New York

George Condo

The most depressing thing about George Condo’s new work is the artist’s age, 30. If these rehashes of Picassoish and Gorkyesque motifs were the products of a failing yet powerful imagination, maybe the raging talent evident in their brushwork would be something to celebrate in print. Condo can paint distinctively, no argument there. But at least on the evidence of this show, it’s a skill that is growing flabby and lackadaisical while the artist unwinds with nostalgia.

Like other painters who chose their “look” in the heat of the neo-Expressionist vogue, Condo uses a stormy texture to strut his sensitivity. Less macho than, say, Julian Schnabel, but with less on his mind, Condo only escapes the fate of seeming merely histrionic—of being a sort of Kirk Douglas of current painter’s painters—because what he portrays is too bland and artsy. Up until the rather sober pieces included in last year’s Whitney Biennial, Condo was known for an elegant, cartoony surrealism at once brash (in the Keith Haring–Kenny Scharf mode) and wallflower shy (like the new abstract work of Ross Bleckner and Philip Taaffe, for which he has also expressed some affinity). Lately, however, he seems to have spent a lot of time with his mouth hanging open in museums. At least the pictures in this show, all from the last year or so, were based entirely on his familiarity with the key styles of certain Modernist greats, of his vague awareness of appropriation as a legitimate modus operandi, but mostly of his knack for blurring and blending overexposed art relics into contemporary-looking apparitions.

In Untitled, 1987, what could be a cross or a flower or a human figure on some kind of pedestal or stool was dabbed thickly onto the center of a fairly large canvas. The vaguely recognizable form, the loosewristed technique, and the pointed avoidance of the corners of the composition are retro through and through. But 20 years ago the canniness of Condo’s ennui wouldn’t have cut the mustard; now it just rings a bell without seeming particularly unique. The same goes for Edith Piaf, 1987–88, a slightly bigger painting in which a distorted female figure reclines across a horizontal canvas. You can’t look at it without recalling the work of Gorky but you also can’t make much of anything of the comparison. Only in a few works consisting of scraps of paper, each with its own little ink sketch and glued on canvas in an overlapping pattern, does Condo act like an artist with much in the tank. These particular works have a nice messy classiness. Still, next to the scribbles of a truly haunted artist like Rosemarie Trockel, they’d probably have about as much resonance as a pile of gum wrappers.

Condo’s new work is about his love of manipulating paint, but, even more, it’s about our love of seeing coagulated paint. If one’s love of this thing is compulsive enough, there are all sorts of twists and turns to admire here. If not, all the style in the world isn’t going to bring these mummies to life.

Dennis Cooper