Condo is perhaps best known for his distorted theatrical portraits that “transcend aspirations of ‘high’ culture and are inevitably tangled up with our more clownish natures and desires” (Exh. Cat., New York, New Museum, George Condo: Mental States, 2011, p. 15). Condo’s iconic and eclectic cast of characters exemplifies his concept of Artificial Realism defined as the realistic representation of what is artificial.
Condo’s fictional figures and their imagined lives provide a contemporary re-imagining of the quotidian world – a wonderland on the other side of the looking glass reflecting the nature of our contemporary existence. Their characteristically contorted features incite in us a mixture of amusement and disgust, sympathy and scorn, inviting us to ponder own contradictory characters.
Condo’s playful drawing, Untitled, was executed in the early 1990s at the height of his Artificial Realist period. Using a combination of pastel and coloured pencil, Condo’s understated composition places the central figure at the focus of our attention. The character’s face is composed of a series of haphazard squiggles and lines that give the overall impression of a toothy-grin from which a cherry-coloured tongue springs forth and a pair of wide-eyes stare vacantly into the distance. Its arms and legs are decorated with a series of multicoloured diamonds, reminiscent of a clown costume.
Condo created the present work following a series of clown portraits made at the beginning of his career in the 1980s. In these works, he juxtaposed the ‘debased’ subject of the clown, representing the lowest level of kitsch, with the ‘elevated’ medium of oil painting. In Untitled, however, Condo has chosen to forgo paint entirely. Having long challenged the primacy of painting, his drawings reveal the process through which the artist morphs his imaginary subjects into psychological cubism and distorts them with abstraction.
This can be seen in the unconnected lines which make up the Untitled figure’s face, the roughly drawn patches across its body, and lines that grow from fine to thick where the artist has pressed down on the pastel. In 2017, his works on paper were the emphasis of a retrospective of Condo’s work at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., confirming their importance in the artist’s oeuvre.
Though Condo’s figurative works are often referred to as portraiture, he challenges their status as such. Portraiture traditionally aims to capture the essential character of the sitter. However, as Ralph Rugoff writes: “in Condo’s pictures from this period, individuality is evoked only by the conspicuous absence of its crucial signifier – the human face. How, then, could these images be classified as portraits? And if not portraits, what exactly are they?” (Ralph Rugoff, The Imaginary Portraits of George Condo, New York 2002, p. 9).
This piece launched Condo’s career into an extended exploration and experimentation with historical styles with inspirations ranging from Picasso to Velázquez to Looney Tunes. He has been mislabelled as everything from a neo-surrealist to a populist cartoonist akin to those practising in the East Village at the time. However, Condo never replicates ready-made styles but creates something entirely new from his infinite repository of pictorial references and memories. The resulting dynamic collection of ‘portraits’ both psychologically and aesthetically rich, of which Untitled is an excellent example, have solidified Condo as one of the most innovative artists of the contemporary age.
Throughout his career, Condo’s works have challenged conventions and subverted genres. After a brief period working for Andy Warhol in his infamous Factory in the early 1980s, Condo entered the New York art scene alongside Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Like his contemporaries, Condo’s work engaged in a new kind of stylistically blended figurative painting. One of his first mature works, The Madonna (1982), imitates a portrait style familiar to the Old Master’s and then distorts it.