Gallery  May 12, 2023  Jordan Riefe

“People are Strange”: A Conversation with George Condo

© George Condo Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Thomas Barratt

Transformation 2022 Acrylic, oil stick, and metallic paint on linen 228.6 x 647.7 cm / 90 x 255 in

In the immortal words of The Doors frontman Jim Morrison: “People are strange.” It’s a song that George Condo happened to be listening to in his studio one day and it became the title of his latest show inaugurating Hauser & Wirth’s new West Hollywood location. 

“George Santos, Lindsey Graham, Kevin McCarthy and the people who run this government, and the people who created this divisive world we live in today,” Condo says, listing people he defines as “strange.”

Not that the new show is political. It has more to do with portraits than with politicians. Among the fourteen large format pieces are three “Transitional Portraits” depicting the toll of time on various muses. “The tragic and the beautiful come together when perceived from the perspective of the viewer,” Condo notes on the gallery’s website. 

The remaining works are described as “psychological cubism,” depicting multiple moods and variations of the model the same way Picasso and Braque portrayed multiple angles of their subjects combined into one image. The show’s centerpiece, “Transformation,” is a triptych about isolation and fracturing communities, a mass of coalescing and diverging figures against a color scheme of lavender, coral pink and baby blue.

Jordan Riefe

Installation view of "George Condo. People are Strange" at Hauser & Wirth West Hollywood. 

Running concurrently with the Hauser & Wirth show is “Humanoids” at Nouveau Musée National de Monaco, a series of portraits  by Condo that employ psychological realism in likenesses ranging from Italian Baroque painter Guido Renti to Bugs Bunny.

And if two shows aren’t enough to keep the 65-year-old artist on his toes, a third is at The Morgan Library in New York, “Entrance to the Mind,” consisting of drawings, some dating to his teen years in the 1970s. 

“It’s a full spectrum of drawings that relate to paintings that were completed later,” Condo offers. “Some are studies for larger paintings I did in the eighties, the expanding canvases like ‘Dancing to Miles.’”

Born in Concord, New Hampshire, Condo studied art history and music theory at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. After graduating he moved to Boston and took a job in a silk screen shop while pursuing painting and drawing, and playing bass in the punk band, The Girls. In 1979, they played Tier 3, a downtown nightclub in Manhattan. The opening act was a band called Gray, featuring an unknown artist named Jean-Michel Basquiat. The two became fast friends and Condo moved to New York. 

© George Condo Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Thomas Barratt

Transitional Portrait in Turquoise and Gold 2022 Acrylic, metallic paint and oil stick on linen 300.7 x 267.3 x 3.8 cm / 118 3/8 x 105 1/4 x 1 1/2 in

Among his first jobs in the city was a menial position at MoMA from which he was soon fired. His writing skills got him employed at Andy Warhol’s Factory where he eventually put his screen printing skills to work for slave wages under brutal conditions. Within a few years, Warhol was purchasing works by Condo and even took a photo of him, never realizing he used to be an employee.

In 1983, Condo had his first solo exhibition at Ulrike Kantor Gallery in LA. Basquiat was there preparing a show for Gagosian, hanging out with New York graffiti artists Rammellzee and Toxic, inspirations for “Hollywood Africans,” a piece Basquiat painted at the time. Meanwhile Condo was selling pens from an office on Hollywood Boulevard, trying to earn enough to get back to New York. 

A year later he had simultaneous shows at Pat Hearn and Barbara Gladstone Galleries. “Seeing people coming in that were rich and wanted to buy our work gave it a feeling, like, hey I finally might actually be able to exist selling my paintings. As long as this keeps going, I’ll be able to continue my life as an artist.” 

Paris beckons every artist, including Condo who was sometimes joined by Basquiat or Keith Haring. “Keith and I became closest buddies,” Condo recalls. “He was really trying to elevate his position in the art world from being seen as a commercial graphics artist to one more like Jean-Michel, high art.” 

© George Condo Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Thomas Barratt

Constellation II 2022 Aluminium, gold leaf 78.7 x 55.3 x 52.7 cm / 31 x 21 3/4 x 20 3/4 in, and Psycho 2022 Oil on linen 228.6 x 215.9 cm / 90 x 85 in

 

Around that time, Condo went to Milan where he painted “Diaries of Milan”. “I thought why don’t I just take a canvas and paint whatever comes into my head directly on the painting and don’t fuck it up. And then I got back from Milan to Paris and did a painting and realized they were expanding, going in every direction. I might start from the middle and work my way out to the corners. I might start from a right hand corner or left hand corner and just keep going.” 

A piece called “Expanding Canvas”, painted in the East Village, lent its title to the new subgenre of his work. When he returned to New York he had no apartment and was living in hotels when Haring invited him to share his studio. There, Condo painted another expanding canvas, this one called “Dancing to Miles”, which was included in the 1987 Whitney Biennial.

“It’s kind of a pivotal work in the sense that it opened the eyes of the art world to how many different directions an artist can take in one single canvas,” Condo says of the seminal painting now in the Broad Collection. "It was like looking at Jackson Pollock and seeing things, looking at the drips and seeing paintings and figures. I wanted to paint all those faces and figures that I thought I saw on that canvas. In that sense it’s like an all over abstraction with actual figurative abstraction. That’s where the term ‘figurative abstraction’ originated in an essay.”

Hovering over the art scene at the time was Warhol, who visited Haring’s studio when Condo was painting “Dancing to Miles”. “I wish I could do that,” said Warhol. “You just paint what you want?” Condo responded, “Yeah, isn’t that what everybody does?” Warhol answered, “I could never do that.”

Jordan Riefe

George Condo and Hans Ulrich Obrist, installation view of "George Condo. People are Strange" at Hauser & Wirth West Hollywood. 

 

“I don't think he meant technically, I think he meant his manager Fred Hughes or his gallerist would always have some sort of a commission for him that he had to complete,” Condo reasons. “The whole collaboration with Basquiat, Warhol created his work out of a consumer culture. And Jean-Michel came in and smashed it apart and did his own anti-consumerism. Andy would throw up a Chevron logo and Jean-Michel would just paint right over it. And so that’s where the whole boxing club thing is. You got this culture clash – consume, Chevron, GE, Arm & Hammer, and on top of that you have a painter who paints whatever comes to his mind.” 

Condo has enjoyed an enviable career, collaborating with icons like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and pop stars like Kanye. His work is collected by numerous celebrities, with his top price at auction being roughly $6.9 million for “Force Field” (2010). But the early days, hopeful and ultimately heartbreaking, stay with him.

“Living through those dark times in Paris in the late eighties when Jean-Michel died of an overdose, Andy died in the hospital, and Keith had already contracted AIDS and it was just a ticking time bomb when he was going to lose consciousness and die; it was just really dark. And most of the paintings that I did during that period were extremely dark and haven’t really been seen by the art world.” 

His hope is that they’ll be included in a 2025 retrospective of his work at Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris, especially “Black Rain Over New York”, currently in the Bischofberger Collection in Zurich.

“That was separate drawings that Keith and I were looking at, some that were caricatures of Keith, and we were cracking up while doing them,” he recalls. “And when he died it was so sad. I did the whole painting. And where it was all dark, black dripping rain, I stuck each one of these drawings randomly onto the canvas. I’d like to see if we can borrow that for the retrospective.”

About the Author

Jordan Riefe

Jordan Riefe has been covering the film business since the late 90s for outlets like Reuters, THR.com, and The Wrap. He wrote a movie that was produced in China in 2007. Riefe currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter, while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound.

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