Picasso painted a violin from four different perspectives at one moment. I do the same with psychological states. Four of them can occur simultaneously. Like glimpsing a bus with one passenger howling over a joke they're hearing down the phone, someone else asleep, someone else crying – I'll put them all in one face.
In the beginning I took fragments of architecture to create a person, now I take a person and fragment them to make architecture.
In the early 1990s, George Condo embarked on a series of experiments based on a book, Charles Bouleau’s 1963 classic The Painter’s Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art. Bouleau’s thesis was an elaborate analysis of the geometrical underpinnings of works of painters from antiquity to 1963 that employed expository diagrams to explain paintings based on the basic principles of the golden section. Fascinated by Bouleau’s treatise, Condo executed ‘diagram paintings’ that were something of a “reverse-engineered reconfiguration of history painting from the basis of the empty fields of intersecting lines generated by Bouleau’s reading” (Simon Baker, George Condo: Painting Reconfigured, Thames and Hudson, 2015, p. 60). Although such experiments were short-lived, Condo’s transfixion with The Painter’s Secret Geometry must surely have endured, and have seemingly resurfaced – whether consciously or unconsciously – in the present work. Striking and arresting in colour and composition, evincing Condo’s categorically iconic aesthetic of Psychological Cubism, The Aztec Cosmologist is a quintessential Condo portrait with a rare and distinctive feature: the geometric lines or ‘splits’ that delineate the background. Featuring also an exceptionally elaborate and complexly fragmented cubist head donning a black-and-white striped shirt – a nod to Picasso and Warhol, who were often photographed in the Breton shirt – The Aztec Cosmologist is a special portrait in line with the very best of Condo’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 critically 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 – from Ingres and Velázquez to Picasso, Matisse and Warhol – and incorporating references from popular culture such as cartoons and comic strips, Condo internalized a multitude of art historical sources to create a distinctive pictorial language characteristically his own. He then 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 and cultural tropes into a new context – simultaneously reviving and humorously subverting the integrity of portraiture. In the present work, Condo contrives meaning through relationship of title and composition, with the splits running through the background echoing the mosaic and geometry prevalent in Aztec art, as well as alluding to the lines shown to divide the spheres in ancient Aztec cosmology paintings. The controlled and contained lines convey a sense of rationality and clarity that contrasts with the multifaceted fabrication of the subject’s face, which itself reflects the extensive and complex depths of the fragmented human psyche. Juxtaposing rationality with emotion, geometry with chaos, The Aztec Cosmologist’s powerful visual and emotive impact lies in its ability to function as a prism that refracts different and often conflicting mental states – particularly those 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).
There is only one other Condo portrait in existing published literature displaying similar compositional background splits, rendering the painting a rare and special work within the artist’s oeuvre. Whimsical and bizarre, yet strikingly compelling, The Aztec Cosmologist is recognizable for one final special feature – he dons the black-and-white striped Breton shirt, which Picasso and Warhol were often photographed in, as a direct homage to two of Condo’s biggest influences. One recalls how Condo once stated: “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”. A fervent student of art history, Condo’s critically acclaimed oeuvre embodies the sum total of all his forerunners to forge a wholly unique and distinct visual vocabulary that is already leaving its own mark upon art history.