The George Condo retrospective at the New Museum has already received as much ink as the place garnered for any show in 2010. A crowd pleaser—the museum reports record attendance since opening night—the exhibition has been variously described as “a delight,” “sensational,” and, in the words of one clever crank, a show of truly awful works by a gifted painter that people just love. Popularity aside, the critical consensus on this survey to date is—there is no consensus. More important, though, are the peculiar alternate histories drummed up to justify what—to a few lights at least—amounts to an embarrassingly guilty pleasure.
Like Big Macs, Bon Jovi records, and episodes of The Real Housewives, George Condo’s popularity has long resided in that Animal House portion of the head turned more by the devil than the angel on the shoulder. If a guilty pleasure is a significant clash between something we believe in and a thing we desire (thank you, David Hume), then Condo’s parade of mature painting hits—from Old Masters to Francis Bacon—firmly belongs in the preening MILF section of the amusement dial. As a performance of painting, Condo’s efforts are entertaining, but conceptually light as air. For those that prefer their art more Bluto than Pinto, this is the show for you.
Mark Rothko, that dark star of righteousness, had a point (or three) to make about unchallenging art: “There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.” Speaking to the widely held notion that “it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted,” Rothko fulminated against the medium’s more carny impulses—its penchant to razzmatazz while saying nada. Condo’s paintings, recent critical genealogies aside, have historically proved Rothko’s dictum. Rather than being an acknowledged progenitor of the 1990s painting that shocked the art world—John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage’s principal debt is to fusty William Bailey, the old Yale teacher they reacted against—Condo was more a loyal keeper of the medium’s flame when it fell out of favor. But consider for a minute Condo’s effect on those painters whom he did influence. Children of the art-market boom, artists like Dana Schutz, Kristin Baker, Josh Smith, Dan Colen, et al., have Condo—and Ashley Bickerton, among others—to thank for making it possible for them to produce relentlessly attractive paintings that are overwhelmingly, repetitively, maddeningly about diddly.
So what about Condo’s New Museum retrospective? In a word, it’s a lot like listening to showtunes—if we understand that genre to contain antic, highly skilled renditions of Tin Pan Alley tropes. Starting with a bewildering salon-style hang of some 50 portraits—the curators and the artist wanted to tame the room’s height, but what they wound up with is all forest and no trees (Dear curators: How about painting the top of the wall black?)—Condo’s survey hits a gratingly gleeful note right from the start, then has difficulty stepping back from the sheer schmaltz. Toward the show’s end, one is thankful when the artist dials down the volume on the insistent theatrics. Inside the New Museum’s fourth floor—where this show begins—Condo’s exhibition is all Little Shop of Horrors.
The “portrait wall” here—as abetted by a wall-mounted and numbered key that people crane mightily to read—contains what most folks blithely agree is vintage Condo: a gallery of painting styles that run from canonical Velazquez (Number 9, The Cracked Cardinal) and James Ensor (Number 19, The Art Collector) to dubious Mark Kostabi (Number 45, The Objective Idealist) and Beavis & Butt-Head (Number 12, Artificial Love). Sometimes modified by the artist’s signature pencil necks and pinched bat faces, these canvases demonstrate an impressive array of painterly impostures. Varnished to within an inch of their artificially distressed lives, Condo’s subjects enact what the museum dimly defines as “mental states” (this is, incredibly, the show’s fuzzy title) in tame living-room guises (two canvases, for example, picture zanily facetious portraits of Queen Elizabeth). More garden-variety harum-scarum than wicked, vexing, or disturbing in any compelling way, this hodge-podge of paintings proves all cartoony cleft palate and no bite.
An elevator ride down delivers three additional galleries of paintings, each purportedly designed to reflect what the curators call Condo’s “particular states of mind.” Of the three rooms, the “Melancholia” room is easily the most ridiculous. A grouping of paintings of hammy archetypes, it oozes insincerity in exact proportion to its claims to represent, in the artist’s words, “fractions of humanity battling extinction.” The proof, as one might expect, is in the paint. Instead of alienation, you get a pair of stylized pinheads mawkishly titled Alone and Together; rather than anomie, Condo consistently presents stagy tears and po-faced clowns.
If Condo does not do sincerity well, he is far more comfortable in the capering confines of the room hosting his view of “Manic Society.” Paintings confected by the artist in the role of cutup, these canvases work well, especially when they skew toward the frantic or unruly (see Uncle Joe, a dirty exhibitionist ditty featuring a middle-aged freak splendoring naked in the grass). An observation: Of all the painterly masks deployed, the prankster’s role is by far this painter’s best gambit. Free of cheap melodrama, Condo’s need to entertain suddenly appears not put on but genuine. Ditto for a last room of paintings, titled predictably “Abstraction,” which houses Condo’s riffs on abstract artist heroes—Pollock, de Kooning, Gorky, even Franz Kline gets a nod.
In the end, though, this exhibition suffers from far too much ersatz feeling and an overdose of treacly painterly pandering. Back to Rothko: Paintings need something important to say to be convincing, no matter how highly skilled. In the end, what this exhibition illustrates—to anyone really looking—is that Condo’s art didn’t so much make history as ride its coattails.