New York

George Condo

Pace Gallery

George Condo’s reputation first flowered in the weedy bowers of the East Village of the early ’80s. Though in the current esthetic climate, interested parties might just as soon forget the roots of his sensibility, as in those 19th-century French novels that chronicle the rise of demimondaines to duchesses, his humble origins can be suppressed but never entirely effaced.

Condo’s practice—favoring pastiche and quotation—was fueled, on the one hand, by a penchant for outlandish cartoons and caricatures that flourished in the East Village, and on the other, by the cooler but concurrent taste for appropriation. The sinuous and ballooning biomorphic forms of Joan Miró and the Synthetic Cubism of Picasso were in Condo’s paintings possessed by the spirit of Krazy Kat (in one painting in this exhibition, Crazy Cat Combination, 1990, Condo pays explicit homage to George Herriman’s besieged and besotted feline). But as in the case of his East Village compatriot, Philip Taaffe, the recent prattle surrounding Condo’s paintings tends to deemphasize these constitutive elements of his early career. Rather than sardonic riffs on the seeming paralysis of painting, might not Condo’s suave and elegant recombinations assert the medium’s virile primacy?

Apparently Wilfried Dickhoff, author of the meandering and well-nigh impenetrable catalogue essay that accompanies this exhibition, thinks as much. In this text, so fond of oxymoronic conceits (“real unrealities of the imagination,” “the soul of soul-lessness,” “authentically inauthentic,” “constructive deconstruction,” etc.), Dickhoff makes extravagant claims for Condo’s accomplishments, while, in fact, selling the artist short by submerging him in a loopy, befuddled discourse. Dickhoff seems to be saying that the impaction of so many art-historical references within one frame adds up to some kind of new abstraction; the juxtapositions of styles and references alerts us not to the problematics of their interpenetration but to the very activity of putting this mess together in the first place: “Our attention is focused on brushstrokes, ductus, inserted styles and methods of painting. The effect is like the one produced when Georg Baselitz turns his subjects upside down. Painting becomes obvious as painting.” So even while loaded down with the travestied detritus of canonical Modernist art history, Condo’s art is somehow pure painting. The fatuity of this argument is maybe a little clearer if you consider what Condo’s paintings might look like if his favorite artist were, say, Leroy Neiman. Condo’s paintings live, at least in part, on borrowed prestige, and his choice of Picasso as model is in no way incidental.

At best, Condo is working out his own historical belatedness with respect to a difficult if ossified precursor. By dwelling heavily in these recent paintings on the least valorized works of Picasso’s oeuvre—the slapdash canvases he frantically turned out in the years of his senescence—Condo may even be making his struggle a little harder on himself. In any case, surely a better interpretation could be made in the service of Condo’s expensive work than: painting, painting, painting; it’s just beautiful abstract painting.

David Rimanelli