“I don’t want to simply look at Picasso on the wall or read about Picasso, I want to actually paint through him, I want to paint into Picasso.”
The Young Sailor by George Condo belongs to a series titled the ‘Toy Heads’ from 2012 – a series of eighteen robot-like portraits comprising characters such as Iron Man, Mike Kelley and, in the present instance, Picasso in his signature striped Breton shirt. All featuring Condo’s iconic reconstructed Cubist heads, the portraits together present a rigorous interrogation of the tradition of portraiture – specifically, Condo’s enduring preoccupations with the depths of subject-hood and its strained relationship with the painted surface. While Picasso’s experiments with Cubism fractured light and form to achieve greater contextual truth via a multitude of viewpoints, Condo’s engagement in Cubist techniques go beyond ‘visual truth’, revealing instead the artificiality of all visual representation, i.e. the impossibility of presenting an identity to the world. Amongst the portraits in the ‘Toy Heads’ portraiture series, only a few are titled as homages to specific characters, with the present work being such an example. Not only is The Young Sailor a direct tribute to Matisse’s The Young Sailor (1906) and Picasso’s The Sailor (1943), which is regarded as a self-portrait of sorts; Condo's cubist head also dons a black-and-white striped shirt, a nod to Picasso and Warhol, who were often photographed in the Breton shirt. Arguably the most special work in the ‘Toy Heads’ series, The Young Sailor is an exemplary Condo portrait in line with the very best of the artist’s universally acclaimed oeuvre.
Condo emerged onto the 1980s New York art scene at the eager age of 23 alongside seminal figures such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Like Haring and Basquiat, Condo was engaged throughout the eighties in the inauguration of a new form of figurative painting that stylistically blended the representational and the abstract. Drawing on vastly diverse painting practices throughout history and incorporating references from popular culture such as cartoons and comic strips, Condo internalized a multitude of sources to create a distinctive pictorial language characteristically his own. He then coined the terms ‘artificial realism’ and ‘psychological cubism’ to define his lexicon of amusing caricatures, profound and intimate portraits, and grotesque abstractions. Simon Baker writes: “Artificial realism…can play out in the adoption or adaptation of contrasting and conflicting materials from both the history of art and popular culture, from the esoteric diagrams explaining the compositional secrets of the Old Masters to the incredible and unlikely abstractions inherent to animated cartoon characters. But in each case, what is most important is the blurring of distinctions between representational codes and languages that occurs when during the transposition whereby Condo, as he puts it, ‘dismantles one reality and constructs another from the same parts’” (Simon Baker, George Condo: Painting Reconfigured, London, 2015, p. 55).
Within Condo’s creative output, the genre of portraiture occupies a position of tremendous importance. Taking inspiration from masters as unalike as Velázquez, Manet, de Chirico, Picasso, de Kooning and Guston, Condo wove into the fabric of figurative painting a renewed interest in inserting art historical tropes into a playful and absurd new context, both reviving and humorously undermining the integrity of the genre of portraiture. For Condo, it is the imaginary potential of portraits that defines the genre for him; as such, the artist tends to paint from his own mental snapshot or emotional reaction, rather than from life. Just as Picasso fractured the picture plane in order to reveal the way light hits different sides of an object, so Condo shattered the human psyche in order to reveal different angles of the same person, often displaying an enormous range of emotional responses across the limited features of a single face. Juxtaposing rationality with emotion, geometry with chaos, the powerful visual and emotive impact of Condo’s Cubist portraits lie in their ability to function as a prism that refracts different and often conflicting mental states – not just of the subject but also that of the viewer. Condo once remarked: “It’s not just the character in the paintings, it’s also going to be about the people who come to see the paintings and what it does to their mental state, to see all these different reflections of humanity, from all walks of life, happening at the same time on the wall” (George Condo, quoted in Maria Cashdan, ‘The Mental States of George Condo’, Huffington Post, 25 May 2011).
The present work, hailing from the ‘Toy Heads’ portrait series, occupies a unique position within the wider body of Condo portraiture. More mask-like and robotic than other portraits, the Toy Heads specifically assert the psychological and phenomenological complexities of depiction and representation, representing “Condo’s acceptance of the superficiality of presenting an identity to the world and the impossibility of painting anything other than an account of this recognition” (Simon Baker, George Condo: Painting Reconfigured, London, 2015, p. 104). Baker continues: “This should not however be taken as a sign of cynicism on Condo’s part […] Condo’s faces, whose faceted features comprise intersecting and deeply compromised geometries, are not failed attempts at portraiture, they are instead, references to the distance between aesthetics and psychology; the artificial and the real” (Ibid.). A fervent student of art history, Condo’s critically acclaimed oeuvre embodies the sum total of all his forerunners and extends the long lineage of portraiture beyond what was thought possible; in the artist’s own words: “I don’t want to simply look at Picasso on the wall or read about Picasso, I want to actually paint through him, I want to paint into Picasso”.