June 2–July 19, 2020
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.
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.
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.
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