Art and architecture critic

George Condo’s “Red and Black Compression,” 2011. Acrylic, charcoal and pastel on paper, on view at the Phillips Collection through June 25. (Collection of Donald B. Marron /Courtesy of Skarstedt Gallery and Spruth Magers)

In the largest gallery of a three-room Phillips Collection exhibition devoted to the drawings of George Condo, a table is groaning with notebooks and sketch pads. A few of these are open to show what’s inside — drawings, sketches, random musings and journal entries. Yet visitors aren’t invited to pick up and leaf through these tools of the artist’s trade. This pile of dead paper is presented to underscore the basic message of the exhibition: Condo is a protean artist, prolific and fluent, who works with virtuoso speed and confidence.

Condo emerged from the East Village art scene in the 1980s, and in an essay for the forthcoming catalogue to the exhibition, curator Klaus Ottmann says, “He was instrumental in the revival of figuration in American art, along with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, as well as Jeff Koons, who introduced the figure through sculpture.” Condo’s figures owe a lot to Picasso, especially those made during the Spanish artist’s surrealist period, when he maximized the impact of every thick line, and throughout his later, wildly eclectic years, when he often cluttered his images to the point of psychic pollution.

But Condo fuses to this aesthetic cartoon gestures, grotesque faces, infantilized heads and gruesome caricatures. It is art of the mash-up, and Condo is so facile at so many different styles that essentially all of art history gets mashed up in the end.

Condo, an American artist born in 1957, was clearly interested in art from an early age. Among the first works on view at the Phillips are an earnest but rather clotted piece of juvenilia titled “Crucifixion,” painted in 1962, and dinosaur drawings from when he was about 8 years old. These may be included to help justify the ostensible theme of the show: “The Way I Think.” He thinks through drawing, and clearly has from a very early age.

George Condo, "Wile E. Coyote," 2009. Acrylic, pastel, and graphite on paper. (Private Collection/Courtesy Skarstedt Gallery and Spruth Magers)

Condo also has spent a considerable amount of imaginative effort inventing recurring characters (Insane Cardinal, The Executive, Uncle Joe) and borrowing existing cartoon figures (Wile E. Coyote, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn). The graphic shorthand of cartooning is a recurring element even in his mostly abstract compositions. In a drawing with acrylic, charcoal and pastel called “Red and Black Compression,” the artist creates a horizon line and empty sky at the top of the image and a dense underworld of red and black lines below. Peering out through this subterranean maze of lines and gestures are recognizable cartoon eyes and familiar bodily forms from his recurring vocabulary of shorthand figuration.

His work is most impressive when games with abstraction and figuration lead to pivot points between the two languages, or call attention to a basic harmonic shift between seemingly irreconcilable visual tonalities. In a pair of works from 2000 (“Reclining Nude” and “Reclining Forms”), Picasso-like forms are limned with the splattering dribbles of paint as flung from the brush by Jackson Pollock, breaking down the solidity of the line while keeping the figure entirely intact. In other works, a crazily complicated lattice of thin lines suggestive of Cy Twombly will hide within it subversive figures that seem to want to escape into a reality beyond their two-dimensional imprisonment. The sobriety of abstraction is often undermined by the explosive power of a childlike scrawl meant to suggest a face. Art, it seems, is easily undone by gestures no more substantial than the crude rendering of anatomy one might find on a bathroom wall.

The range of allusion in Condo’s drawings is vast, and the artist’s ability to impersonate is impressive. This last fact, his gift for visual mimicry, seems to be the source of much of the trouble that dogs his work. How does one take an artist seriously who not only doesn’t seem to take himself seriously, but also may not have a genuine sense of artistic self at all? If these questions bother you, make an effort to read the mostly impenetrable catalogue essay by Ottmann.

George Condo, “The Fallen Butler,” 2009. (The Museum of Modern Art/Courtesy Skarstedt Gallery and Spruth Magers)

The essay quotes Condo: “What I have created is the state in which the image time presencing of another reality is superimposed within a field of another simultaneous presence, creating a conjunctive new hyperreality or hybrid image showing these simultaneous presences. This continuum is allowed to exist freely in concert with the history of art.” It isn’t exactly fair to take this out of context, but almost all of the quotations in this essay are taken out of context, or so abbreviated that it is virtually impossible to make any sense of them.

To comprehend the essay, you’ll need to look up the originals, from which citations by Claude Levi-Strauss, John Searle, Hegel and Heidegger are taken. And yet, even if you do, you may sense the misapplication of an essentially mystical philosophical discourse about such things as being and essence and appearance to ideas about how art is made, how it communicates and how it relates to the artist’s intentions and personality.

In short, Condo’s work is much more likable the less you engage with the carapace of philosophy with which some people (including Condo) like to encase it. That’s unfortunate, because the work is full of personality, humor and provocation, and it would be a pleasure to take it seriously if those who take it seriously didn’t take it so damn seriously.

George Condo: The Way I Think Through June 25 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. 202-387-2151.