American Visual Artist
Concord, New Hampshire, United States
Summary of George Condo
With friends and colleagues Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring (not to mention Julian Schnabel and David Salle), Condo was part of a small cadre of precocious New York-based artists who were intent on restoring faith in the possibilities for a progressive, and distinctively American, figurative painting style. Through their collective endeavors, they aligned the contemporary America art scene with the international Neo-Expressionist movement that came to prominence in the 1980s. Condo has made his own reputation through his willingness to explore combinations of different artistic styles within a single canvas. In his portraits, for instance, Condo is apt to combine the ceremony of the Old Masters with a mischievous humor that often draws on the conventions of pop cartoons; his aesthetic goal being to confound his viewer by employing the pop cartoon as a device that effectively debunks the idea that connects classical art with the intellect.
Condo has also described his artistic style as "psychological cubism," explaining that "Picasso painted a violin from four different perspectives at one moment. I do the same with psychological states". Many of his paintings recall thus the works by the likes of Willem de Kooning and Pablo Picasso and he uses this technique to explore themes relating to the macabre, the carnivalesque and the abject. In a third idiom to describe his practice, he has spoken of "visual choreography" whereby he gives visual form to music, his second great passion (after art).
- Condo is amongst the pioneers who visualized the postmodern maxim that the function of contemporary painting is not to invent, but to repurpose and recombine preexisting styles and influences. In works such as Frankenstorm (2012) we see evidence of the way in which his "invented" characters combined the conventions of classical portraiture with elements of Cubism and Pop Art.
- Condo, with other figurative revivalists on both sides of the Atlantic (such as the German George Baselitz), used portraiture to challenge the dominance of Minimalism and Conceptualism and in so doing they lent their voice to the movement of Neo-Expressionism. Holland Cotter of The New York Times even described Condo as the "missing link" between the figurative tradition of Rembrandt, Picasso and Bacon, and contemporary artists including John Currin, Glen Brown and Dana Schutz.
- Condo's skill at blending and juxtaposing different aspects of art history, such as in Surrealist Landscape (1983), showed a way in which artists might reference the history of Western art without the need for appropriation and the attendant premises of parody - copying with the intent of critiquing an original - and pastiche - copying for mere aesthetic effect.
- Dividing his time between New York and Paris, Condo absorbed the spontaneity of the Beat writers and musicians, and the more meditative aspects of French linguistic philosophy. He brought these two conflicting positions together in order to produce works - such as his homage to the great jazz musician Miles Davis, Dancing to Miles (1985-86) - his most original and experimental "musical" pieces ("Dissonance is one of the great qualities of music and art" he would argue).
Progression of Art
In this painting, several bizarre objects (including, from left to right, a red and brown object that looks like a toppled mushroom, a carrot-like plant, a white bust of a bald human head, and two flaming furnaces) sit in an empty green field under a stormy blue and grey sky. In the background, the edge of a forest is suggested. The "naturalness" of the scene is called into question by the inclusion of a straight red band across the bottom edge of the painting. In front of this red line, in the right hand corner, sits an irregular dark form, recalling a volcanic rock formation, or an old tree stump.
Even in this early work, Condo was exploring combinations of different viewpoints on art history in a way that overcame the limitations of direct citation and appropriation. Condo is experimenting here with replicating the mood and feel of early twentieth century Surrealist works such as those produced by René Magritte and Salvador Dalí. The inclusion of a moody twilight sky, and long, dark shadows, recalls Magritte's interest in the relationship between day, night, and dusk. The bizarre collection of foreground objects, meanwhile, recalls Dali's use of strange objects like melting clocks and anthropomorphic tree trunks.
Commenting on his early works in 1988, art critic Roberta Smith wrote that "Mr. 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".
Surrealist Landscape precedes Condo's move to Paris by two years, and comes six years before he articulated his concept of "artificial realism". We see here then his early attempts to experiment with the discrete art historical styles and movements that would later serve as the source material for works in which Condo would blend these various styles.
Oil on canvas
Dancing to Miles
This enormous painting, which Condo completed in Keith Haring's studio in the East Village, is packed with a frenzy of figures rendered in a Cubist style. The dominant colors are brown and black while the painting as a whole marries the improvisational feel of the Beat movement and jazz music with a more cogitated aspect which Condo took from contemporary French philosophy.
In this work, as in many others, Condo references a variety of styles and earlier artists, including Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, and Willem de Kooning. We also see the influence of Analytic Cubism, with fragmented geometric shapes and a monochromatic color palette. By blending these various influences in a single painting, Condo demonstrates his philosophy that the function of contemporary painting is not to invent, but to repurpose and recombine preexisting styles. In his view, the blending and juxtaposition of various influences serves as a metaphor for the fragmented and multisensory nature of contemporary life.
Art critic Holland Cotter says of the painting that it looks "from a distance, like [an exercise] in nuanced color and tone. But as you come closer, intricate, all-over networks of imagery come into focus: popping eyes, open mouths, breasts, hands, heads, all recognizable from the portraits. The patterns are so detailed and attention demanding as to be exhausting". The title of the work refers to jazz musician Miles Davis, whose free-form jazz music was often turbulent and restless (Condo paid homage to Miles Davis in other works too, including his 1991 etching and aquatint series More Sketches of Spain - For Miles Davis). Condo represents this auditory upheaval in a visual manner. The painting thus serves as an illustration of Condo's "psychological cubism" technique in which he seeks to represent various emotional states within a single canvas.
Oil on canvas - The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica
In this painting, a single female figure is presented against a black background. Her body and face are grotesquely distorted, with her head being disproportionately small to her body; her bulbous nose sitting between two eyes of different sizes, and her shoulders slanted asymmetrically. She wears a red button-up top with a white collar. An apple sits atop her head, and an arrow appears to pierce her head through the ears. Her hair is made up of several colors, including purple, blue, brown, and gray.
Condo believes that one of the most consistent aspects of his work involves the representation of human consciousness. Indeed, he has painted several bizarre characters like this, including Cave Woman (2001), The Cracked Cardinal (2004), Boxer (2006), The Butler (2007) and The Homeless Hobo (2009). In these portraits, Condo prefers to show the sorts of regular people that make up the world, rather than the "glamorous" individuals that we usually see on magazine covers and in various other forms of media. Referring to The Secretary, art critic Jennifer Higgie writes that "Condo is not, to put it mildly, averse to a little exaggeration. Eyes, for example, are a part of the body the artist rates highly, as, obviously, have many painters before him - but in his cosmos they're transformed from windows to the soul into little holes of horror or inflated glutinous orbs, jelly rocks that occasionally roll from their sockets to balance lightly, say, on the end of a perky-haired girl's nose".
In his portraits, Condo references various moments from art history, blending the formality of Old Master portraits with the cheeky humor of Pop Art and cartoons. This work blends various artistic influences designed to confound the viewer about what type of art they are actually looking at. Many of his portraits involve cartoonish aspects. Condo explains that "The cartoon is a very bizarre weapon against the sort of intellectual concept of what our supposedly high-art culture is all about [...] I think the interest is that it's a sort of an entry into a certain kind of serious component of the human psyche".
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
This work is one of several "drawing paintings", created by Condo in recent years, in which he uses a variety of materials in a single work. In this red image, black lines and white shading (used sparingly) create one female and one male figure, represented in a cartoonish, Cubist style, as well as a series of abstract forms at the top of the work. The male head rests atop a female torso, with one breast exposed.
The bow tie the male figure wears identifies him as Rodrigo, a character described by Condo as "a kind of lowlife, the one who parks your car and [is] basically a scoundrel". Rodrigo is recurrent character in Condo's paintings and elsewhere the artist has described him as "the piano player at a wedding, doing the worst song you've ever heard [...] the valet wearing his red jacket and his bow tie [and] the disapproving butler".
An important aspect for Condo, in making drawing-paintings, was to assert the equality of the two art forms (painting being generally viewed as higher of the two). The combination of the two techniques is mirrored by the sort of "harmonious dissonance" created through other elements of the work, such as the delicate female form and the grotesque male figure, as well as the simultaneous significations that can be read into the deep-red hue, namely passion and/or violence.
Typical of Condo's oeuvre, the work involves a blend of artistic influences, evidenced here in the Cubist style of Picasso, the Color Field Painting of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, while the female figure's engaged neck recalls that of Parmigianino's Mannerist work Madonna with the Long Neck (1535-1540). Curator Ralph Rugoff says of Condo's characters, "these figures can be seductive and repulsive at the same time. They embody a position that is simultaneously frightening and appealing. This is something that also comes across in the way that they solicit different kinds of looks from the viewer, and how they often look back at us with eyes that don't match or don't even seem to belong to the same face".
Acrylic, charcoal and pastel on canvas
In this predominantly black painting, a single figure is visible, shown from the chest up. The neck and upper body are delineated through the use of straight blue and red lines. The figure's head hardly seems human at all, comprised as it is of several three-dimensional geometric multi-colored shapes. A small black sphere against a white recessed space implies an eye, while two white rounded discs indicate cartoon-like Mickey Mouse ears.
Condo painted this work during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when he was left without electricity and was cut off from the outside world. This painting itself was directly inspired by Picasso's Head of a Woman (1960). In his characteristic manner, however, Condo blends high and low art references in a single work, for instance, with the Mickey Mouse-like ears referencing Pop Art. The painting is also influenced by the dark, brooding tones, and classical figure proportions of Rembrandt's Self Portrait (1660), while the use of blue and maroon striped marks against the black background hint at Francis Bacon's Study after Velzquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953).
By blending realism and abstraction in a single work, Condo exemplifies the postmodern idea that "recombines" (rather than "reimagines") existing genres. In a 2011 interview, he stated that, "Representational pictures are the artist's mind, abstractions are pictures of the artist's mind". Curator Ralph Rugoff, meanwhile, asserts that Condo's tendency to present faces "as a scrambled pictorial landscape sabotages our impulse to read it in terms of an individual psychology [instead] dismantling the face's role as a primary emblem of subjectivity". In this way, Condo exemplifies Guattari's belief that "painting has never ceased to have as its goal the deterritorialization of faces - either through the reactivation of corporeality, or through the liberation of lines and colours, or both at the same time".
Oil and oilstack on canvas - Skarstedt Gallery, New York
Figures in Motion
This painting, dominated by bright yellow and punctuated by bright red, blue, green, and pink, bears various elements of Condo's signature style. Simple lines and fields of color work together to create a dizzying, frenetic scene, in which fractured, grotesque figures are superimposed upon one another. The vibrant, uplifting colours and vivacious sense of movement in this work seem joyful and celebratory, especially when one considers that this work was painted shortly after Condo's experience of contracting the often-fatal Legionnaire's disease.
As usual, Condo combines a variety of artistic influences in a single work. Here, we see traces of the caricatural figures found in Willem de Kooning's Woman series of the late 1940s and 1950s, the dynamic gestural abstraction of Jackson Pollock, and the tribal masks of Paul Cézanne. Figures in Motion (as well as Dancing with Miles (1985-1986) is part of a series of what Condo calls "expanding canvases," which are large-scale, visually busy paintings with no central focal point. Curator Ralph Rugoff describes Condo's "expanding canvases" as works "in which seemingly abstract fields of intricately squiggly lines are composed from fragments of cartoonish anatomies. Fusing heroic modes of abstraction and debased forms of figuration, [these works] articulate a stance fundamental to much of Condo's work - namely, that the transcendent aspirations of 'high' culture are inevitably tangled up with our more clownish natures and desires".
Condo connects this idea to the concept of musical variations on a theme, which he attempts to give visual form in his expanding canvases. Rugoff writes that "Condo's facility as a painter continually lures our attention away from the image to take in the choreography of marks across the picture plane: the loose grace of the brushstrokes, their varied touch and texture, the interplay of unexpected color relationship". Likewise, Condo's friend, French philosopher Guattari, once told him "Your paintings are like non-arpeggio chords which unleash their harmonies and their melodic potential". In this respect, one might say that Condo had achieved through his love of art what seemed somehow impossible through his love of music.
Acrylic, charcoal and pastel on linen - Private Collection
Biography of George Condo
George Condo's mother was a nurse and his father was a physics and calculus teacher. George was one of five children but he recalled: "I had my own room, and I was always alone in my room with my door locked and making drawings. It was just my way to pass time in a small, rural town. I couldn't do sports; I couldn't do all the other things everybody loved to do; I was only interested in reading and art".
In 1962, when George was just five years old, the family relocated from Concord to Chelmsford, Massachusetts, near Lowell, the birthplace of Jack Kerouac. The Beat writer was a significant inspiration on Condo and some years later he would adapt Kerouac's method of spontaneous prose into his painting process. (Much later, in 2006, Condo would write the introduction and paint the cover art for the posthumous publication Book of Sketches, a collection of prose drawn from Kerouac's journals.)
Condo began drawing around age four or five (his mother has kept all of his early drawings to this day). It was also his mother's idea to put him into Saturday painting classes at the YWCA. He recalled that he never drew stick figures or typical child-like drawings, and in fact his first-ever artwork was of an abstracted crucifixion scene. He also developed an obsession with drawing dinosaurs as accurately as he could before proceeding to color them in with non-naturalistic tones.
Condo recalled how, as a young teenager, his scientifically-minded father taught him about ways to represent three-dimensions. He recounts his first encounter with modern art equally well, noting that as a thirteen-year-old he became captivated by a reproduction of a Picasso painting reprinted in a newspaper article. From the age of fourteen, Condo started studying classical music and classical guitar; his father telling him that "If you want to play rock and roll, first you have to learn to play Bach". Condo would later muse: "Having a music education really helped me understand how to paint and how to think about painting".
Education and Early Training
Condo studied art history and music theory for two years at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he became most interested in his classes on Baroque and Rococo painting. He also made frequent visits to galleries and museums in Boston. He recalls that he was too timid and insecure to show his teachers his own art and was unprepared to open himself up to criticism. This changed one day when he had a conversation with a professor during which he confessed his true passion for painting and his professor encouraged him to pursue that. Condo soon quit university having come to the realization that he was more likely to find success as a painter rather than in music.
Condo moved to Boston where he lived with his brother. He worked in a silkscreen shop and spent his spare time playing in proto-synth/punk rock band The Girls. Other band members included abstract painter Mark Dagley and avant-garde musician Daved Hild. The group's only single "Jeffrey I Hear You"/"Elephant Man" (1979) was produced by David Thomas of experimental rock group Pere Ubu. While in Boston, Condo also enrolled in night classes in drawing at the Massachusetts College of Art. It was at MCA that he became convinced to devote all his creative energies to art following praise for his drawing of a crushed can of Pepsi.
In 1979, Jean-Michel Basquiat's band, Gray, opened for The Girls at the Tier 3 nightclub in downtown TriBeCa in Manhattan. Condo and Basquiat quickly became friends: "We basically hung out as artists all the time and would meet up in different parts of the world and get smashed and go out and pull pranks on everyone" recalled Condo. Soon after their first meeting, Basquiat suggested that Condo should move to New York City and focus more seriously on his artistic career. Condo took his new friend's advice, relocating to Ludlow Street on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Once in New York, Condo helped start the blues/punk rock band Hi Sheriffs of Blue.
Condo soon signed up with the Kelly Girls temp agency through which he found various office jobs, including one at the World Trade Center. He eventually found a temporary two-week job working in the archives of a gallery. One of his assignments was to write a press release about Andy Warhol. Warhol was so pleased with the piece he invited Condo to come to his Factory and work as a diarist.
Condo spent the next nine months working at the Factory. Shortly after his arrival, Warhol's people learned that Condo had experience with silk-screening, and he was promoted to "diamond duster" on the production line. Condo remembers that he "never even met him [Warhol] more than once or twice, but working that job at Warhol's was amazing. It was 1981, I was 23 years old and it was the perfect way to begin my full-time life as an artist". Between 1981 and 1983 Condo held his first exhibitions in various East Village galleries. At one of these shows, Warhol purchased some of Condo's works, without realizing that he had in fact employed Condo at the Factory. It was at this time that Condo made the acquaintance of Keith Haring with whom he remained close friends until Haring's untimely AIDS-related passing in 1990. The pair shared many deep discussions and Condo recalls that: "When [Haring] was dying of AIDS, he asked me, 'What do you think is more important: art or life?' And I said, 'I don't know. I'm twenty-six. I think art is more important than life because it lives on way past us'".
In 1983, Condo moved to Los Angeles for nine months (during which time he worked as a pen salesman) and held his first solo exhibition at the Ulrike Kantor gallery and sold his first painting, The Adoration of the Sacred Cow (1982), to a private collector. He then moved to Cologne, Germany, in 1984, and had his first solo European exhibition at the Monika Sprüth gallery. While in Cologne, Condo befriended and collaborated with several artists from the Mulheimer Freiheit group, including Walter Dahn and Jiri Georg Dokoupil. Condo also met American art dealer Barbara Gladstone in Europe in 1984. Gladstone and Condo began working together, and she was instrumental in helping him organize simultaneous exhibitions in 1984 at the Pat Hearn and Barbara Gladstone galleries in New York.
In the decade between 1985 and 1995, Condo traveled back and forth between Paris and New York. Working primarily out of hotels and rented studios, he exhibited in galleries on both sides of the Atlantic. While in Paris, Haring introduced Condo to British artist and writer Brion Gysin, who in turn introduced Condo to American Beat writer William S. Burroughs. Condo recalled that "Burroughs was amazing because he would just come up with these incredible topics of conversation and discussion and then [he could] go to work with him together on paintings". Between 1988 and 1998, Condo and Burroughs collaborated on several paintings and sculptures, some of which were exhibited at the Pat Hearn gallery in New York in 1997, and on a collection of writings and etchings titled Ghost of Chance, which was published by the Whitney Museum in 1991.
It was also in Paris that Condo met French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the French psychoanalyst and political activist Félix Guattari. Condo and Guattari inhabited the same apartment block, leading Guattari to write extensively on Condo's working practice: "There is [...] a very specific 'Condo effect' which separates you from all the painters you seem to reinterpret. You sacrifice everything to this effect, particularly pictorial structure, which you systematically destroy, thus removing a protective guardrail, a frame of reference which might reassure the viewer, who is denied access to a stable set of meanings". Guattari also recognized that Condo's visual art drew upon his background in music, and he told Condo "You are still a musician at heart. With you the polyphony of lines, forms and colours belong to a temporal dimension rather than one of spatial coordination".
In 2004, Condo worked as a Visiting Lecturer on Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University, and taught a course titled "Painting Memory". In 2006, he lectured on the physiognomical studies of art historian Michael Kwakkelstein at Columbia University. He tried to impress the following life-lesson upon his students: "Never deprive yourself of an inspiration. Never deprive yourself of the moment when the image comes to your mind, to take note of that image, you'll never know whether it's of any use until it comes about and develops and turns into whatever it is you're doing."
In 2010, Condo collaborated with rapper Kanye West to create a painting for the cover for West's album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The pair had already formed a working relationship with West having used an image of one of Condo's paintings as his Twitter profile image while Condo also customized a Hermès Birkin Bag for West to give to his wife Kim Kardashian as a gift. Condo recalls his working relationship with West: "he would come over to the studio and just have the beginning of a piece ready, start rapping out lyrics and we would talk about the words. He would talk about the painting and I would crack up over one or another idea that he had and then that would make it more concrete in his mind". For the 2010 album cover, Condo painted a cartoonish image of a naked, demonic-looking Kanye West with a highly sexualized female sphinx sitting on his lap, and a bottle in his hand. Kanye had apparently asked Condo to create an image that would "get banned". Indeed, the image was deemed inappropriate by iTunes, which now displays the album cover as a blurred image of Condo's original design, and was also banned in retailers such as Walmart. Condo has completed other cover designs, including sleeves for Phish (The Story of the Ghost, 1998) and Danny Elfman (Serenada Schizophrana, 2006).
In 2013, Condo contracted and recovered from Legionnaire's disease. Then, in 2015, he was diagnosed with cancer of the vocal cords. He underwent successful surgery but the experience affected him deeply, and he threw himself completely into his art. As he recalled, "I was starting to feel very scrambled up and thinking about my kids and how bad my situation was". (Condo married Armenian actress Anna Achdian in Antibes, France in 1989. The couple had two daughters, Eleonore (born 1990) and Raphaelle (born 1995) before their divorce in 2016). The subsequent 2016 exhibition, Entrance to the Void, was in his words a "rumination on death" as, indeed, was his 2019 show What's the Point? - of which he recently remarked: "It's another good reason to ask yourself what's the point when something like that happens. You have to recalibrate your life in a way that's a little bit healthier. What can I say? I've gone from cigarettes to vegan coffee, drinking vegan wine, vegan cigarettes, dropping vegan acid".
Condo currently lives and works primarily in New York City in an apartment on the Upper East Side where he proudly displays his instrument collection, which includes an intricately carved lute made by Parisian luthier Wolfgang Frith, a viola de gamba, a collection of rare acoustic guitars, and a cream-colored Fender guitar. His most recent works are what he refers to as "drawing paintings", and he describes these, which include charcoal, pencil, pastel and acrylic paint in a single work, as "a reaction to the hierarchy that supposedly exists between drawing and painting. For me", he continued, "there is no real difference between them, they can exist in one happy continuum".
The Legacy of George Condo
Condo, with close friends Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and other New-York based painters like Julian Schnabel and David Salle, were, in the words of curator Klaus Ottmann, "instrumental in the revival of figuration in American art". As such, he can be aligned with the rise of the international Neo-Expressionist movement. By juxtaposing elements of high and low art (or of drawing and painting) in a single work, Condo also challenges long-held beliefs about the hierarchy of artistic styles. Laura Hoptman, curator in the Department of Painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art has asserted that Condo "opened the door for artists to use the history of painting in a way that was not appropriation".
Condo applied the label "artificial realism" not only to his own works but to works by other artists, including Stuart Davis, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, and Jeff Koons. Though they do not identify as "artificial realists", Condo's influence on a generation of contemporary painters can still be traced in the work of American painter Sean Landers, who presents viewers with jarringly unnatural nature scenes, and John Currin, who presents provocative contemporary social commentary through grotesque portraiture executed in Old Master and High Mannerist styles. Similarly, though he does not describe his work in these terms, Condo's vision of "psychological cubism" can be traced in the paintings of Mexican painter Jesus Villalpando Figueroa whose frenzied colorful canvases, filled with abstracted faces (which are highly reminiscent of works by Condo such as Dancing to Miles (1985-1986) and Figures in Motion (2013)), elicit a wide range of emotions from the spectator.
Condo has also influenced writers, including Demosthenes Davvetas, Donald Kuspit, Wilfried Dickhoff, and, most notably, Salman Rushdie whose 2001 novel Fury includes one chapter inspired by Condo's painting The Psychoanalytic Puppeteer Losing His Mind (1994), and David Means, whose short story The Butler's Lament (2011) was inspired by Condo's painting The Fallen Butler (2010).