On November 24th the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Art invited Simon Baker to discuss his recent book George Condo: Painting Reconfigured (Thames & Hudson, 2015). Baker – a UCL alumnus and the current senior curator of photography at the Tate Modern – returned to the History of Art Department to address both the challenges of writing the chaotic career of an artist like George Condo into a comprehensive book, as well as share his endearing experiences of working closely with the artist.
After emerging on the New York art scene in the 1980s, Condo has been a dizzyingly prolific artist, and according to Baker, his oeuvre has seemingly evaded any kind of straightforward narrative or stylistic progression. An artist’s career usually follows a linear trajectory: an early, mature and late period. George Condo’s career has side stepped this convention. Over the last quarter century, Condo’s work has oscillated between figuration, abstraction, cartoon and caricature, often on the same canvases. Due to these inconsistencies in both form and content, Condo’s work seems to evade typification and the chronological linearity that many artists afford their art historians. Nevertheless, Baker’s book, exploring the career of the artist to date, sought to get at the essence of an artist working to reconfigure, to use Baker’s word, what painting should look like in the postmodern era at the end of the twentieth century.
Before launching into a discussion of his chapters, Baker’s task was to tease out Condo’s place within art history by exploring possible precedents for his erratic modes of image making. This aspect of the lecture examined the flights into ridiculousness and flirtations with kitsch in Francis Picabia’s later work, Rene Magritte’s “Surrealism in Full Sunlight,” and Philip Guston’s strange cartoonish figurations. For Baker, the work of these artists appeared to be possible precedents for Condo’s disregard for more traditional aesthetic rules and the discipline’s sometime rigid distinctions between high and low art. By including Picabia, Magritte, and Guston in a discussion on the artist’s oeuvre, his interest in the vulgar and bad taste aesthetics, Condo is incorporated into a different kind of art historical lineage. One, in which kitsch and high art are interrelated and complimentary. It appears to me that Condo should be understood as a product of that legacy.
After establishing a formal language for Condo’s oeuvre, Baker discussed how he structured Condo’s manic and remarkable body of work. By working closely with the artist, his biography, writings, and art works, Baker was able to find key similarities and thematic repetitions in Condo’s ever-expanding catalogue. These links were divided into Artificial Realism (a term coined by the artist), Abstraction and Figuration, and Unedited Human Disasters. Respectively, these headings dealt with Condo’s pop appropriations of classical, high art methodologies and themes, the ways in which figuration and abstraction are often one within the artist’s work, and Condo’s penchant for finding humour and tragedy in humanity through strange cartoonish, orgiastic configurations. This final group is perhaps the class of images that Condo is best known for.
Finally, the CSCA engaged in a discussion with Baker around his presentation. The topics of discussion in the question and answer session were chiefly concerned with sex, drugs, and rock and roll! What else?
Personally, I found Baker’s lecture to be a fresh perspective on an artist that I presumed familiarity with. For me, Condo is more easily associated with art markets than art history—not that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive— but after this CSCA lecture, I found myself looking at Condo’s work in a new light.