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