Museum  April 25, 2023  Howard Halle

In George Condo’s Mind at the Morgan Library

© George Condo, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Detail of Untitled, 2009. The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Blake and Courtney Johnson, Los Angeles, CA, 2021.111. Photography by Janny Chiu.

With, “Entrance to the Mind: Drawings by George Condo,” The Morgan Library offers a modest, but impactful, survey of the artist’s works on paper dating as far back as the mid-1970s. Hung salon style without feeling crowded, the show, drawn from the museum’s collection, reveals a remarkable consistency to Condo’s practice over the years, as well as an unremitting commitment to an aesthetic that mixes juvenile attitude and debased surrealism. Thanks to his command of materials and art history, however, Condo’s formula of filtering twentieth-century and Old Master conventions through a pop-cultural prism avoids being one-dimensional.

Condo emerged during the 1980s, a period usually remembered for padded shoulder fashions, Hair Metal bands, and the “greed is good” ethos. But it also represented a crucial turning point in domestic and world affairs. Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980, inaugurating a backlash against a liberal consensus dating back to the New Deal. He also re-invigorated the Cold War, causing the collapse of the Soviet Union. By the decade’s end, Communism was defeated, consigned to the dustbin of history by a late-capitalist order that rules to this day.

© George Condo, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Entrance to the Mind, 1976. The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Blake and Courtney Johnson, Los Angeles, CA, 2021.92. Photography by George Condo Studio.

 

These developments reverberated throughout the ’80s art world, as profits from a stock market boom ignited by tax cuts, union-busting, and deregulation flooded the art market. Since the reductive aesthetics of the late 1960s and early ’70s weren’t conducive to producing artworks that could be transformed into fungible commodities, a reaction to Conceptual Art and Minimalism was needed; it came courtesy of a new wave of young, Baby Boomer artists who reembraced the figurative tradition, Condo among them.

This conservative drift in politics and culture had grown out of the inflationary spiral of the 1970s, which was partially blamed on programs aimed at promoting a more equitable society. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that this counterrevolutionary charge was led by a postwar generation emerging from an expanded middle class made possible by policies like the G.I. Bill. Families could afford homes in the suburbs, cars, and appliances—including TVs spraying images into households like a firehose. Assisted by comic books and film, television created the first media environment that directly shaped childhood. For the artists who’d grown up in this milieu, reconnecting art to representationalism was a no-brainer.

© George Condo, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

French Maid Studies, 2005. The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Anna Nikolayevsky, 2021.108. Photography by George Condo Studio.

Condo himself was part of a cohort that turned towards art-historical revivalism under the rubric, Neo-Expressionism. The intense tone of their work contrasted with the cooler, more conceptually driven efforts of another group busily re-animating the corpse of image-based art: The so-called “Pictures” artists whose membership includes Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, Sherrie Levine, and Richard Prince among others. 

Condo’s approach arguably straddled both Neo-Expressionism and the Pictures aesthetic. His style was largely influenced by the unlikely combination of Picasso, and other giants like Di Chirico, along with contributors to the satirical magazine, Mad, such as Don Martin, whose bizarre takes on everyday life were a regular feature for the publication at its midcentury zenith. Condo grew up reading Mad and imbibing Martin’s work—which, along with other pop-cultural sources, inspired ruminations on art history that blended tribute and parody. 

© George Condo, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Mind and Matter, 1975. The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Anna Nikolayevsky, 2021.91. Photography by George Condo Studio.

© George Condo, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Untitled, 2009. The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Blake and Courtney Johnson, Los Angeles, CA, 2021.111. Photography by Janny Chiu.

From the start, Condo reveled in a kind of demented sensibility, evident in compositions like Mind and Matter (1975), which suggests a bored high school student channeling M.C. Escher on acid. Another example, Mental States 4, (2000), melds aspects of Yves Tanguy and Max Ernst into a figurative tableau livened by a dollop of Pop Art—the Pepsi logo—added for good measure. De Kooning seems to inform Untitled (2009) and its overlay of Looney Tunes characters onto flesh-colored, gestural marks.

Most of the work, though, comprises deracinated portraits of fictional characters, who often resemble clowns escaped from a circus-cum-asylum. Study for Billy the Kid (2018) depicts its seated subject as a crazy quilt of cubistic facets, pushed to the far left of an otherwise blank sheet of paper. The bowtie-bedecked Jean-Louis (2005) is based on a hotel concierge Condo encountered in Paris. With a bald pate bookended by tufts of hair, skewed eyes, and a Bozo-like proboscis, he smiles through tiny teeth set in a caved-in jaw that seems to have been broken by a disgruntled guest. In a few instances, Condo dispenses with his signature style as in the Matissean Portrait of a Woman with Pearls (2013).

The show does indeed allow entree in Condo’s mind, revealing an artist who walks a tightrope between gravitas and goofiness, and sometimes falls off. Ultimately, he’s a subversive connoisseur of the Western canon, whose taste for tastelessness is hilariously exquisite.

About the Author

Howard Halle

Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen's Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

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