Last Saturday, Jeff Koons and George Condo sat together to chat about making it in New York in the 1980s as part of “Who’s Afraid of the New Now? 40 Artists in Dialogue to Celebrate the New Museum’s Anniversary.” With less of a focus on the now, new or otherwise, the conversation’s nostalgic tone took the audience back to an art scene that seems far removed from today’s New York. Lisa Phillips, the New Museum’s director and the moderator for the afternoon talk, asked the artists to think about what it meant to come of age downtown decades ago. What did “new” mean then—when Condo had just moved to the city and Koons mounted his first solo exhibition, “The New,” in the windows of the New Museum?
“I wanted people to have a feeling of coming across something that was in some ways better prepared to survive than yourself,” Koons said of that debut exhibition, which showed at a former location of the New Museum at the corner of 5th Avenue and 14th Street. “In some ways, it was a dialogue between the animate and the inanimate—like, who’s really better prepared for the eternal?”
In 1980 Condo moved to New York after some convincing from a friend he met at a bygone No Wave music club in Tribeca. That friend was Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was there to play a set with his band, Gray; Condo’s band, Girls, was the opening act. “He convinced me to move to New York,” said Condo, who was living north of the city at the time. “[He was] like, ‘Nothing’s ever going to happen in Boston.’ New York in 1980 was a survival journey for me, basically.”
So Condo came to the big city and got a job working at the Museum of Modern Art. Koons, too, had his first job at MoMA, where he sold tickets. In their elder forms, both ruminated over formative periods spent exploring the collections and libraries the institution had to offer, emphasizing the importance of finding a job—no matter how menial—that can allow for immersion in an environment that nurtures brimming interests.
“I don’t think I would’ve ever made works like ‘The New’—a series of sculptures consisting of brand-name vacuum cleaners mounted in clear acrylic boxes—”if I wasn’t looking at some of the objects [that MoMA] was displaying and thinking: Well, how can I contribute something to the idea of the readymade?” Koons said.
Condo found joy then in looking at the works of master painters and trying to replicate the feeling of enjoyment he derived. “I looked at art as being my sort of world,” he said. “And whatever it took, I was going to be part of it—I was going to make a contribution to that world.” Though he was quickly fired from MoMA—likely for looking at art too much instead of actually working, he suggested—Condo then landed a job at Andy Warhol’s Factory, where he worked for nine months. In the time he was there, he said, he helped out with a staggering 5,000 pieces.
Years later, in 1983, Warhol bought three of Condo’s paintings that he found in a show at Patrick Fox Gallery with Keith Haring. Later, Condo was working in Haring’s studio on the painting Dancing to Miles (which was on view at the New Museum’s 2011 Condo retrospective) when Warhol was about to pay a visit. “I said to Keith, ‘Don’t tell him I worked for him—just don’t tell him. It would be too embarrassing,’ ” Condo recalled. Warhol never found out.
Asked about his own relationship with Warhol, Koons said he was never close with him, even though aspects of his work seemed to share allegiances with Warhol’s assembly-line process. Koons says he kept his distance as he tried to navigate his own iteration of the art world.
A revelation presented itself to Koons when, at the Whitney Museum, he first saw Jim Nutt’s work. “I was really moved by it,” he said. “Here was work that, it wasn’t Pop art—it wasn’t Andy and Roy—but it involved kind of a social dialogue, a universal vocabulary. At the same time it was really made up of personal iconography. I could envision kind of a future for my own work by looking at Jim’s work.”
Steering the direction of the conversation to the nature of the East Village at the time, Phillips asked about the influence of the poets, musicians, and artists who congregated there. William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Brion Gysin, and Debbie Harry were a few of the figures that Condo cited as integral to the interdisciplinary experience he had downtown.
“I always felt like I was a fly on the wall to a certain degree, because they were all like the grandparents, so much older,” Condo said. “But they all have this one kind of quality to them, which was what you now call ‘old school.’ ”