‘You have to be severe with art, because you don’t want to be a slave to it. Why would Picasso take David’s painting of the Sabine Women and tear it apart? Because that’s what you do. If you don’t love it enough, you walk away’
(G. Condo, quoted in C. Tompkins, ‘Portraits of Imaginary People’, The New Yorker, 17 January 2011, p. 62).
Emerging quietly from the shadows, the modular assemblage which comprises George Condo’s Constructed Head, painted in 2011, marks this anonymous portrait out as an exceptional mature work. The formal composition of the piece is exemplary of Condo’s engagement with the traditions and templates of art history. There are other signature touches in the work, the consummate brushwork and signature triangular shoulders and tubular neck, for example; however, Constructed Head is also very unique in the contemplative solemnity of its subject, whose mute features are all the more remarkable for the artist’s association with psychodrama.
Condo’s practice has always flowed from his immersion in the traditions of European painting – the self-consciously ‘high art’ that he takes pleasure in transforming into a unique form of sedition. The decade Condo spent in Paris, from 1985 to 1995, gave him ample opportunity to study the canon of art history in depth and at leisure, whilst also drawing him into contact with the radical innovations in painting concurrently taking place in Cologne. He was alone however, in using the art of centuries past to confront the questions of the present, which is why references to Pop and Poussin can sit so comfortably in a single Condo canvas.
Constructed Head pays tribute to two of the artists who continue to exert a profound influence on his work. The manner in which the disparate, almost geometric forms describe the shape and character of the head are strongly reminiscent of the way the Russian Constructivist sculptor Naum Gabo used two-dimensional shapes to create volumetric figures. Similarly, the centrally placed figure in front of a dark ground with a single light source emanating from the side pays homage to the painters of the Golden Age of Dutch portraiture, and Rembrandt in particular. Condo has said of Rembrandt that ‘he seemed like a man who was trying to find himself in every portrait he created’ (G. Condo, quoted in In My View: Personal Reflections on Art by Today's Leading Artists, ed., S. Grant, Thames & Hudson, 2012, p. 57). The anonymity of the figure in Constructed Head opens up the possibility that Condo might be attempting something similar. There is a sense that the face has been suspended in the process of its own becoming, a mirror to the activity of the artist and a paean to his craft.
In the absence of eyes, hair and mouth, the flesh tones Condo uses here are understated, sliding from granite grey to sandstone yellow. The meditative aspect this lends the work suggests a private, intimate, study of painterly form rather than the psychoanalytic kaleidoscope of nervous states which Condo’s subjects normally inhabit. That neurotic tension seems to have escaped through the hole in the head’s construction; a lobotomy that divests all tension and casts it into the solemnity of the shadows.