George Condo, who has made some of the most annoying paintings in recent memory, now shows some of the most adorable. How good are they? They look terrific, and isn't that painting's job description? What should a painting do besides look terrific? These are nice questions, which Condo forces with pictures that are neo-modern arty pleasure machines. I have misgivings, but not about Condo's knack. He sets a standard for sophisticated fun that is pretty much unbeatable by any other contemporary painter.
To put it another way, this show is like a cheeseburger with everything. It is pure looking satisfaction. Is it dubious nutritionally? Never mind. It will keep you alive. And if it fails to excite your taste buds, you may be wearing a flannel mitten on your tongue. Check and see.
Moderately large, the new Condos are collage paintings, incorporating drawings on paper. Their seductive orchestrations of texture and color include warm manila stains of paper soaked with oil, whose future darkening feels anticipated and bodes to be lovely. (These pictures will ripen on the wall.) Condo's best work has always convened lots of miscellaneous-seeming, cartoony images, while his worst has made a big deal of particular images, such as surreal clowns, that come off arch and precious. Now he has mastered a musicality of overall design able to give knitted power to even the most teeming compositions.
Painters speak of trying to keep paint color on canvas as good as it was in the tube. Condo keeps drawing on canvas as fresh as it was in his sketches, and not just by raiding actual sketchbooks. Spontaneous line lives a double life here, as gesture and sign. Condo has the born draftsman's gift of making space on both sides of any stroke, and you know that he knows it. It is as if a dancer danced and, with delight, watched herself dancing. Viewing the work, you sense the thrill of being a good artist on a good day. It feels easy. Then you realize, with a prickling of awe, how rare in your experience the easy feeling is.
Writing about Condo 10 years ago, when he was 30 and a grizzled veteran of the lately defunct Lower East Side scene, I termed him "one of the new dumb painters" -- proponents of "an infatuation with paint, distinct from any special use for it." I had in mind artists, led by Julian Schnabel and the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who rejected the verdict of avant-garde theory that modern painting was over. Condo went so far in neo-ness as to expatriate himself in Paris. (He has since rejoined us on our island.) His stylistic needle was stuck, as it still is, in circa-World War II Cubist-Surrealist mixology a la Picasso, Arshile Gorky, Wifredo Lam, et al. -- stopping short of Willem de Kooning and ignoring most things subsequent.
Today the old-dumb, at least in Condo's sure hands, looks reasonably new-smart. Painting lives. Notions of painting's obsolescence seem obsolete. How did it figure that we would righteously forgo anything that artists can do and that we like to look at? The formal sorcery of modern art still appeals, and the social demand for paintings to hide the world's bare walls still pertains. Let academic theorists -- bad dressers who have taken vows of visual poverty -- insist that it can't be so, but new, big-time, pleasurable painting is, too, so. We want it.
Circa World War II, Europeans felt awful. Apocalypse tinged everything. Thus the high maturity of modern art, which would otherwise have been grandly festive, came scorched around the edges. Condo revisits the epoch to give it a properly feel-good bounce that it lacked, perhaps. Among other things, he retroactively resolves the time's hang-ups, shared by American culturati, about popular culture, then almost religiously deemed hostile to high art. What is the metaphysical difference between a surreal image by Picasso and a Warner Bros. cartoon critter? In a way, there is none.
That way, which is Condo's, confesses the yen of the mind's eye for polymorphous wonder. Can we agree that Picassos, whatever else they do, look weird? And that, whatever educated things we say about them, we relish the weirdness? Condo has trained his wrist to "do" the mode of Picasso's 1930s "Bathers" and Guernica and also to render, with professional fluency, animation-ready versions of a pug dog apparently morphing into Yosemite Sam. Wacky rules.
What makes it all work is taut formal elegance and mimicry beyond caricature. Condo's style is not pictorial free verse in the manner of a Sigmar Polke or a David Salle, who make a sport of arbitrariness. He uses visual equivalents of rhyme and meter, selling the eye on the unity of his image repertoire. Is the ventriloquistic exercise tricky and ultimately rather empty? Sure, but so are, say, stage magic and stand-up comedy -- mediums of ephemeral rapture that Condo's work suggests to me. It only has to happen while it's happening, when you're present and in the mood for it. The rest of life and art does not concern the artist.
Fair enough. If there is a negative, even melancholy side to Condo's enterprise, it involves no failure of character on his part. His hardworking integrity shines forth. The trouble is ambient. It partakes of a vast historical disappointment that may turn out to be the signature malaise of the millennium. This peculiar malaise is consistent with high energy and disciplined achievement. It appears in triumphs of technique that are made possible, oddly, by indifference to aims and goals. When you despair of knowing why you do a thing, you can concentrate totally on how to do it.
Is it painting's job today to look terrific? Yes. Terrific for what? Hmm. Better to ask: terrific for whom? Collectors and art gourmands. Working esthetes like me. You know, the art world. This Condo show fills PaceWildenstein with splendor that will make no meaningful difference to any non-professional, earthly soul or thing that I can think of. It is about stuff that we couldn't see if we hadn't seen it already and couldn't know if we didn't know it already. It is about going nowhere in grand style.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.