Berlin

View of “George Condo,” 2016–17. From left: George Condo, Shadow Personage, 1990; Pablo Picasso, Female Nude (Study for “Les demoiselles d’Avignon”), 1907. Photo: Timo Ohler. © Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

View of “George Condo,” 2016–17. From left: George Condo, Shadow Personage, 1990; Pablo Picasso, Female Nude (Study for “Les demoiselles d’Avignon”), 1907. Photo: Timo Ohler. © Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

George Condo

Museum Berggruen

View of “George Condo,” 2016–17. From left: George Condo, Shadow Personage, 1990; Pablo Picasso, Female Nude (Study for “Les demoiselles d’Avignon”), 1907. Photo: Timo Ohler. © Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

“George Condo. Confrontation” nestled 129 works—paintings, drawings, and sculpture—made by the American painter over the past thirty-eight years amid the Museum Berggruen’s rich modernist holdings: Picasso, Klee, Matisse, and Giacometti, inter alia. At the entrance of all this was The Great Schizoid, 1984. The artist’s surname is blazoned across its mottled gray background, the o’s formed by twin globes: Condo containing multitudes. “Schizoid” makes sense. While himself pivotal to latter-day figurative art, Condo has long presented himself as a jigsaw of apparent influences, from Picasso to Goya to Velázquez to that 1949 Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs plays a psychotic opera conductor, a riot of eyes and teeth. But “great”? This show, from an artist who turns sixty this year, was an elective acid test.

At first glance, Condo flunked it. Consider his flanking of The Butcher,2009, with two examples of Synthetic Cubism from 1914, Braque’s oil Still Life with Pipe (Le quotidien du midi) and Picasso’s spacey gouache Still Life with Glass and Deck of Cards (Homage to Max Jacob). Condo, painting in his characteristic style of measured bravura, fragments his subject, overlaying a jug-eared male head with a smaller, grinning, masklike second one, then embedding a meat cleaver in the skulls of both, the hatchet’s silvery parallelogram an ersatz cubist plane. The work is darkly comical, but also reads as an intentional pratfall. With such juxtapositions, Condo often seemed to gauge the gap between greatness and himself: the funnies coming after real, if old, news. Alongside Picasso’s rose-period Seated Harlequin,1905, hung Condo’s century-younger double nude Seated Couple, 2005, depicting a woman riding a balding man against a florid background, the image a cousin of the album cover Condo would soon create for Kanye West. Beside Cézanne’s Madame Cézanne, 1885, was The Return of Madame Cézanne, 2002, an androgynous pinhead.

Yet Condo also manages to signal a conflux of banked emotion through the warped madam’s strange calm. The work is a cartoon but a compassionate one, as is Antipodal Dream, 1996, whose subject—a woman with Seussian furry arms and sporting a lime-green clown nose balancing a wineglass on her head while smoke billows from the burning sleeve of the seventeenth-century dress she is wearing—is possessed of eyes that are pure Warner Bros. yet authentically troubled. It’s this ability to limn implicit psychic autobiography within the mingled aesthetics of others and via myriad invented personages that twisted “Confrontation” into something other than Condo intentionally bringing a knife to a gunfight. Time and again he conveys compound emotions; the “confrontation” is apparently also one with the inner self. Making a caricature of pain, he points to its sincere presence. This means, admittedly, that he can’t do much with artists such as Matisse or Klee. Taking a line for a walk and making it end in a pair of Mickey Mouse ears is small change. But more significant were the surprising moments when Condo’s art equaled that of his forebears. Shadow Personage,1990, which shows a guileless, half-smiling, goosenecked figure composed of geometric planes, was an energetic match for the febrile 1907 Picasso study for Les demoiselles d’Avignon beside it.

In another way, though, such juxtapositions risked seeming facile, since we’ve had a century to absorb modernism’s innovations. Indeed, reversing such attenuation was part of Condo’s stated purpose here: Conversing with Nationalgalerie director Udo Kittelmann in the catalogue, he says of the modern masters, “They’re going to look radical again.” The princely idea, evidently, was that Condo’s unruly presence would rewind the clock to when the dead were tyros, restoring the shock of their new. That happened, to an extent, but the experience was less a visual one than an intellectual one, because Condo was there, too, reminding viewers that the story of figurative painting and modernist distortion continued, to some degree, in the postmodernist era. The comical caveat is that he’s not new either—undimming feistiness aside, Condo has mined a consistent seam for decades now, and familiarity also has partly blunted his edge. But still, once you worked through the tactical shenanigans, the show performed its service: It made Condo appear fresher than usual and deeper, more haunted. Maybe “they” looked radical again too, but there was really only one artist here for whom such considerations mattered.

Martin Herbert