At this point, George Condo’s pioneering, trippy take on Old Master portraiture and surrealist paintings are bedrock classics. Born in New Hampshire in 1957, he has famously been called the missing link between postwar titans like Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston, and the medium’s contemporary advents like Dana Schutz and Nicole Eisenman. Condo is unparalleled in his ability to mishmash styles, balancing neo-cubism, cartoonish carnivalesque, and the nuanced layers of human consciousness. He’s also a global market force, with collectors clamoring for his art on the primary market and at postwar and contemporary auctions.
This week, during Frieze Week in Los Angeles, Hauser & Wirth debuted its second LA location, this one in West Hollywood, with a major presentation of new works by the artist, all created in 2022. An hour before the show’s private opening, Condo walked ARTnews through his latest exhibition and sat down for an interview to discuss the loyalty he demands from his paintings, what’s left for him to tackle in the art world, and why he makes imaginary portraits in the first place.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ARTnews: Why did you title this exhibition “People Are Strange”? Aren’t all your subjects peculiar and fantastical?
George Condo: This exhibition was originally supposed to open in September, so I have been working on it for some time. During the course of these paintings, I went out to the Hamptons, where I also have a studio, and I was listening to The Doors. I listened to the song “People Are Strange,” which I hadn’t heard for so long. I thought, Oh what a great song. Then, it stuck in my head. The more I watched the news, the more I saw people like Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and George Santos, I just thought, people are so strange in this country—maybe they’re even strange to themselves now, because they don’t know what’s real and what’s unreal. I thought about the sudden disenfranchisement of humanity. That’s how I titled the show.
Given his flagrant lying, it’s as though George Santos contains various disembodied states of persona, strange perhaps even to himself. Critics have described the figures in your paintings similarly, in terms of your subjects containing deconstructed multiples of psychological states that people might have. How do you feel about that characterization?
It doesn’t bother me to think about that point of view. I was born in the late ’50s, during the time of Barnett Newman and Willem de Kooning. I look at painting from the position of reconstructing abstraction into realism. The world did become, in my mind, so abstract that trying to construct something realistic that reflects that kind of madness where we are today and the strangeness of our world takes a kind of deconstruction to reconstruct it. It’s like if you have a model kit, you open the box and there are all kinds of pieces that you have to glue together to make a rocket ship or something, and then you get to paint it. The idea is that people have been so disenfranchised from themselves and from their beliefs, and you have such a divisive aspect of today’s society.
Although your compositions can possess grotesque or hilarious elements, it feels to me that you have tremendous empathy for the imaginary people you’re creating. What emotions do you feel for your subjects?
The reason I work from this concept of imaginary portraits is that you can imbue a certain dignity to the subject, whether a garbage collector, a school bus driver, or the guy cleaning up trash in Central Park. I can bring a sort of majesty to my characters. You can put them in a portrait format. Because my subjects are imaginary people, you are allowed to disassemble chronology and linearity. You can put Dutch Golden Age Franz Hals and Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline in the same painting. All of it becomes an interchangeable language. I do find an empathetic connection to my figures. I feel that painting them is my mission in life.
Walking through “People Are Strange” earlier and taking in some of the enormous paintings you’ve created over the past year (especially the 255-inch diptych Transformation), you commented that people might be surprised to learn that your studios in Gramercy Park and East Hampton are actually quite small. At this point in your career, why don’t you upgrade to a larger setup?
I like a small studio space so that I’m surrounded by my paintings: one here, one there, one right behind me. While that painting is drying, I can work on this painting a little bit, and I can see from the corner of my eye, something over there on that one. But if they were 300 meters apart or I had a basketball-court-size studio, and they were all lined up as if they were going off to a gallery, it just wouldn’t feel like I’m making paintings for the sake of the paintings themselves. I painted the big, red double-wide composition, Double Heads on Red, 2014, [currently on view] at the Broad, in a one-car garage. When the work is right up close to me—literally 2 feet away—there’s a tactile aspect to it, and a friendship between me and the artwork itself.
Do you still feel closeness to your works after they leave the studio? What about when they live in other people’s homes and inhabit other people’s lives, or reside in far-off museums?
I feel that art has been my only friend. And in that real belief, I want them to be loyal to me. So, I try to make sure that whatever I’m doing with a painting, that painting will stay alive forever. It will retain its inner life; then, when my viewers look at the work, they’ll see that vibrancy. My hope is that by doing this, the paintings will remain loyal to me. It’s funny, it just came to me now. I realize that it’s probably the most important thing to me, to know that when I let the paintings go off into the world, they’re like my children; they’re loyal to me, in the sense that they’ll stay aligned and live the way I left them. I want my paintings to remember me.
When you walk into “People Are Strange,” it’s hard not to wonder: what’s next for this artist? What does George Condo want to achieve that he hasn’t yet? What’s left?
When I was a kid, I always made art, starting from when I was around 4 years old. My very protective mother wouldn’t let me play sports: “No, he’s going to hurt his arm. He’s going to hurt his hand.” But I had painting lessons at the YMCA. I showed my kids, who grew up on the Upper East Side, “here’s the little house and that little back window, where I made drawings when I was a teenager that are now going on view at the Morgan Library.” That show opens next week, on February 24.
To answer your question: recently, I was looking at two drawings in that exhibition that I did when I was still living at my parents’ house, with aspirations and dreams. I asked myself, Did I actually get better than I was at age 10 or 12, before I ever heard of the art world? I looked at these drawings and thought, What was it like? How beautiful was it before you knew there was such a thing as the art world and all you really cared about was the art itself? Now I’ve known about the art world for 40 years. But the closest I’ve come to this again was during the pandemic and the big lockdown. I had to go outside the city, and it was just me in the Hamptons. Even my kids couldn’t come because they were afraid to get me sick. I felt like being a kid, back home again when nobody could see what I was doing. None of the art people could visit. It was just private and secretive. I couldn’t go anywhere. I could just work.
Your paintings personify an art historical mad genius. Do you work frenetically?
Let’s put it this way. I paint whenever I want. If I get up at 2 o’clock in the morning and I feel there’s one thing bothering me about this painting, I go into the little room where I paint at home and I’ll work on it. Then, I go back to sleep. When I get up in the morning. I have this or that in the studio with everybody working on books and on projects. But then I say, “OK, I have to get working on these paintings.”
Do you consider a narrative arc or structure for your subjects as you’re painting them? Or do they exist only the moment you capture them?
I always think of these paintings like literature, where characters in books have a life. I ask myself, What happened before the character was caught on the canvas? What happens after this moment? Where does he go? I think about Shakespearean characters, or Balzac’s characters, some of them are beautiful and devilish and deceitful—and at times, trustworthy. The vulnerability of people has to do with the world we live in today, the pressure that we live under. Depending on what angle you are getting pressure from, that makes you who you are.
I’ve always wanted to ask this: you skirt the line of beauty and ugly in such a deliberate, distinctive way. What’s the connection between freakish and alluring?
Think about Kant’s treatise on aesthetics: beauty is that which pleases without interest. It’s such an interesting statement. But what is ugly? Ugly can sometimes serve a purpose for humanity that betters it. Behind the mask of beauty is often very ugly, and behind the mask of ugly is often very beautiful and humble and soulful. If I sat there and said, “I’m going to make the most beautiful painting I’ve ever painted in my life,” it’s going to be horrible. I did a lecture at the Frick in 2019 and somebody asked me: “How do you make a distinction between what’s a good painting or a bad painting.” For me, it’s like the desert question: If you had to take one painting with you to a desert island, which one would it be? But it’s not a question of what you can live with. When it comes to art: it’s what can you die with? What’s the last thing you want to see before you go?