George Condo’s Slapdash Mediocrity Spoofs the Masters, Fools Collectors

George Condo - on exhibition at the New Museum - says he paints like the Old Masters, but applies their technical finesse to subjects of his own invention. Don’t believe it. The paint handling is muddy and effects of light and shade, volume and texture inexpertly rendered. He says his works have to do with madness or dark visions, but they look puerile and silly.
George Condo at the New Museum
George Condo at the New Museum

A recent New Yorker magazine profile about George Condo – a 54-year-old American painter widely collected by U.S. and especially European private collectors and some museums — gave equal space to his profligate lifestyle and his claims to have mastered the techniques of the Old Masters. He says he paints like the greats but applies their technical finesse to subjects of his own invention. Don’t believe it.

A 20-foot high wall carpeted with his canvases from the last three decades is a bizarre spectacle for a major museum, even the New Museum  of Contemporary Art, where “George Condo: Mental States” closes May 8.

George Condo, Dreams and Nightmares of the Queen, 2006, oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches
George Condo, Dreams and Nightmares of the Queen, 2006, oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches

It’s a coterie of figures, mainly female, that make superficial allusions to old masters from Velazquez and Zurbaran to  Ingres, Gorky and mainly Picasso.

His stock in trade is a kind of deformity – the faces often bulge like the tri-lobed snouts of bunny rabbits, the necks sometimes merging phallically with the lower jaws. He says they have to do with madness or dark visions, but they look puerile and silly.

Maybe that’s the point. Who knows?

As to the old master technique, the paint handling is muddy and effects of light and shade, volume and texture inexpertly rendered. Many are thinly painted, showing little effort, which underlines their deficiencies. And he makes gilded Baroque-style busts that are garish tchochkes. His success in the market – new paintings can sell in the mid six figures – indicates the herd mentality of some collectors.

George Condo, Uncle Joe, 2005, oil on canvas, 53 x 46 inches, private collection (courtesy Simon Lee Gallery). © George Condo 2010
George Condo, Uncle Joe, 2005, oil on canvas, 53 x 46 inches, private collection (courtesy Simon Lee Gallery). © George Condo 2010

A few works rise above the general atmosphere of slapdash mediocrity. One is a giant canvas papered with colorful crayon drawings in the manner of mid- to late-career Picassos. It’s fun to see Condo trying to get inside the creative mind of Picasso, but pathetic to witness his failure to match his idol’s fluid and confident line and solid compositions. Thrusting up through the center of this cloud of mimicry is a large bust painted in the manner of Picasso’s late ink drawings, but with a confused abstract face that is all Condo’s own. I suppose it could be the artist’s self-portrait immersing himself in Picasso. In any case, from a distance the expansive collage has a visual and chromatic profusion that is appealing.

George Condo, Female Figure Composition, 2009. Acrylic, pastel, and charcoal on linen, 78 x 108 inches, private collection. © George Condo 2010
George Condo, Female Figure Composition, 2009, acrylic, pastel, and charcoal on linen, 78 x 108 inches, private collection. © George Condo 2010

His best work is his most recent, including several mural-sized horizontal canvases that are mashups of de Kooningesque women peaking out amid pale pink brushy color fields. Derivative, but visually intriguing, these canvasses hint that more compelling work may be yet to come.

Jason Edward Kaufman

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.

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