George Condo has always reveled in the expressive form of the human eye. A window into the mental states of the characters in his portraits, the eye exemplifies his ongoing project of “psychological cubism.”
George Condo’s recent painting Smiling Female Portrait (2020) depicts a woman with four eyes, each one with a different expression. Her left eye gazes contentedly into the outside world, while her right bursts with cartoonish surprise. A third eye seems to extend from her cheek, expressing a curiosity all its own, while the bulbous eye atop her head apprehends the space above with a wide-eyed glare.
From his earliest paintings, the human eye has been at the heart of George Condo’s oeuvre. The Self Creator (1984) features a disembodied eye in a landscape, alongside a classical column, a clock, a globe, and an arm, itself pinched by an almighty black hand reaching down from the sky. The egg-like eye, always open, takes its place among cultural monuments, itself a source of revelations. The Eye of the Brain (Polyphemus) (1990) features a single eye atop an elongated neck, as if seeing were the purpose of its existence. One of the artist’s largest canvases, Visions of St. Lucy (1992–93) features the saint, whose eyes were plucked out, amid a landscape populated with disembodied eyes. From his earliest works to the present day, Condo has turned to the eye for inspiration: not only the delicate organ we use to see the world around us, and thus the outlet of the painter’s creative energies, but also a seductive form to paint.
George Condo’s use of the human eye has two important precedents in art history: Pablo Picasso and surrealism. Picasso would use the same set of marks to indicate eyes and other body parts. An almost identical swooping line and dot, for instance, might signify an eye or a breast, depending on the context. In Condo’s Celestial Bodies (2010) similar forms are used to indicate a plethora of breasts and eyes, enacting an interplay of touch and vision, sensuality and intellect. In a recent drawing, Reclining Abstract Figure (2020), a range of eyes and breasts interact on the picture plane, all at similar scale and value, while a figure in the upper right has eyes that look attached to a beak-like form, eager to reach out and taste the world.
“Those eyes are attentive like flowers that wish ever to contemplate the sun. O fecund joy, there are men who see with those eyes!”
– Apollinaire on Picasso, 1905
If Picasso exploited the formal erotics of the eye, for the surrealists the eye had a strong psychological resonance. Look at the infamous eye-cutting scene in Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou (1929). In the same year, René Magritte painted his iconic cloud-filled eye, The False Mirror. Among the more extraordinary legacies of the surrealists’ fascination with the eye is the eye-filled wall designed by Dalí for the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchock’s Spellbound (1945). For the surrealists, the human eye was both an irresistible form and a fluttering doorway between the external world and the inner realm of dreams.
The lesser-known surrealist Victor Brauner was particularly obsessed with eyes. His Self-portrait (1931) shows the artist with an enucleated eye, the socket gaping, fluid oozing across his cheek. The image became a prophecy when, seven years later, the artist lost his eye in a fight. Yet throughout his oeuvre there are figures with eyes that have an almost mystical intensity. In Painted from Nature (1937), the artist’s eyes extend into space, becoming paintbrushes, as if that act of looking were synonymous with the act of creation. Gemini (1938), painted the year Brauner lost his eye, depicts a four-eyed visage who gazes out at the viewer with preternatural intensity, full of desire and eagerness.
“It seems impossible, in fact, to judge the eye using any word other than seductive, since nothing is more attractive in the bodies of animals and men. But extreme seductiveness is probably at the boundary of horror.” – Georges Bataille
George Condo takes up these two traditions—eye as a fecund, ambiguous form and eye as the psychological window—and has created an extraordinary body of work where the human eye is an ever-present leitmotif. Bum’s Eye View (1984) is a grotesque conglomeration of facial parts with a a cluster of eyes reminiscent of the wall in Spellbound. Night Nude (1996) depicts an abstracted figure with bug-eyed antennae, recalling the artist’s own Eye of the Brain (Polyphemus) (1990). In Skinny Jim (2009) the dots on the clown’s suit are like eyeballs, bringing forth an almost comic abundance of vision. Paralytic Robot (2014) shows a figure seemingly in the throes of death, yet one eye clings brightly to life, a desperate desire to see the world. In Beginnings (2014) the portrait has been completely obscured by rough, dark strokes, leaving only a calm eye at the center of the picture. Stripped of all other details, you will always find an unappeasable eye at the heart of a Condo painting.
How different from the woman we see in Smiling Female Portrait. She’s looking everywhere at once, enthusiastically lapping up the world, conveying at the same time a multiplicity of thoughts and feelings to the viewer. One eye wrinkles with delight, another explodes in surprise, conjuring a mood of comic, playful abundance. Is that why she smiles? Does she know something we don’t know, can see more than we can see? Another recent drawing, Linear Portrait (2020), shows a woman with multiple eyes layered with breast-like forms. The drawing captures, in a quick economy of mark, the textured complexity of the subject’s inner life. But she also gives something back to the viewers: a lively, generosity of spirit, inviting us to live with all of our eyes wide open.