George Condo Tackles Surrealism and Landscape Painting

A masterwork in this season's New Now sale provides an intimate look at the very start of Condo's long and successful career.

A masterwork in this season's New Now sale provides an intimate look at the very start of Condo's long and successful career.

George Condo Surrealist Landscape, 1983

Coming to auction on 26 September in New York is a stunning example from George Condo's earliest body of work. One of today's most celebrated contemporary painters, Condo's early pieces illustrate the most important art historical influences that have helped shape his prolific oeuvre.

Highlighted in both the present work's title and composition, the effects of Surrealism on the artist's early 1980s paintings are indisputable. Surrealist Landscape, 1983 offers a unique look at Condo's experimentation with realistically painted subjects with no basis in reality—begun in his East Village studio—so informed by the earliest pioneers of the Surrealist movement including René Magritte and Salvador Dalí. Indeed, the symbolism in the upcoming lot recalls some of these artists' most famous masterpieces. An early twilight sky with low, nebulous clouds is placed above a landscape with deep, nighttime shadows, recalling the paradox of day, night and dusk explored in works by Magritte. In the foreground, the seemingly unrelated subjects recall the personified objects of melting clocks and humanized tree trunks found in Dalí's paintings—a marble bust in the center is flanked by a large carrot-like tree and a red mushroom-like button to its left, and flaming furnaces to the right, all placed atop a green field.

In a sense, Condo makes things that look like paintings...yet in some essential way are not so much paintings as artifacts, signs of another time and place, layered thickly with talent and nostalgia.

The entire composition is made even more mysterious by the presence of an ominous dark form in the lower right corner, highlighting the uncertainty of the scene. Surrealist Landscape predates Condo's move to Paris in 1985 by just two years, where he would come face-to-face with post-modern movements taking hold in the later part of the 20th century, in turn evolving the aesthetic explored in this work to one dominated by abstraction, characterized by multiple perspectives and biomorphic forms.

Of Condo's early works, Roberta Smith aptly stated their effect in a review of one of his earliest exhibitions in 1988, before the artist received the international acclaim he has achieved today: "In a sense, Condo makes things that look like paintings, that have the presence, completeness and frontal tautness of paintings, yet in some essential way are not so much paintings as artifacts, signs of another time and place, layered thickly with talent and nostalgia and a particularly dandyish form of conservatism. These artifacts are, at times, also extremely smart Conceptual objects." (Roberta Smith, “Review/Art; Condo Creates a Future With Layers of Nostalgia”, The New York Times, March 25, 1988).

As points of comparison, also on offer in New Now are later works from the 21st century: George Condo The Lawyer, 2002, patinated bronze edition; George Condo Untitled, 2007, colored pencil on paper

Undeniably, Surrealist Landscape is an important example of Condo's emphasis on and respect for the modernist past, a predecessor to the artist's later abstract portraits for which he would become known. As such, the work occupies a distinctive moment in Condo's practice when he was relying solely on his knowledge of the art historical trajectory as it was just beginning to shape the post-modern sphere, providing an intimate look at the very start of what would be a long and successful career.

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