It’s easy to dislike George Condo. His exhibition at the New Museum was ushered in with a profile in The New Yorker replete with anecdotes about how he met his beautiful wife in a nightclub; his Upper East Side townhouses; his tastes for expensive wine and gambling; and his chauffeur-driven Mercedes. Mr. Condo was part of a coterie of American painters beloved by tabloids who started out in the 1980s in the East Village, a group that included Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Recently, he is best known for painting a cover for Kanye West’s album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Is it possible to see something more complicated in Mr. Condo?
Three decades of Mr. Condo’s paintings are now on view at the New Museum in a show curated by Ralph Rugoff and Laura Hoptman. The exhibition is subtitled “Mental States,” and in its curatorial restraint, it bids to rectify Mr. Condo’s reputation for overproducing paintings without benefit of an editorial hand. It presents four thematic groups within Mr. Condo’s work, identified, with the logic of Borges’ Chinese encyclopedia, as “Portraiture,” “Melancholia,” “Manic Society” and “Abstraction.”
Mr. Condo can paint. There are vulgar jokes made simultaneously in subject and technique, like Janitor’s Wife (2000): red dress and ample cleavage, red nose and drunkard’s cheeks, the subject’s tawdry availability echoed in the vampy red nail-polish gloss of the painting’s varnish. In Homeless Harlequin (2004), the periwinkle modeling of the blue background renders it alive, the nude woman’s nipples echoing the dots in the harlequin’s costume. Bug eyes, bad orthodontia and cartoon cheeks meet classical underpainting in burnt sienna and Naples yellow. Seen from a distance, his traditional palette resolves to Orange Crush, mint green and Hallmark-card blue.
Mr. Condo’s “Portraiture,” paintings of imaginary characters (1982-2010), are hung salon-style in the vertiginous first gallery: ladies, monsters, cartoon characters, hybrids. They are not so much “fake Old Masters,” as he says, than like salon caricatures of the 19th century–the tabloid cartoons of Manet’s Olympia in which the odalisque is made grotesque, stink-lines emanating from her dirty feet. In their takes on the styles of Velásquez, Picasso, Goya, Reubens and others, they are inescapably of their moment of inception, which is the mid-1980s to early 1990s, a moment when Francis Fukuyama proclaimed “the end of history” and Minimalism had long since mourned the death of painting. While the exhibition catalog rightly links Mr. Condo’s moderately wet figuration with de Kooning and Guston, and establishes painters John Currin, Cecily Brown, Lisa Yuskavage and Dana Schutz as his heirs, those earlier and later painters were not grappling with his particular relationship to the end of the history of painting. One gets the sense that Mr. Condo’s original relationship with painting was two parts facility and one part necrophilia.
In the room titled “Abstraction,” large-scale horizontal works conjure some of the formal beauty of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon‘s fleshy flatness and all of the scatological glee of a men’s room wall. They exhibit the easy pleasure of interlocking figures, graffiti strokes with translucent bodies, nipples and Mickey Mouse and letters intertwined. While Mr. Condo is usually a very good painter, he is never a great painter. His facility for rendering certain flourishes becomes a tick, until you have the weird feeling that some of the less-good paintings might be fake Condos. Dancing to Miles (1985-1986) has this uncanny, self-forged effect.
If with titles like The Return of Client 9 (2009) (a monstrous couple fucking, all Picasso geometry and Nightmare on Elm Street faces) or The Stockbroker (2002) (in which the figures are pinheads ambling haplessly to one side) Mr. Condo makes gestures at performing social critique, his paintings render a dystopia without a real target. Nothing in them can change. There is no complexity to appearances in a Condo. You are how you look. Beautiful women are beautiful women, and sad clowns are sad clowns.
Depending on whom you ask, Mr. Condo is overrated or underlooked. Emerging artists will always return to obsolete and outdated techniques and styles as a way of reinventing the practice of making objects and challenging the status quo. Mr. Condo’s engagement with the history of painting is ultimately this sort of project, distinguished by its rage, self-loathing, necrophilia, humor, bravado and disgust. The painter’s cast of characters enacts his original self-conception. His butlers, barbers and clowns have a similar status as the emerging painter at what was once the end of history: the bathetic practitioners of a dead art.