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George Condo

American Visual Artist

Born: December 10, 1957 - Concord, New Hampshire, United States
Movements and Styles: Neo-Expressionism
George Condo Timeline
To make progress in the evolution of art, you have to absorb all of what has been done and incorporate everything. And then what becomes the nature of your own art is what you do with what you know. So, all great art has some relationship to the great art that came before it. The departures are very few and far between, and they're not very recognizable until later on.
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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).

Accomplishments

  • 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).

Biography of George Condo

George Condo, photographed in 2012

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".

Important Art by George Condo

Surrealist Landscape (1983)

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.

Dancing to Miles (1985-1986)

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.

The Secretary (2002)

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".

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
George Condo
Influenced by Artist
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Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"George Condo Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 05 Mar 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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