George Condo sitting in front of Collusion, 2017 © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018. Photo Bill Gentle

George Condo — the latest hero of American painting

A guide to the artist who came of age in the East Village of the 1980s, and whose ability ‘to reference French 18th-century portraiture and a comic strip in the same painting’ has made his art more coveted than ever before

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  • George Condo’s career started out in Warhol's Factory

‘The history of American painting is one of the constant search for a hero,’ says Edmond Francey, International Director of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s London, ‘and the latest hero is surely George Condo.’

The son of a nurse and a physics teacher, Condo was born in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1957. He moved to New York in his early twenties and briefly took a job at Andy Warhol’s Factory studio, where he worked as a screenprinter on the Pop artist’s Myths  series. Within a few years, Warhol was purchasing art works by Condo, apparently never realising that the latter had once been his employee.

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  • He came of age alongside Basquiat and Haring

Condo came of age in New York in the early 1980s, as part of the East Village scene alongside his friends and fellow-painters, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. After many years in which painting was said to have been in crisis — and movements such as Minimalism and Conceptualism reigned — the medium was now making a comeback, thanks to painters on both sides of the Atlantic (not just New Yorkers, but also German Neo-Expressionists such as Georg Baselitz).

From his early days, Condo has been widely recognised as what Holland Cotter described in The New York Times  as the ‘missing link’ that connects the figurative tradition begun by Rembrandt, Picasso and Bacon to his contemporaries, John Currin, Glenn Brown, Dana Schutz and others.

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  • Condo made his name with bold reworkings of canvases by art’s Old Masters

The artist recalls his youthful ambition of wanting ‘to make an incredibly important statement right away’ and deciding ‘I like Old Master paintings, so I’m just going to paint them.’

He has paid homage to Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Goya — as well as certain Modern masters, such as Picasso. The Black Insect (1986), for example, takes its inspiration from the insects and free-floating forms in many of the paintings of Joan Miró.


George Condo (b. 1957), Figures in Motion, painted in 2013. Acrylic, charcoal and pastel on linen, in artists frame. Overall 59¼ x 63  in (151.1 x 160 cm). Sold for £1,868,750 on 6 March 2018 at Christie’s in London © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018

George Condo (b. 1957), Figures in Motion, painted in 2013. Acrylic, charcoal and pastel on linen, in artist's frame. Overall: 59¼ x 63 in (151.1 x 160 cm). Sold for £1,868,750 on 6 March 2018 at Christie’s in London © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018

Condo’s fascination with the greats of art history has persisted throughout his career, with Picasso remaining a key touchstone and influence. ‘I describe what I do,’ said the artist in 2014, ‘as psychological cubism. Picasso painted a violin from four different perspectives at one moment. I do the same with psychological states.’ 

The bodies in Figures in Motion  (2013), shown above, share a distinct sense of the caricatural and grotesque with Willem de Kooning’s Woman  series, while the dynamism of the work recalls the gestural abstraction of Jackson Pollock. 


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  • Condo is renowned for the variety of his paintings

In the words of the Hayward Gallery director, Ralph Rugoff, Condo’s paintings reveal a ‘remarkable breadth of artistic exploration’.

He is perhaps best-known, though, for his depictions of an eccentric array of invented characters, all seemingly in competition with each other as to which has the most startling physiognomy. These include The Insane Psychiatrist  and The Secretary, both from 2002.

‘George Condo is an artist who can reference French 18th-century portraiture and a comic strip in one and the same painting,’ says Francey. ‘He mixes high art and low art with aplomb — something that has helped him achieve a wide audience internationally. He’s sought after by buyers in America, Europe and increasingly Asia.’

A standout example of Condo’s mix of high and low art is Frankenstorm. The subject is inspired by Picasso’s Head of a Woman  from 1960, yet its ears are clearly modelled on those of Mickey Mouse. Condo, who likes to live life on the edge, painted Frankenstorm in 2012 during the height of Hurricane Sandy, without access to electricity and the outside world.

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  • Music has always played an important part in Condo’s life

Condo majored in music theory at the University of Massachusetts while also studying Art History. Before moving to New York, he was also briefly in a punk rock band called The Girls.

His abstraction frequently draws upon his relationship with music. ‘You are still a musician at heart,’ the theorist Félix Guattari told him. ‘With you the polyphony of lines, forms and colours belong to a temporal dimension rather than one of spatial coordination.’

Most recently, Condo was commissioned by Kanye West to design the album cover for the US rapper’s smash-hit 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. West reportedly asked for an image that would ‘get banned’ — and the artist duly delivered. His depiction of a naked West cavorting with a sphinx-like female saw the album denied a place on the shelves by several vendors, including Walmart.

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  • Condo outraged the British press with a portrait of the Queen

In 2006, Condo’s ostensibly unflattering portrait of Queen Elizabeth II went on display at Tate Modern, with the Daily Mail  newspaper accusing him of portraying the British head of state as a ‘toothless Cabbage Patch doll’.

The artist countered that the piece was created with the best of intentions — the monarch was smiling and ‘actually people like Cabbage Patch dolls’.

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  • In 2011, Condo received a mid-career retrospective at the New Museum in New York

Kanye West was among the high-profile guests at Mental States, an exhibition described as ‘sensational’ by Holland Cotter in The New York Times. The show subsequently travelled to three European venues, including the Hayward Gallery in London (where its curator, Ralph Rugoff, is the director).

George Condo (b. 1957), Red and Black Diagonal Portrait, executed in 2016. 83 ⅞ x 82 ⅛ in (213 x 208.5 cm). Estimate £1,500,000-2,500,000. This lot is offered in Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 4 October 2018 at Christie’s in London

George Condo (b. 1957), Red and Black Diagonal Portrait, executed in 2016. 83 ⅞ x 82 ⅛ in (213 x 208.5 cm). Estimate: £1,500,000-2,500,000. This lot is offered in Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 4 October 2018 at Christie’s in London

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  • The market for Condo’s work is as hot as it has ever been

Garnering an audience of celebrities and fellow contemporary artists, Condo's uniquely provocative works have invited frenzied interest among high-profile collectors and personalities. Over the past 15 months, the record price for the artist at auction has been broken three times, culminating in the sale at Christie’s New York in May 2018 of the neo-Cubist Nude and Forms  (2014) for $6,162,500 (more than $2 million above the previous record).

George Condo (b. 1957), Nude and Forms, painted in 2014. Oil on canvas. 80 x 72  in (203.2 x 183  cm). Sold for $6,162,500 on 17 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018

George Condo (b. 1957), Nude and Forms, painted in 2014. Oil on canvas. 80 x 72 in (203.2 x 183 cm). Sold for $6,162,500 on 17 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018

‘Condo has been performing incredibly well,’ says Ana Maria Celis, Vice President & Specialist of Post War and ContemporaryArt at Christie’s in New York. ‘I can’t think of any other artist at that level right now.’

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  • Condo’s works from the past decade are the most sought-after

Condo’s five most expensive works at auction were all made post-2010. ‘There’s little doubt he has got better with age’, says Francey. 'He has reached a new level of maturity and excellence, in terms of his ideas, his sense of composition and skills in execution.

‘Like a musician who improves the more he practises, it's the same with Condo. It's fair to speak of him now — recently turned 60 — as one of the truly exceptional artists of his generation.’

George Condo (b. 1957), The Manhattan Strip Club, 2010. Acrylic, charcoal and pastel on canvas. 75 x 95  in (190.5 x 241.3  cm). Sold for $1,314,500 on 14 November 2012 at Christie’s in New York © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018

George Condo (b. 1957), The Manhattan Strip Club, 2010. Acrylic, charcoal and pastel on canvas. 75 x 95 in (190.5 x 241.3 cm). Sold for $1,314,500 on 14 November 2012 at Christie’s in New York © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018

Among the first works heralding this change was 2010’s The Manhattan Strip Club  (above), in which Condo fuses his process and distinct cast of characters with a subject reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge  or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. It sold for $1.3 million at Christie’s New York in 2012 — then a record for the artist at auction, which indicates just how much his market has boomed in the six years since.

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  • Condo chooses to call his coveted, recent works ‘drawing paintings’

Combining his impressive draughtsmanship and virtuoso handling of paint, Condo talks of these works as ‘a reaction to the hierarchy that supposedly exists between drawing and painting. For me, there is no real difference between them, they can exist in one happy continuum.’

For his ‘drawing paintings’ Condo applies charcoal, pencil, pastel and acrylic paint to one and the same canvas, often twinning figurative and abstract elements in the process. A stunning, red example from 2009, Noble Woman  (above), comes to auction this autumn in London.