Noted for his staunch championing of the painted figure in the 1980s and beyond, George Condo’s signature style marries portraiture with art historical inquiry. Energetic canvases like Silver and Yellow Double Head Composition see the artist going beyond the more parodic mode he became known for in his early practice, and instead tease out the intricacies inherent in his appropriative techniques. True to form, the artist retains his interest in portraiture as a vehicle for his painterly investigations as he targets the bust-length format for closer inspection. “There was a time when I realized that the central focal point of portraiture did not have to be representational in any way,” he once remarked, “You don’t need to paint the body to show the truth about a character. All you need is the head and the hands” (G. Condo, quoted in A. Bonney, “George Condo,” BOMB Magazine, Summer 1992). Stepping further away from directly discernible subjects, Condo has increasingly turned in the 21st century to an amalgam of abstractive techniques that render his works a poignant cacophony of line, color, and form. Using these elements in service to his broader inquiry on painting and its emotional aspects, Condo continuously prods at the historical while pushing ever further into the future.
Silver and Yellow Double Head Composition depicts two figures from the shoulders up. Rendered on a dark brown-gray ground reminiscent of the paintings of Francis Bacon, Condo’s subjects activate the canvas with a swirl of bold black strokes, panels of color, and painterly insertions. The left head is perched atop frontal-facing shoulders wearing a red and white block of color and pointed black collar. Various pieces of the visage are visible through the Cubist-inspired line work, most notably two eyes: one turns to the right and the other stares unblinkingly out at the viewer. Two series of vertical strokes seem to elicit bared teeth while a number of curvilinear forms might be noses, ears, or the outlines of the face. One notices the similarities in each form to some of Condo’s less fully-obscured faces, and in doing so the hand of the artist emerges. The right figure, turning its shoulder to the foreground, may be rendered in profile, but the mélange of angles, brushstrokes, and shaded planes dissolve any recognizable vestiges into a deconstructed portrait that melds the artist’s trademark cartoon style with those of his art historical predecessors in the Cubist and Abstract-Expressionist modes. Reading one of Condo’s paintings is like reading several chapters of an art history text at once. Movements and modes combine and coalesce into a treatise on what painting has been and will be. “Realistic details … struggle to emerge from the rich atmosphere of line and Cézannesque passage that comprise the backgrounds. It is as if this painterly primordial soup is tugging these figurative forms back into itself, impeding their complete transformation from shapes into images” (L. Hoptman, “Abstraction as a State of Mind” in George Condo: Mental States, exh. cat. New Museum, New York, 2011, p.23). Reticent to offer up a fully-formed figure, Silver and Yellow Double Head Composition offers only the briefest of glimpses into representation before the faces and forms are again swallowed up by the artist’s brush.
Known for his dynamic approach to the seemingly-antiquated genre of portraiture, Condo pushes traditional notions of the figure through a blender of art historical styles. Coming of age in New York in the 1980s with his Post-Modern contemporaries like Julian Schnabel and David Salle, artists who were then relying on fitting and composing a bevy of visual pastiches with disparate elements borrowed from across history, Condo instead sought to combine and fuse components into something decidedly singular. Donald Kuspit wrote about this confluence, noting, “Instead of pushing one style to an extreme, he revitalizes different styles by using each to inform the others—even as he readdresses the old modernist problem of the relationship of painting and drawing, modes that Matisse thought were inseparable if not entirely one and the same" (D. Kuspit, “George Condo: Skarstedt Gallery,” Artforum, May 2010, p. 252). The elaborate way in which Condo constructs his compositions can be seen in the recent HBO documentary film The Price of Everything, which features the present work in the various stages of its creation. Upon a ground of patchworked pale colors, Condo can be seen sketching the beginnings of what will become the figure on the left. “He’s very persistent,” Condo says as he draws the figure in black oil stick. “He’s always sort of there, as a kind of alter ego.” Then, over time—and using a variety of tools and techniques ranging from broad paintbrushes to a wide palette knife, two figures emerge before Condo finally declares “That to me looks like a finished painting! They just finish themselves off, I can’t imagine anything else I could do…” (G. Condo, The Price of Everything, directed by Nathaniel Kahn, HBO, 2018).
Silver and Yellow Double Head Composition and other works in the same vein came out of Condo’s need to go beyond his previous explorations into figurative painting and signal a tangent from his usual cartoon-laden iconography. Calvin Tompkins, speaking to this point in a 2011 New Yorker profile on the artist, intoned, “Instead of borrowing images or styles, he used the language of his predecessors, their methods and techniques, and applied them to subjects they never would have painted” (C. Tompkins, “Portraits of Imaginary People,” New Yorker, January 9, 2011). Filtering the innovations of art historical legends through his own hand, Condo proves that he is both well-versed in art historical styles and modes while also being a singularly innovative artist in the realm of Post-Modern painter. Clearly adept at elements of shading, figuration, and more traditional notions of figure painting (as is clear in works like The Girl from Ipanema ), the artist has continuously pushed toward a fuller understanding of the emotional aspects of art. He uses the portraiture mode as a structure on which to build this inquiry rather than focusing on depicting specific people, noting, “They’re really not so much subjects in themselves as they are observations of the emotional content of human nature, so they’re variables in that sense. They’re sort of interchangeable” (G. Condo quoted in A. Binlot, “George Condo Creates Portraits in Action,” T Magazine, November 7, 2014). Silver and Yellow Double Head Composition looks back at the innovations championed by Cubists like Picasso, but at the same time evokes a more disjunctive style that hinges upon letting the subjects become more tokens of mannerist figuration and containers for gestural abstractions that consider the human psyche. The artist branches from his early 20th century predecessors, explaining, “What’s possible with painting that’s not in real life is you can see two or three sides of a personality at the same time, and you can capture what I call a psychological cubism” (G. Condo, quoted in J. Belcove, “George Condo interview”, Financial Times, April 21, 2013). Looking not just at the representation of physical space, but emotional nuance as well, Condo charges his compositions with dramatic tension.