Canvas and Nothing is Important, both from 1985, are feats. Faces, body parts, utensils, books, caged birds, and God knows what else flow in and out of each other in pictures that suggest that Pollock’s fields of swirling lines have been invaded by end- lessly metamorphosing entities—rubbery forms that you half-imagine buzz about and recombine themselves when the pictures aren’t being looked at. In more recent, and rather glib, versions of these epics, Condo’s line is either more obviously pretty and cursive or he is using lines in more clipped and abrupt ways, recalling—too much—de Kooning.
With their clown noses and popping eyes, the fantasy faces and figures in Condo’s work have from the beginning been rather threatening, and that spirit has seemingly taken over his work in the last years. The featured pictures at the show, in any event, present a race of sexually overheated, goonish, or abject grotesques—people whose faces and bodies have been assembled with an anatomical waywardness that even Picasso might wonder at. In paintings that often have dark backgrounds, we look at beings whose chins zoom up and resemble little surfboards that have come back to smack them in the face. Eyes bulge outlandishly, mouths stretch open rigidly like tunnel entrances, and teeth are so abundant there are occasionally extra sets of them hanging off the protuberant cheeks.
Certainly, Uncle Joe (2005) is a nightmare. Ferociously, devouringly open-mouthed, our bald and big-eared protagonist lies on the grass, wearing only a T-shirt, a huge wine bottle in one hand, and one leg, with tufts of hair sprouting here and there, going straight up like a tree. His erect penis seems to be the originator of the bubbles that float everywhere, his pubic hair is like a shag rug on the march, and a cigarette planted on his hand is yet another rigidly vertical element in a picture that is a catalog of erections. The cigarette is also a touch that helps us see that Uncle Joe might fancy himself a bit of a swinger, which only adds to the rampant lunacy. We look at a snorting nobody, a little immobilized by the Viagra in his system, who perhaps thinks he is playing all the parts in a recreation of Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass.
Not all of Condo’s gruesomely altered folk have Uncle Joe’s energy. Some have goitery necks or the slack mouth lines of the toothless, or else their faces are lost in effusions of hair. Some are simply pathetic, and Ralph Rugoff, in a sensitive essay in the show’s catalog, leaps to the thought that “perhaps not since Edward Hopper has an American painter portrayed such acute despair and dejection.” Yet for this viewer the “despair” of Condo’s figures, like their fuming animosity, has almost no emotional impact. Some of the crazies are at least funny, and with their mousetrap mouths and steaming anger they are a little like beserk versions of those sputtering businessmen Peter Arno drew for The New Yorker for years. Couple on Blue Striped Chair (2005) and The Return of Client No. 9 (2008), which show Condo’s bizarroes having sex, are vaguely amusing as Mad magazine send-ups of Bacon’s images of intertwined lovers.
In formal terms, though, the pictures aren’t jarring enough. The element that is most alive in these images of nasty or lost souls is usually the jumbling architecture of curvy and boxy shapes that make up their faces (or the most purely linear part of the work, as one might expect from Condo). Otherwise the pictures have the presence more of jokey big playing cards than of paintings with a life as paintings. They aren’t collagelike enough; they don’t have enough of the sense, which marks Condo’s most persuasive work, that he has brought together, in a given picture, outwardly incompatible things. Like the painters he came up with, particularly Salle, Basquiat, Dunham, and Schnabel, Condo’s art is most bracing when we can feel that there is something awkward, violent, or mystifying about the way the elements of representational art have been made part of what might be called an abstract space—and when that space, in turn, has its own presence and character.
As it happens, the works in the first fifty or sixty pages of The Imaginary Portraits of George Condo (2002) demonstrate how brilliantly and inventively he could do just that. In pictures that are primarily from the late 1980s and for the most part are not in the New Museum exhibition, he concocted personages from, seemingly all at once, a feeling for linear patterning, the example of Picasso, the anything-goes mood of cartooning, and, maybe most important, a willingness both to let color on its own create an atmosphere and to let his paint surfaces get thick or scratchy and runny as he moved along. There is a clogged, fought-over, even somewhat incoherent quality to these early Condos. It is sorely missed in what his art has become.
April 28, 2011