Beguiling yet frightening, the many faces of George Condo’s psychological works continue to be popular around the world, including recent exhibitions at Almine Rech Gallery in Paris, Skarstedt in New York, a major retrospective in Baku, and his latest show, ‘The Way I Think’, at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark. Anna Wallace-Thompson finds out why the great American artist has such a magnetic pull
A girl – youthful, cheerful – beams at somebody just out of your line of sight, her eyes drawn to a point outside of the small, neat canvas in which she resides. Her delicate clavicles are highlighted by a warm light, encased in a simple white collar. Her tidy brown hair is glossy and smooth, swept back with a sort of deftness that implies coolness and restraint. There’s a whiff of the great portrait masters Rembrandt and Rubens in her dark dress and elegant pale neck, yet behind her cherry lips there looms a living nightmare – a second face comes into view over the horizon of her cheek, like an invading morass. This other face is a messy, dangerous Cubist explosion of a technicolor chimpanzee grin. The Smiling Girl (2007), by George Condo, is half-dream, half-terror, the revelation of the animal within. But then, this is the way of the American painter – take The Infernal Rage of Rodrigo (2008), where mad eyes and jagged teeth dominate an otherwise stately portrait, or The Opera Singer (2003), in which a soft white dress and parasol are topped with purple muppet fur and soulful creature eyes. It is this crashing and gliding around of different worlds that has come to define the works of the prolific American artist.
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.
Born in 1957 in New Hampshire, Condo moved to New York’s East Village in the early 1980s, where he was introduced to artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring (both of whom were to become good friends) and Andy Warhol, working at the latter’s factory for two years on his silkscreen series. However, it was a meeting with famed dealer Barbara Gladstone during a stint in Europe that led to a dual exhibition in New York (at Pat Hearn and Gladstone’s eponymous gallery) that helped put him on the map. His distinctive painterly style has defined him over the decades as a master innovator – he fearlessly and seamlessly melds together different elements to create works that move beyond pastiche and derivation into new territories.
A keen musician, he has also crossed over into mainstream celebrity through collaboration with the likes of Kanye West (illustrating the cover of Kanye’s 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), and even received a shout-out in Jay-Z’s 2013 song ‘Picasso Baby’. “Condo’s main strength, first and foremost, is his technique, he’s a brilliant technician,” explains longtime friend and dealer, Swiss-based Andrea Caratsch. “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.” Indeed, Condo’s iconic roster of characters is, to many, as familiar as the style in which they are painted.
However, ‘George Condo: Selections From a Private Collection’, a major retrospective in Baku in 2016 revealed the many facets of his oeuvre by bringing together some 80 works spanning Condo’s career to date. “It was important to us to show aspects of his different activities,” says Simon de Pury, who, along with his wife Michaela, has curated the exhibition. “He is a painter, a sculptor, but also a silkscreen maker and a draughtsman. We wanted to show some of the finest examples of each of these categories.” The works were selected by de Pury and Caratsch from the latter’s extensive collection – one of the largest in the world. Held in collaboration with the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, the exhibition was also remarkable for its decision to break away from a more traditional temporal representation to accommodate a thematic approach. But not all old is necessarily gold. “Condo’s recent work is, actually, most probably his best work,” muses de Pury. “For so many artists their strongest work is the work they became famous for and then it just ends up repeating itself. George has consistently become stronger and stronger instead.”
“George Condo is totally unique, and more than that, is an artist’s artist,” says Caratsch. “He has influenced so many of the younger generation, from John Currin to Lisa Yuskavage, but he is still the most daring. Condo was the first one to transform people. He is an inventor of images, and completely unconnected to anything or anyone else.”
‘The Way I Think’ runs at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark, until 2 April 2018.
A version of this story featured in the autumn 2016 issue of Baku Magazine.
Photography courtesy of Eyevine