George Condo’s Nude and Forms is a superb example of his career-long investigation into Cubism and its formal possibilities in the contemporary moment. One of the leading painters of his generation, Condo’s postmodern approach to form, color, composition, and art history have placed him at painting’s vanguard since his emergence over four decades ago. This painting finds the artist continuing to probe the act of painting itself, laying bare his thought process in layers of overlapping planes. Like most of Condo’s paintings, individual elements collapse and dissolve, only to come together as a solid, impenetrable whole. The present work, with its pastel background and sophisticated use of flat color passages, displays many of Condo’s most celebrated motifs, like his penchant for abstracting the body and equalizing elements. An instantly recognizable example of Condo’s neo-Cubist style, Nude and Forms finds Condo examining Modernism’s greatest achievement while innovating within his unique, iconic personal style.
In this work, an ethereal field of rectilinear pastel brushstrokes backgrounds the picture, lending it a dreamlike tone and removing it from any plainly observable reality. The foreground’s porousness permits that background to slip through sections of the titular nude. Her simultaneous opacity and immateriality underscores one of Condo’s basic premises, that all things are equal and organized non-hierarchically in his cubist pictures. Coalescing around her shapely figure are a mix of organic and geometric forms, some echoing her body and some purely abstract. For Condo, whose paintings are largely democratic in their approach to compositional equanimity, a small mark in the upper corner warrants as much critical attention as the woman’s fractured face. Nevertheless, the titular nude is deeply captivating and visually alluring, with her serpentine stance, varied coloration and spider-like fingers. Still, she seamlessly blends in with both background and abstract forms, disintegrating and extending off the canvas at various points along her body.
Clearly alluding to late Cubism, Condo’s Nude with Forms applies elements from that lauded style without miming it. Explaining his frequent references to past painters in the context of his own work, Condo says, “What I mean by the creation of an iconic form of painting [is something] strong enough and recognizable enough as being my own, rather than having taken from historic references” (G. Condo, in S. Baker, George Condo: Painting Reconfigured, 2015, p. 14). Indeed, while Condo’s debt to Picasso and Braque is unabashedly clear, few would mistake the work of the former for that of the latter two. Condo’s work, reliant on color and texture as much as composition, adapts Cubism and updates it for the postmodern era. Here, Condo’s dissolution of foreground and background finds the artist innovating within Cubism, choosing to accomplish that movement’s goal of compositional equivalence with a novel strategy.
Condo’s connection to the rich and varied history of Western art does not stop, or start, at Cubism. Enthralled with Classical imagery and neoclassical interpretations of the body, Condo’s central female nude appears almost relief-like in her rendering. Her sweeping silhouette and sculptural pose recall classical Greco-Roman sculpture and their subsequent reproductions in 19th century paintings. The background, too, recalls an Impressionist sky, moving effortlessly between blues, oranges, whites and reds. For that matter, Condo’s highly saturated, distinct passages of color might recall the clear, industrially inspired color passages found in Pop Art. “As far as I’m concerned,” says Condo, “the Renaissance was yesterday and Cubism was a hundred years before it” (Ibid., p. 104). Indeed, Condo’s simultaneous reliance on and refutation of the past is a key to understanding his layered and often irreverent paintings.
Compressing most of the painting’s action into a single diagonal band running across the canvas is, for Condo, a way to activate the picture’s surface and highlight its impressive dynamism. Like in Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (Philadelphia Museum of Art), the viewer’s eye is gently guided down and across the image, dancing from shape to shape and color to color. Unlike some of Condo’s nearly abstract works where shapes and characters fill the entire canvas, Nude and Forms is consciously restrained and spare in its handling of space and surface. The highly developed and richly textural background is somewhat of a rarity for Condo, whose images typically exists at or near the picture-plane, with the background serving as an almost theatrical space for the central composition. Here, the interplay between the two highlights Condo’s shrewd compositional skill and underscores the breadth of his technical mastery.
In the present work, Condo focuses on a single character, portraying what might well be her visualized thoughts or an abstracted stream of consciousness. Describing the destabilizing and often challenging nature of his paintings, Condo introduces a new term: “It’s what I call artificial realism. That’s what I do. I try to depict a character’s train of thoughts simultaneously—hysteria, joy, sadness, desperation. If you could see these things at once that would be like what I’m trying to make you see in my art” (G. Condo, quoted in S. Jeffries “George Condo: ‘I Was Delirious. Nearly Died’.” The Guardian. February 10, 2014). Indeed, the diagonal composition corroborates that premise, with the viewer’s eye being led through a waterfall of emotion, energy and the frenetic mind. This artificial realism, for Condo, neatly dovetails with his self-described psychological Cubism wherein he paints a single subject in several states of mind at once, adapting the multi-point fractured perspectives of the movement. Indeed, Nude and Forms possesses several of Condo’s most important ideas and accomplishments in a single canvas. Tightly conceived and impeccably executed, the canvas finds Condo at his painterly best, working within his deeply original and innovative style and reveling in its cleanness and quietly powerful logic. Enthralled with paint and its textural possibilities, Condo creates a varied surface on which his intimate scene plays out.