George Condo is a mashup king when it comes to art compositions. If the 60-year-old savant hadn’t pegged a label for his works, untrained eyes would be left wondering what the hell they’re looking at. In fact, “hell” is a perfect word to describe the pieces that Condo churns out. The artist is widely known for creating portraits that depict macabre cartoons, demons, monsters and chinchilla-like figures that look frighteningly real. He calls it “artificial realism” or “the realistic representation of that which is artificial,” while seamlessly blending contemporary pop visuals with the aesthetic of traditional European Old Master painting.
It’s safe to say that Condo is the epitome of cool. He jammed with Jean-Michel Basquiat, worked as an assistant in Andy Warhol’s factory, became best buds with Keith Haring, and even worked on collaborative projects with acclaimed novelist slash poet, Jack Kerouac. Not to mention, if you’re a die-hard fan of Kanye West, you’ve also probably come across Condo’s work. The luminary created five unique album covers for ‘Ye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (depicted in the collage below) alongside a custom-made Birkin bag for Kim Kardashian West which was conceptualized by Kanye. Additionally, he was commissioned by Supreme to create limited edition skate decks for their artist series. From the Beat Generation to mainstream culture, Condo continues to inject his artistic influence wherever he deems fit.
What’s not cool? Today’s political climate. A large portion of Condo’s new exhibit at the Skarstedt Gallery in New York called “New Works” that touches upon the tense goings-on ever since last November’s presidential election. In one section, the artist created a series of politically-charged oil paintings which depict cluttered images; these figures represent stressed out Americans as well as known political figures.
For example, his Trial piece centers upon Donald Trump’s first national security adviser Michael Flynn. It shows an angry crowd of people who Flynn doesn’t know. Also the idea of Flynn getting arrested “with having no idea of what he was getting arrested for by people he doesn’t know,” Condo told us. Having added that his Infiltration piece was “influenced by trolls, bots, social media and what’s influenced the recent election. You get this whole mess of messages from every sort of outlet. Each painting has that sort of fleeting feeling because things change so rapidly in today’s political environment.”
With all of the negativity in the world out there, art has this opportunity to be very truthful.
On another note, Condo also created another series of paintings that are not at all Condo-like. His Triple Head Composition (above) features clean and colorful Mondrian-esque boxes with scrawled images of women placed on top of them—the pieces were inspired by his daughters participating in the Women’s March in Washington D.C. this past January. The paintings were inspired by one sculpture called Origin which he created in 2014. Regarding sculptures, Condo created seven variants in bronze and wood. The artist rigorously cut, screwed and hinged together all of the materials to produce this striking installment. In the same vein as his paintings, the sculptures also touch upon today’s partisan politics and lies with Condo championing the idea that “sculptures don’t lie. You interpret them any way you want to. What you see [artwork] is there.”
We sat down with George Condo at his opening reception for “New Works” this past Thursday. The showcase marks the first time that Condo’s paintings and sculptures have been shown together. He weighed in on his immense art portfolio, fashion, collaborations, Kanye West, as well as advice for young artists. Check out our discussion below and be sure to drop by Skarstedt gallery to see the exhibit yourself which is on display up until June 24.
You coined the term “Artificial Realism” in the ‘80s to describe the work you put out. Has its meaning changed over time?
That’s the kind of world we live in today, that everything is this “Artificial Realism.” I mean you’re watching a real TV, listening, and then they call it fake news. It’s unbelievable. It used to be just an art concept and now it’s become a political concept. It’s something that I unleashed into the arts, but it sort of morphed into everyday life. I guess, as a painter, I’m just on to other things now. But, I’m shocked to see how much that’s caught on.
You work with a wide array of mediums. From creating oil paintings to building sculptures, which one is the most challenging? What motivates you the most?
Just being free to express myself under any situation. It’s a release of being tied up to my thoughts, anxiety and all of that. I think people like to workout to take their mind off of what’s going on in the world. It’s a place I retreat to. It keeps me living.
Do you ever miss being in a band? What was it like jamming with Basquiat?
It was so thrilling. We were up in Boston and were all painters in the band, but we all knew that the real place to make it into an artist is New York. We had a gig in New York and opened up for a band called the Girls. Jean-Michel’s band Gray opened for us (Condo’s band Hi Sheriffs of Blue) and as Jean was fixing things around on the stage, I talked to him. We hit it off and he showed me around New York and he was the only guy I knew in the city. For like two years. So, when we came back down to play another gig then we just decided to move here.
It was really an exciting time. Formulative years, you know when you’re 23/24 you already got to be tough, you already got to make it by then. There’s no time to lose. By the time you were 26 by then, if you haven’t had major exhibitions, you’re out of the door. Very high-pressure. It really was, It wasn’t like today.
You worked with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac from the Beat generation to Kanye West, and Kim Kardashian who are conquering mainstream. What is it like working with these icons?
If they have similar trains of thought, like Kanye’s train of thought is very similar to someone like William Burroughs or Ginsberg, he’s got a very poetic mind. He demands perfection from his crew and I’m very much into this perfectionist thing. So, we hit it off really well. We both complained about everyone and how we were the only ones that know what we’re doing in our own sphere of whatever it is that we’re working on. It was really easy to work with a guy like that.
Burroughs was amazing because he would just come up with these incredible topics of conversation and discussion and then you can go to work with him together on paintings. For Kanye, he would come over to the studio and just have the beginning of a piece ready, start rapping out lyrics and we would talk about the words. He would talk about the painting and I would crack up over one or another idea that he had and then that would make it more concrete in his mind. If that was good or if that was funny… the same thing for me as a painter, I would say that I love that section or say that was the worst part.
It only took you 15 minutes to create Kim’s Birkin bag masterpiece yet you created five covers for Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
It was a pretty long process, starting with Kanye creating his lyrics and with me creating my paintings. We would constantly go back and forth to decide on which one to use. It’s funny because we decided on the very first painting that I ever made and then he wanted to release one for “Power” so I reference some sort Macbeth-like tragedy where the gruesome ending is in the first act. For Kim’s bag, it was just an idea that I had on the day before Christmas. I just painted off this one painting, stuck it in a box, and mailed it off to LA.
How many mock-ups did you burn through before deciding on those covers?
I did a lot of drawings and sketches. I didn’t really work from the lyrics, it was just more or fewer visuals that would parallel the idea of the album. “Dark Twisted Fantasy” wasn’t really the title the whole time, but it was what he had in mind.
What do you think of Kanye, currently?
He’s great, you know. I saw his concert in Madison Square Garden and it was amazing. Absolutely fantastic.
With all this talk of fashion and art, what are your thoughts on high-end brands collaborating with artists today?
I think it’s a good idea because it injects a sort of awareness of the fact that art and fashion can go together, but it also tends to be an experimental thing that doesn’t always work. It works if you only do one at a time. It was really fun to do the project with Jessica Chastain for W Magazine where I just wanted to create a painting, place it over the dress, put her in the dress, and tell her to move two inches. So, it looked as if the painting has just shifted over and she was so fantastic to work with. I love that session that we worked on together. She’s a great muse.
Those dresses were just one-offs. If a fashion designer were to send me a whole bunch of clothes to my studio and let me paint whatever I want on all of them then that would probably work. However, when it comes to print then you just have to be like Oscar De La Renta and just pick out the right flower to have repeated over and over again and just make a whole line out of just that one motif. That’s something that’s interesting to me.
You did that with Supreme in 2010. How was that experience?
Yeah! That was just a series of three images that was done and they wanted to make skateboards out of, they were working with different artists to make skateboards which were a cool idea. That worked out pretty well.
What’s your general take on the art world today? Where is it headed?
I think it’s a hopeful time. With all of the negativity in the world out there, art has this opportunity to be very truthful. Any artist will go out and do what they can to say “at least we tell the truth. What we say is what we mean and what we show is what it is.” There’s nothing behind it or nothing constructed about it other than just the process of making it. It’s a very hopeful time for art. The pressure forces good art to take place. Pressure is sort of this key to making good art. Without pressure, art is just on holiday. There’s no reason to stand there and fight.
What advice would you give to young artists?
The best advice to a young artist is to try to find a way into their culture. A pinhole is enough space. If you can get through that pinhole, you can open up a very large territory of new and undiscovered aesthetic or de-aestheticized universe. You always find a big universe through a small little aperture. It doesn’t really come in this giant form, it comes in a tiny space. You can barely see the space, but if you get through it, it opens up the world.
Upper East Side, 20 E. 79th St.
New York, NY 10075