George Condo left New York to live in Paris in 1985. He would stay in the city for a decade, much to the bemusement of the friends he had left behind in the United States who could not understand why he departed just as the market for figurative painting was exploding on the East Coast. Condo, however, was enthralled by Paris and the access it offered to the history of great European painting. Exposure to the Old Masters and the Surrealists was particularly formative for Condo who felt estranged from their work whilst living across the Atlantic. Umberto Eco once suggested that ‘the American imagination demands the real thing, and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake.’ Eco’s words resonate in the catalogue of art historical influences that appear in Condo’s paintings. In them we find not just Goya, Arcimbaldo and Picasso but de Willem Kooning’s grinning women, Philip Guston’s cyclopean meat patties and the Cookie Monster’s masticatory grin. It is a strange coalescence of European culture that Condo washes up on the shores of America to amalgamate with American pop, and it is no surprise that he feels a particular affinity to those, like Guston and de Kooning, whose work always looked back to Europe in order to define itself.
What Condo saw in Europe he refracted in his paintings through the lens of Picasso’s first kaleidoscopic experiments with cubism. But rather than arranging multiple views of a single subject through time and space on one plane as Braque and Picasso had done, Condo’s method is more accurately described as a psychological cubism in which conflicting emotions and nervous states are deranged into a narrative assemblage of forms and features.
The Lost Missionary was painted in 2006 long after Condo settled back in New York, but the influence of traditional European painting in his work remains as strong as ever. The ghost of Francisco de Zurbarán, the great seventeenth-century Spanish painter of monastic figures, is conspicuous both in Condo’s choice of subject and his treatment of it. The concertina symmetry of the facial features, the bauble nose and tumescent cheeks are also familiar Condo tropes – as is the jutting protuberance that splits the jaw, and as usual whether it is a chin or a tongue is unclear. What is unusual in this painting however, is the extent to which we might find its progenitor in the paint, not as Condo’s alter ego – Rodrigo but in a more personal, reflective capacity. Keeping Eco’s words in mind, Condo’s European travels and love for the Old Masters provide the plausibility for a narrative of the lost missionary along the lines of self-characterisation – if not quite self-portraiture. Casting Condo himself as the lost missionary positions him as a preacher in a foreign land equipped with the gospel of Art History.
Through Condo’s Europhilic translation of European painting the subject is indelibly fractured. The figure could not just be re-born in its original seductive and coherent totality. To paint the figure as it appeared in work of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would have been to create a fake rather than the real thing. In Condo’s art the clash between European painting of previous centuries and contemporary American culture provides a way of understanding his work that makes sense of the often violent assemblage of his figures and their peculiar potential for storytelling.