Taking off from the Old Masters, George Condo paints grotesque yet appealing figures that exist somewhere in the territory where Francis Bacon meets Hans Bellmer.
George Condo’s disarmingly casual, almost quaint friendliness when he greets me at his townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is unexpected for a painter famous for wicked riffs on everything from Picasso’s Weeping Women to cheap clown paintings. His paintings’ trademark look—rudimentarily rendered, pastiched figures with multimouthed, grotesquely dentured faces collapsing in on themselves like marshmallows over a campfire—won him an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999, and five years later he was invited to Harvard as a visiting lecturer in the visual and environmental studies department.
Represented by the blue-chip Luhring Augustine Gallery in Chelsea, where he had a major show in 2006, Condo has seen the prices of his work rise to as much as $300,000, depending on size and year. His paintings and drawings are in the collections of major museums, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim, and Whitney; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo; FRAC Paris; and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona. Keeping up a steady exhibition schedule in the United States and abroad, he had a show at Simon Lee Gallery in London last spring and another in June at Galerie Andrea Caratsch in Zurich.
But Condo really doesn’t like to travel (“I freak outon planes”) and will often get all the way to the airport lounge and then turn around to come home. Nevertheless, the cosmopolitan artist, who is married to Italian actress Anna Condo (they have two children), spent years living abroad, in Cologne (1983–84) and Paris (1984–95).
Looking like a cross between Humphrey Bogart and the rock star Jackson Browne, Condo is modestly built, with a toothy grin and a collar-length shock of thick brown hair that belies his 50 years. As for living on the upscale Upper East Side, he says improbably, “I like living here because there are no other artists around.”
Condo leads me up the stairs of the house to a high-ceilinged dining room, where we sit down at a big antique table and he immediately starts to talk. First he asks if I mind if he smokes. Then he lights a Camel and goes over to open the French windows for some air. Condo, who walks in big strides—just a bit shorter than Groucho Marx’s when he was parodying a floorwalker in The Big Store—tells me that his mother is Irish and his father Italian. “The name is pronounced con-DOE,” he says.
Some of the room’s cream-colored walls are covered with 19th-century faux-Rococo murals, while others throughout the house are punctuated, in an unpretentious way, with Condo’s own art. He points out a Warhol print on which he himself screened the diamond dust about 30 years ago, when he was a struggling young artist just arrived in New York. Back then, he considered landing a brutal job on Andy’s assembly line a dream come true.
The studio, one floor up via a narrow, curving staircase, is a converted bedroom overlooking the street. “Converted,” in Condo’s sense, means the bed has been cleared out. The atelier is like Francis Bacon’s Reece Mews workspace as reconstituted at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, only not nearly as barnacled with paints, brushes, cans, and shards of printed images. A large desk remains, atop which sit art books and an ashtray. Nearby are a chair, a music stand, a score, and a viola da gamba. (Condo plays it, and not badly.) The nice old hardwood floor is, however, generously speckled with smears of oil paint. “I get up at ten to six every morning,” he says, “and come directly in here, to sit and smoke and think.” A disheveled stack of drawings lies on the floor; when Condo slips a few out to show me, he handles them with the slightly apologetic carelessness of a student who’s not quite sure if his art really means much. (Condo’s mother still asks him why everything in his pictures has to “look insane.”)
As he slides out some over-the-mantle-size paintings in progress from the informal stacks of canvases propped against the studio walls, Condo explains that he has a couple of motifs going: “a theme and variation on a woman who might have stepped out of Picasso’s Demoiselles,” and a male character he thinks of as “Rodrigo,” who might be the “piano player at a wedding, doing the worst song you’ve ever heard.” The pictures manifest Condo’s offbeat stylistic amalgams, with figures that look like indifferently assembled mannequins. The backgrounds are usually nothing more than a couple of colors faded into one another. Call them—and Condo is an artist who admits to being influenced by just about every painter he’s ever looked at—Francis Bacon meets Hans Bellmer.
The women are ferocious. “I’m more interested in the moment when a woman says, ‘Fuck you,’ and storms off,” Condo explains, “than in the traditional submissive object.” As for the implied narrative of Rodrigo—a singularly unattractive fellow with a bald head, dangling side curls, a black bow tie, and a red vest—Condo says philosophically that his recent work amounts to a “viable direction in conceptual art, but one that requires an ability to paint like the Old Masters.”
Born in 1957 in Concord, New Hampshire, the son of a math and physics professor, Condo studied at the University of Massachusetts Lowell for two years. His father taught there, so his tuition was almost free. He took art history and fell in love with Caravaggio. With nobody at Lowell who could teach him to emulate an artist like that, he moved to Boston, took over his older brother’s apartment, and began night classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. But, he says, with oblique reasoning, “I didn’t want to give up painting to go to art school.”
Having fallen in with a punk-rock group called the Girls, Condo, who played bass guitar, went south with them to New York in 1979. They immediately got a gig on a bill with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s band, Gray, and, as Condo recalls, “discovered the 24-hour life, where you can have a conversation with an artist your own age at 5 A.M.” To survive during those tough times, he worked as a temp through Kelly Girls. On one of the jobs the agency got him (stuffing envelopes) he was discovered by Warhol’s people. They hired him first to write press releases and then to spread that diamond dust. “It was awful,” Condo says.
In 1981 he moved to Los Angeles, painted his seminal work Madonna(“Once you’re out in L.A.,” the artist notes wryly, “a fake Tiepolo is the thing to do”), and was befriended by local rising star Roger Herman. Condo told Herman he “couldn’t bear” to take his slides around to dealers, so Herman came over with a truck, picked up all of Condo’s work, and scattered it around the perimeter of his dealer Ulrike Kantor’s gallery. The prominent Southern California collector Robert Rowan happened to walk in. He said he wanted to buy one of the paintings and asked Kantor whose it was. “Oh, that’s by my new artist,” she said. Condo had a successful show there in 1982 but couldn’t help thinking, “It’s not New York.”
Meanwhile, pioneer East Village dealer and Girls fan Pat Hearn offered Condo a show. He accepted, but felt he had to run off to Europe right then and ended up painting most of the works for the show in the Canary Islands. “I’ve done a lot of paintings on the run,” Condo says with a smile. The 1984 exhibition was a two-venue affair, at the Pat Hearn and Barbara Gladstone galleries simultaneously. Condo wanted it that way as a kind of nose-thumbing at the Mary Boone/Leo Castelli Julian Schnabel extravaganzas of the time. A 1986 show of Condo’s quixotic variegations of the neo-Surrealist variety at Gladstone got him this notice by Vivien Raynor in the New York Times: “Having already shown a James Ensor-like potential, the 29-year-old artist seems temporarily becalmed, somewhere between Port Figuration and the Straits of Abstraction.”
Condo then returned to making what he calls fake Old Masters. “I was thinking, how do you narrow down traditional European painting into a kind of baroque cubism?” he says. “I wanted the kind of objectivity that Warhol brought to a soup can brought to an Old Master.” Shown in New York, these kinds of paintings might not have gotten Condo critical acclaim (his 1991 Pace Gallery show wasn’t well received, he says), but a younger generation of painters started responding. Not to mention—over time—eminent artists, such as Maurizio Cattelan, who invited Condo to put a painting in his phone-booth-size Wrong Gallery, installed at Tate Modern in London last year.
“I applied my constellations of forms to a portrait of Queen Elizabeth, and the reaction was nuclear,” Condo recalls. Despite his somewhat tongue-in-cheek protestations that he was inspired by Velázquez, the artist himself dubbed the picture the Cabbage Patch Queen, after the cutely homely kids’ doll, and Royal Academy members were furious. “Condo’s likeness of our monarch is so unflattering that it makes Lucian Freud’s phizzog of the sovereign look like chocolate box art by comparison,” wrote one outraged British columnist last fall.
Since the Queen brouhaha, Condo says he has basically been “picking up the pieces from London.” The pieces—such as they are—reflect his untroubled attitude toward the disjunctions between form and content. He thinks noble subjects can be painted in a jocular manner with no loss of dignity to the sitter. And he thinks images of tragedies can make people smile because of the way they’re painted. “I can laugh at a crucifixion painting,” he says, “because of the sheer joy I feel in how it works as a picture. You know, Rembrandt’s late portraits were obviously not meant to be funny, but Rembrandt must have seen the humor in how they were painted.”
Condo essentially wants to flip that last idea. He knows that his images—especially his recent imaginary portraits—are laugh-out-loud funny, the most good-spirited disfigurements of the human visage since GIs left “Kilroy was here” graffiti all over Europe 60 years ago. But he’s deadly serious about how they’re painted. Ever since a visit to the Prado Museum in Madrid almost 20 years ago, when he noticed that “more people were watching the copyists in the galleries than were actually looking at the art,” he has understood that “there’s only so much you can make happen with the Old Masters without learning the techniques.” As to the oft-heard detraction that his paintings are just too cartoony, Condo says, “I hate cartoons. But you paint what you don’t like and try to make it right.”
Peter Plagens is the art critic for Newsweek and a painter.