I began thinking about George Condo because of a Phillips auction catalogue for the 20th Century and Contemporary Art sale (December 7 and 8, 2020) that recently arrived in the mail. The auction features two paintings by Condo.
One of them, “Transparent Female Forms” (2009, acrylic, chalk and pastel on linen, 78 x 113 7/8 inches), was estimated to sell for between $3,5000,000 and $5,500,000 and sold within the range, for $4,265,000. The other one, “Smiling Girl with Lilac Shirt” (2005, oil on canvas, 17 1/8 x 15 1/8 inches), was estimated to sell for 60,000 to 80,000 dollars and sold well above it, for $226,800.
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After a little research, I learned that the high estimate of “Transparent Female Forms” is within striking reach of Condo’s auction record, which was set on May 17, 2018, when “Nude and Forms” — a large, brightly colored neo-Cubist painting from 2014 — sold at Christie’s for 6.16 million dollars with fees.
I decided that I should dig deeper into Condo’s popularity. According to Laura Hoptman, the executive director of the Drawing Center and curator of Condo’s 2011 retrospective, Mental States, at the New Museum: “George [Condo] is one of the great draughtsmen of American art” (quoted in Hilary Sheets, “A Sun God? A Cyborg? No, It’s a George Condo Creation,” the New York Times, October 29, 2019).
In his New York Times review of the exhibition (January 27, 2011), Holland Cotter wrote of the New Museum show:
[The exhibition] demonstrates, among other things, what anyone who has tracked his career already knows. He’s the missing link, or one of them (Carroll Dunham is another), between an older tradition of fiercely loony American figure painting — Willem de Kooning’s grinning women, Philip Guston’s ground-meat guys, Jim Nutt’s cubist cuties, anything by Peter Saul — and the recent and updated resurgence of that tradition in the work of [John] Currin, Glenn Brown, Nicole Eisenman, Dana Schutz and others.
In Baku, subtitled “the online magazine about everything” (January 26, 2018), I read the following description of the artist’s work:
For Condo, characters exist at the nexus of a variety of emotions. Describing his technique as “psychological cubism,” he explores the numerous co-existing states of mind within any one individual. He lays them out, flays them, opens up liminal spaces only to smash them together like the Large Hadron Collider. His eye looks deep into the human brain and jump across multiple temporal planes, squeezing emotions into each other so that they slip and slide and merge uneasily across a portrait’s face.
The modestly scaled “Smiling Girl with Lilac Shirt,” which comes in an ornate artist’s frame, depicts a smiling young woman with a bob haircut, facing the viewer from the painting’s left side at an angle. She has one Cyclopean eye that stares straight ahead, placed directly above a large, open, red-lipped mouth that is also painted frontally. Her lower teeth seem rather small and spaced slightly apart, suggesting that she is in need of cosmetic dentistry.
Meanwhile, above the upper right corner of her open maw, Condo has painted a mushroom cap nose. Just beyond it, an eye bulges out, one of the artist’s signature gestures. Does it belong to another face?
Condo has returned to the motif of the smiling, open-mouthed woman with one Cyclopean eye and a sliver of another, messy and distorted, face rising behind it, a number of times, for example, “Smiling Woman” (2009, oil on linen, 72 by 60 inches) and “Linear Composition” (2008-9, oil on linen, 52 by 42 inches).
You could say that Condo has learned from Picasso, but to what end? What liminal space has he opened up? Are Condo’s paintings portraits or pastiches?
Thinking about his phrase “psychological cubism,” I am reminded of “cutism,” a word invented and used by the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl in another context. Condo is a master of psychological cutism. It is the source of his appeal. His paintings play to his viewers’ sense of superiority; it gives them something to smile at without thinking too deeply into the work.
Also in the Baku article, Condo’s Swiss dealer and longtime friend, Andrea Caratsch, delivers an example of what I call fluffy art speak:
Condo’s main strength, first and foremost, is his technique, he’s a brilliant technician. […] He handles oil like Manet or Velázquez would have done; however, what sets him apart is that he comes from an American background, yet spent his formative years in Europe. He was exposed to art techniques here; not only old and modern masters but contemporary visionaries, such as Martin Kippenberger. He mixes American influences with a European touch, and he has invented something completely new — he cannot be attributed to any particular school.
What I find interesting about this vacuous advertisement is that Caratsch never describes what is “completely new” about Condo’s work.
What is it that makes him “[one] of the great draftsmen of American art”? Is it because “[h]e handles oil like Manet or Velázquez”? Is that what he is doing in “Smiling Girl with Lilac Shirt” and “Linear Composition”? Hoptman seems to confuse draftsmanship with facility. There is a self-satisfied ease to Condo’s capable drawings.
Caratsch ignores the larger issue, which is that Manet and Velásquez reinvented subject matter and composition; they gave us works that we are still thinking about. Is there a painting by Condo that does something similar? If there is, I have never heard anyone mention it.
A number of art-world luminaries have stated that Condo’s work has become “stronger and stronger,” yet they also never say how or why. This omission is like emphasizing that Guston’s work became stronger after 1969, but never addressing what changes he made in his paintings between “Head 1” (1965) and “Edge of Town” (1969).
Other than biographical details — he was friends with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, spent two years working for Andy Warhol, collaborated with William S. Burroughs, befriended Félix Guattari, and created cover art for Kanye West that was banned in some outlets — what I get from the writings on Condo is a lot of praise with very little to substantiate the large claims made on behalf of his work.
Much of the critical writing about Guston and Saul cite the larger cultural contexts in which they made their work — which spanned the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings to the Vietnam War and race riots. They did not live in a bubble; they addressed the pressure that society was applying to their work and life.
This is not the case with Condo, who was born in 1957 and began exhibiting in New York during the early 1980s, the “Reagan Years,” when the government policy of indifference caused thousands to die of AIDS, including Haring. You cannot say that Basquiat and Haring were unaffected by their race, sexual orientation, and the society in which they lived.
There is no trace of the everyday world — its tumult and tension — in Condo’s art. His works are mostly portraits characterized by distortion in the form of bulging and distended eyes, multiple limbs, and misshapen heads and bodies. His subjects’ teeth are too big or too small. They have unsightly body hair and wear clown outfits and other ridiculous clothes. Every single thing about them is wrong; they are marked by their physical faults.
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As members of the art world’s privileged class, we are meant to laugh and be entertained by their misfortune. Condo gives viewers permission to be snarky and amused by these pathetic figures.
Since his emergence during the AIDs crisis, Condo has made gleeful putdowns for a well-heeled audience who can afford to live in a bubble lined with baubles. As has been widely documented, Steven A. Cohen, hedge fund manager and the new majority owner of the New York Mets, real estate tycoon Aby Rosen, and billionaire Dakis Joannou are among his collectors, and there is a waiting list for his work.
From the Great Migration to the Great Depression to the dropping of the Atom Bomb, the Red Scare, repressive immigration policies, the sanctioned killing of people of color, and oppression of and violence against LGBTQ individuals, we have long lived in state of injustice and crisis. Amid this entangled cycle of catastrophes there is a class of individuals that owns yachts, private planes, and multiple homes, far away from most people’s daily strife. They work on their tans, watch their waistlines, and keep track of their fortunes.
George Condo sells his well-made wares to this class. Other than distortion and mismatched body parts, there is nothing adventuresome about his portraits. He has made no attempt to rethink composition or subject matter in what is essentially a conservative genre, which you cannot say of his predecessors Saul or Nutt. There is nothing unsettling or insistent about his work, which is something you cannot say about his contemporary Carroll Dunham.
Condo’s collectors love his work because it looks like art without challenging their beliefs or calling them out. It does not give them much to think about aside from how much it might be worth, should they decide to sell it at auction. This is why Edmond Francey, International Director of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s London, declared Condo to be the “latest hero” of American painting.