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Ask an Art Critic: Jerry Saltz Answers Your Questions About George Condo, Online Art Fairs, and What Abstraction Really Is

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Dear Jerry,

Can you explain why so many people love the George Condo exhibition at the New Museum?

-- Aaron Holtz

Dear Aaron,

Among living artists, George Condo may be the most embraced by the powers that be. The Times called his New Museum show "sensational." That was just the beginning. Collectors love Condo's paintings and buy them by the hundreds. New ones go for upwards of $450,000, and everything he makes sells. A recent New Yorker profile mentioned that Condo lives in luxury, collects Louis XVI furniture, hangs out with Kanye West, has two Upper East Side townhouses, loves expensive wines, gambles huge amounts of money, and has a chauffeur-driven limousine. Curators love Condo, too. He's one of the few painterly painters included in our usually painting-bereft biennials.

I'm thrilled that the New Museum is having a success, and I admire the curators of the show, Laura Hoptman and Ralph Rugoff; however, to me, Condo is a zombie -- a very limited, ironic, art-about-art artist whose work sounds the same visually derivative, technically generic notes over and over again. He provides almost no internal or psychic depth, instead giving people a sense of being in on some art-world in-jokes about style, tradition, kitsch, and appropriation.

The top floor of Condo's show is the better of the two, because it blatantly imparts his deep content. More than 50 portraits hang here, floor to ceiling and wall to wall. Your eyes dart from one to another, checking out his repertoire of creepy creatures, loony goons, naked ladies, and art-world knockoffs. Many of these pictures look like the sort of neo-surreal work that was typical in the East Village in the eighties, or the cartoony paintings of Kenny Scharff. A few are good, like Spanish Head Composition and a number of earlier, denser small works. But mostly you don't have to look at any one painting here for more than a few seconds. That's all they demand.

People always say Condo is a "virtuoso painter." The second-floor display gives the lie to this claim. Condo is an enthusiastic confident drawer who paints in high-keyed funky color with flourish. But he is simply deft and dexterous, aping R. Crumb and Philip Guston without any of the gutsiness or exposed inner life of these artists. Mainly you get the same fiendish figures in various styles. Condo does have a feel for grotesque in human physiognomy. I often find myself at cocktail parties, fantasizing that the person I'm talking to is some sort of Condo monster. Yet because Condo's monsters turn into a cast of characters, they are defanged. Any idea of the grotesque is replaced by burlesque and shtick.

Condo's is well-done work for a time still jittery about painting, weaned on idiotic ideas that it's somehow suspect, that it can only be good if it makes jokes or comments about itself. This sort of deconstructionism has been done to death, and is so familiar and enfeebled that it can barely lift the gun to its own head. At his best, Condo is not much more than Koons-lite, a safe Schnabel, a more ingratiating Richard Prince.

But there's a wonderful surprise ending to this show. Downstairs from Condo's show at the New Museum is the radically fabulous survey of Lynda Benglis -- whose work from 1969 to 1975 is so fecund, fresh, relevant, and prescient that she saves the day, letting you see that she predicts numerous contemporary artists from Urs Fischer and Isa Genzken to Rachel Harrison and Franz West. Among the mounds, glow-in-the-dark wall protuberances, and Mardi Gras-like peacock headdresses, don't miss the large bronze, curved, double-headed, and veined dildo nailed to the wall, titled Smile. I wore one (the smile, not the dildo) when I left the New Museum.

Dear Jerry,

Last month there was a lot of talk about some online art fair. Did you "go?" What was it? And was it any good?

-- M. Sarret

Dear M. Sarret,

Art dealers have it hard, and I feel for them, having to pay fortunes for art-fair booths all over the world every other month. It is a murderous existence. Last month's V.I.P Art Fair, which took place online between January 22 and 30 and included 138 galleries from 30 countries, was an earnest attempt to look for other ways for dealers to make connections, cultivate collectors, and earn a living without crossing the globe.

Unfortunately, the experiment was a dud. Mostly for technical reasons: It took me more than six hours to get into the site. I made a few phone calls, waited on hold for more than twenty minutes, and was told that there were "technical glitches due to popularity." When I finally did get in, on the second day, I tried to use the neat little instant-messaging boxes where you could supposedly talk to people in the galleries. That sounded fun. It wasn't, because it didn't work. I couldn't contact anyone; in one case, I got a message back from a gallery I didn't think I had pinged. By the third day, this key feature was discontinued.

At the fair's end, I asked participating dealers, who paid a lot of money for "space," whether they had made any money. (Understand that, if you ask any dealer at an art fair how it's going, he or she is genetically programmed to answer "I sold almost everything.") When I asked these dealers that question they all sighed, "We didn't sell anything."

So I can't say what it might be. The online art fair is a promising idea and is worth exploring, if they can make the tech work. Maybe next year.

Dear Jerry,

Over the past few years, I've noticed a lot more abstract art being made, and I often find myself stymied by something a little bit embarrassing. Jerry, is abstract art for real? I mean, I often don't really get it. Isn't it just smudges and stripes and squares and stuff?

-- Embarrassed

Dear Embarrassed,

You are not alone. I too have heretical thoughts like yours. It can also take 30 years to understand why an all-white painting by Robert Ryman or a pencil grid on canvas by Agnes Martin is art.

I can't tell you what abstraction is, but I can tell you a number of things that I think that it allows artists to do. What I say about abstract art could also be applied to representational art. With that in mind here's "The Jerry Saltz Abstract Manifesto, in Twenty Parts."

1. Abstraction is one of the greatest visionary tools ever invented by human beings to imagine, decipher, and depict the world.

2. Abstraction is staggeringly radical, circumvents language, and sidesteps naming or mere description. It disenchants, re-enchants, detoxifies, destabilizes, resists closure, slows perception, and increases our grasp of the world.

3. Abstraction not only explores consciousness -- it changes it.

4. All art is abstract. A painting of a person or a still-life is a two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional reality and therefore infinitely abstract. Whenever an artist sets out to make something it turns into something else that he or she could never have imagined or predicted.

5. Think of an abstract painting as very, very low relief -- a thing, not a picture.

6. Abstraction exists in the interstices between the ideal and the real, symbol and substance, the optic and the haptic, imagination and observation.

7. Abstraction brings the world into more complex, variable relations; it can extract beauty, alternative topographies, ugliness, and intense actualities from seeming nothingness.

8. Abstraction, like ideas, intuitions, feelings, and life, is not mimetic.

9. Abstraction is as old as we are. It has existed for millennia outside the West. It is present on cave walls, in Egyptian and Cypriot Greek art, Chinese scholar rocks, all Islamic and Jewish art -- both of which forbid representation. Abstraction is only new in the West.

10. Abstraction gained ground in Western art after centuries of more perfected systems of representation. By the mid-nineteenth century, representation felt like a trap, and seemed empty, false, or limiting. A similar situation existed in the early aughts, after artists of the nineties re-deployed realisms in numerous ways. The field appeared closed off for younger artists. That's why contemporary artists have not only begun to reexplore the possibilities of abstraction, they're shedding much of the Greenbergian cant and academic-formalist dogma that attached themselves to it over the last 50 years. Abstraction is breaking free again.

11. Abstraction offers ways around what Beckett called "the neatness of identification."

12. Rothko's glowing floating rectangles of color are more than abstract patterns. They are Buddhist TVs or what Keats called "good oblivion. One sees what nothing looks like in them. They make you ask, "What light through yonder painting breaks?" (Now do you see how full emptiness and abstraction can be?)

13. Abstraction is just a tool. It is no less "real" than philosophy or music.

14. Abstraction is something outside of life that allows us to be present at our own absence or alternatively absent in our own presence.

15. Abstraction creates patterns of meaning and its own extremely flexible intricate syntax. It is astral synthesis.

16. Abstraction teeters on making empty gestures while also making deep statements.

17. The camera was supposed to supplant painting but didn't. Instead, painting -- ever the sponge, always elastic -- absorbed it and discovered new realms.

18. Abstraction may speak in a sort of intra-species visual-electronic-chemical-pheromonal code, creating optical-cerebral networks and wormholes, organic maps of unknown yet familiar territories, may have a kind of plant intelligence that allows it to grow, proliferate, flower, change directions, and survive relentless aesthetic predation from a lay public.

19. Abstraction contains multitudes.

20. I've left out No. 20, because I want to hear your opinion: What else does abstraction do that's special? Comments are open below.

This article appeared previously in New York Magazine