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.
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.
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.
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.