Following a nine-month stint as the diamond duster in Andy Warhol’s infamous Factory, George Condo emerged onto the 1980s New York art scene at the eager age of twenty-three alongside seminal figures Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the latter of whom is stated to have officially convinced Condo to pursue a career as a professional artist. Like Haring and Basquiat, Condo was critically engaged throughout the eighties in the inauguration of a new form of figurative painting that stylistically blended the representational and the abstract. Condo coined the terms ‘artificial realism’ and ‘psychological cubism’ to define his hybridization of art historical influences, specifically his fusion of the Old Master subject matter with the distorted geometric perspectives of Cubism. Through a prolific output of compelling yet grotesque portraits, Condo established himself by the turn of the century as one of the preeminent figurative painters of the contemporary era; his method of extrapolating and distorting traditional figurative motifs through an abstract lens has influenced an entire generation of artists working today. Most significantly Condo has inculcated into the fabric of figurative painting a renewed interest in borrowing, even stealing, art historical tropes into a playfully exaggerated or ludicrous new context—therefore simultaneously reviving and humorously undermining the integrity of portraiture.
Composition IV reveals the illustrious glory and ingenuity of an artist in the surging height of his career. Unlike any preceding series, the present work marvels in Condo’s intellectual game that obfuscates and blurs the traditional delineations between drawing and painting, finished and unfinished, balanced and unbalanced, and flat two-dimensionality versus sculptural depth. Condo indeed disrupts the typical logic of his work by compressing the tangled mass of subject matter into one corner, thus manipulating his conventional figure-ground relationships to an extent that the heap of information laid out before us takes on a nearly sculptural dimensionality. In the Cubist topography of the present work, sensuous line and Cézanne-like passages of flat color overlap in a densely layered web of unrestrained abstraction. Condo’s recurring character, the “disapproving butler” named Rodrigo, is conspicuously present in this composition with his huge, buggy eyes averted sideways in an act of awkward deference. In the artist’s own words, Rodrigo is “a kind of lowlife, the one who parks your car” or “the piano player at a wedding, doing the worst song you’ve ever heard” (the artist in Calvin Tomkins, “Portraits of Imaginary People: How George Condo Reclaimed Old Master Painting,” The New Yorker, 17 January 2011). Abutting Rodrigo’s immaculately tailored cadmium-red dinner jacket is a swollen, perfectly plump pink breast seemingly belonging to a fleshy nude who is obscured beneath the thicket of Condo’s relentless abstractions. Elsewhere in the composition, we see a protruding gloved hand and countless cartoonish toothy grins—divorced from mouths or lips—and hovering in an utterly surrealist manner. From the obsequious butler to peeking nudes to leering white eyes, Condo’s fancifully imagined motifs of characters underscore his wry aesthetic of storytelling wherein soft cultural satire and erotically-charged innuendo prevail. The gridlock and patchwork that try to disclose Condo’s narrative also belie the integrity of its full meaning. As viewers, we are provoked to enter through the portal into a space where “beauty and horror” coexist, as the artist so claims, yet just because we are invited into Condo’s world does not mean we can grasp it. Exuding a mystifyingly psychological aura with gorgeous permutations of line, color, and form, Compression IV endures as a stunning reminder of Condo’s elusive genius in the act of abstraction.
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