Friday, March 11, 2011

The New Museum, 235 Bowery. George Condo: Mental States, through May 8th

George Condo is an artist that's been around for as long as I can remember. Although surprisingly, he's not as old as you'd think. He first came to prominence in the early 80s, for painting what he called "fake old masters". He would reference a lot of art historical styles and imagery, and cross reference them with a lot of pop culture, and cartoon sources. These were the early stages of post modernism, so obviously he wasn't the only one at the time making these comments on high and low culture. What made him different though was (A) that he not only appropriated the imagery, but also the technique, and (B) the sheer variety of different source material he used. He contrasts Goya with Crazy Kat at one point, and Velazquez with Loony Toons at another. He takes these different styles, and exaggerates them, thus turning them into a clichés, which ultimately becomes his own distinctive style consisting of a language of clichés. The most obvious influence here is Philip Guston, the unsung (or at least less-sung) hero of the latter half of the 20th century. If it wasn't for Guston someone like Condo couldn't exist.
More than any other singular source, Condo makes a lot of references to Picasso. The way he distorts heads and faces in this hyper-cubist style is both silly and disturbing. It occurred to me at the show that he was combining Picassos early cubist experiments with his late Neoclassical period. So, the faces kind of looked like he had taken the big smooth, clunky late Picasso heads and put them through a coffee grinder, or some cubist slap chop (you know, from the infomercial), and come out with some kind of post modern cartoon mutants. To me it never comes off as parody though. He always seems very sincere in the way he handles the materials and subject matter. His knowledge of modernism's history of distorting the figure informs these faces. He seems to be channeling not just Picasso, but Bacon, DeKooning, Dubuffet, and Kokoschka. Maybe even Chagall. Eh, maybe not Chagall.
As retrospectives go, the show's pretty small. It starts on the 4th floor, where there's a large salon style wall covered with single figure compositions. They date from about 1984 to the present. I guess it's a recreation of an installation he did in 1985 at the Bruno Bischofberger gallery. Maybe it worked better then because it didn't cover such a huge span of time, but I think this was a horrible curatorial decision. Apparently they thought that because all of the paintings were of a single figure that was enough of a common thread to hang them in a cluster like this, but because it's work covering a 25 year stretch, the stylistic changes that take place made it look almost like a group show. I have to admit I'm not a big fan of salon style hangings anyway, but in this case I though it was particularly bad, and undermined the integrity of the individual images.
The third floor was better, but there were only three rooms. Two consisting of paintings of figures. Some heads, and some bodies. Sometimes single figures, and sometimes multiple. Some excellent. Some not so hot. The wall text was pretty pretentious, and I was about to blame the museum. Then I noticed there were a lot of quotes from the artist. Ouch! So, he paints better than he talks. I got to say the New Museum is a great building, but they have this habit of putting on retrospectives were the work is displayed out of chronological sequence, which I think is a bad Idea. They're doing the same thing with the Linda Benglis show downstairs, and I don't think it works there either. But, that's a different story. It kind of defeats the purpose of a retrospective if you're not going to follow the development of the artists oeuvre. I mean it's an interesting experiment, but I think the time has come to admit the experiment has failed. No?
The last room was of large multi-figure compositions dating from 1985 to the present. It is by far the most abstract, spontaneous, and I think best work in the show. The clearest references I could see were to Miro, and Arshile Gorky, with maybe a little Cy Twombly thrown in. These paintings are playful, and scary, and silly all at the same time. That's where Condo is at his best. It's his mix of sophistication and childishness that keeps the work fresh. He has the knowledge of a learned art historian, but maintains the playful enthusiasm of a 6 year old boy drawing with crayons. Personally, I'd like to see a better survey of his career than this.