Purple Magazine
— S/S 2015 issue 23

George Condo

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interview and photography by OLIVIER ZAHM

All artworks copyright George Condo, courtesy of Skarstedt, New York

 

I came across George Condo’s oddly surreal paintings in the late ’80s, when I was writing about art for magazines like Artforum and hadn’t yet started Purple. What he calls here his “reconstructive paintings” and once described as “artificial realism” seemed to combine Picasso and Disney World, graffiti art, modern master paintings, and Pop Art. He spent many years living and painting in hotels, including in Paris, where he enjoyed the expansive life of an artist, as did his friends Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

He invited me to his uptown studio in New York to show me the very first stage of a new painting while he was working on the collages for his Purple Book.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you meet the painter and poet Brion Gysin?
GEORGE CONDO — With Keith Haring. I was living in the seventh arrondissement in Paris. Keith came over to my studio on Rue de Condé, and we did some work together. He was friends with Brion, whom I’d never met. Brion went to the hospital, and Keith and I did a painting all night, drinking bottles of ’75 Mouton Rothschild. I remember we had a case, and we drank a lot of bottles of this wine and did a collaboration painting together. A big canvas to save Brion’s life. We thought if we painted and painted and painted, we would save his life. The next day, Keith said he called the hospital and was told Brion was fine. And we felt okay, we had saved his life. Then Keith told him, “You have to meet George. He helped to save your life.” And so we went over to meet him, and I became good friends with Brion. After that, I wrote the introduction to the catalog of his last exhibition. We had great talks, and William Burroughs read my introduction to Brion and liked it a lot. He said he wanted to meet me. So that’s how I met Burroughs.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So Brion Gysin was already old?
GEORGE CONDO — He was already old. He was in his 70s, on an oxygen tank and living on the Rue Saint-Martin in front of the Pompidou. It was terrible for him because they never put his work in the museum, but he had to watch the whole thing get built.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because he wasn’t very famous at the time. But now he’s really part of art history.
GEORGE CONDO — He was famous for the work in Morocco. Hanging out with Paul Bowles and with the writers. He was a writer, but he thought of himself more as a painter.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Painting with writing.
GEORGE CONDO— Painting with calligraphy, yeah.
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OLIVIER ZAHM — And he did the Dream Machine also.
GEORGE CONDO — Yeah. I never got to sit in the Dream Machine. I wonder if it works! I’ve seen it, but I never got to stare into it and see if it actually works.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So that was his last show?
GEORGE CONDO — The last exhibition he ever did. Then he got the Légion d’Honneur. It was so sad because he was getting the Légion d’Honneur, but had no way to get there. I organized an American-style Cadillac limousine for him, which picked him up with his oxygen tanks. This was probably 1987 or something. We did the painting in ’85.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Where is this painting now?
GEORGE CONDO — I have it. I can show you a picture of it. I kept it because, in a way, there was no reason not to. We did two. We said we had to let Tony Shafrazi sell one, but the other we’d keep together. And then of course Keith died, and I kept it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Brion Gysin was one of the cult artists who were able to connect music, writing, poetry, and painting.
GEORGE CONDO — Yeah, he was really into jajouka music. And he was good friends with a guy named Steve Lacy, who was a saxophone player. Brion was really cool. Mostly he was amazing at conversation. The art of the spoken word. In Morocco, a lot of the stories written by people like Mohamed Mrabet were originally just spoken stories. If you talked with Brion and listened to things he had to say, you’d wish you could record everything. It was just so beautiful and elegant, the way he spoke. He had the most incredible language, and so it was hard for him to really match that in some material form. In a strange way, he always had trouble with people accepting him as a painter, and it started with the problem of André Breton in the ’30s. In 1939, Brion was telling me, they did the big Surrealism show, and he was in that show and all the work was on the wall.

OLIVIER ZAHM — He was part of it?
GEORGE CONDO — And then André Breton walked through the whole show, and he said, “What’s this? Take it down.” And he took it down.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The rejection started early!
GEORGE CONDO — Then, another time he told me that Alexander Lolas, the big dealer for Magritte and the Surrealists, came to Brion’s studio in the ’50s, and he wanted to buy everything. Brion said, “Well, you can buy one or two things but not everything.” So Lolas said “Okay, then I don’t want anything.” He never tried to buy anything again. That was the second major rejection. And the third one was in the early ’70s. There was one French curator who really liked his work and was supposed to go to the Centre Pompidou when it was built. He ended up not getting the job, and the guy that did get it hated Brion’s work. So he was constantly in this horrible kind of predicament. He was always somehow in the right place at the wrong time.
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OLIVIER ZAHM — So his real art was conversation.
GEORGE CONDO — He really was so brilliant at talking and could tell you stories or explain ideas. His range of information was encyclopedic. Anything you could talk about — whether it was Russian folk art or African sculptures or any period you want of Rembrandt or Picasso — he was completely knowledgeable about it. He also knew what the critical responses were to everything, from everyone and everywhere. He could also recite a lot of poetry. If you talked about Verlaine or Baudelaire, he could recite the whole thing from memory. But then, somehow, all that information translated into art. He was very inspired by Henri Michaux. I think that was the school of visual language that he was in. And Henri Michaux, I love his work, but not that many people really know it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — No, not so much.
GEORGE CONDO — I think it was because he was doing all those mescaline drawings in the late-’50s. He took it to another dimension somehow.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You mentioned you also met William Burroughs?
GEORGE CONDO — Yeah, with Brion in Paris.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Burroughs is such a New York character.
GEORGE CONDO — Yes, but he was living in Kansas at the end of his life. He had this little house there because he needed to get away from everybody. From drugs and also from the fans. He was like a cult of William S. Burroughs, so people would show up and leave needles on his doorstep. I think they still come by his gravestone, like Jim Morrison in Paris, and leave little things there. I think for William, they leave needles and joints and things like that on his grave.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What did you learn from Burroughs?
GEORGE CONDO — Sometimes what I learn is something I’m already doing but don’t know how to put into some sort of analytical context, let’s say. I had been involved since the ’80s with this idea of the inter-relationship of different languages in paintings and just cutting up styles. So, for example, one painting could include the style of this person, but the content was different than what that style would normally be applied to. If I was doing a still life, it might look like five different people did it, even though it could only be by me because they wouldn’t do it to begin with. So I think William, when he did the cut-ups in his writing, when he started to rearrange the sentences in the paragraphs so he would write a paragraph and then just cut the words out and put them in different places, in a way, I kind of did that with art history. So I thought about it from that perspective.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You can do that kind of thing now with an iPhone because it suggests words when you write. You can put one and then it suggests another.
GEORGE CONDO — And then you can just keep going on forever with the words the phone suggests. That’s good — I wonder what they would read like. You can have an endless number of just unrelated words that somehow are related.

OLIVIER ZAHM — No, they are related. If I write a text message, it proposes: “yes,” “no,” “talk later,” “the best of luck,” “with friends…”
GEORGE CONDO — It’s incredible. You just have these abstractions based on what you have in mind.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes! All these automatic processes are interesting. How does such provision or juxtaposition arrive in your painting?
GEORGE CONDO — I think it’s coming naturally, from memory. When I get on to the painting, it’s just a white canvas and I start to remember how something looks in my mind and try to get it on a painting.

OLIVIER ZAHM — After it’s digested.
GEORGE CONDO — On a painting, what’s a pictoral language? Take the difference between writing a novel and writing a text to somebody, let’s say. Or to scratching notes. Sometimes you want to show the notes; sometimes you really write a narrative, but the narrative is totally subjective to the viewer. There’s no real narrative. They have to remember in their mind where they might have seen something like that. Maybe it will be a memory of their grandmother, even though it’s some old lady screaming, and then next to her a nude with a butler serving her a drink. And they start to think of all these collages of memories of either a television show or a movie or something that happened in their real life. That’s why, in a way, for this Purple Book, some of the ideas that I’m doing now are memory-driven. They’re kind of things that you remember, but they’re disconnected from…
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OLIVIER ZAHM — The source.
GEORGE CONDO — Yeah. They’re reconnected once you put them back together. I was thinking about it like a lot of the art was preoccupied with deconstructivism. Remember this whole idea that Picasso and all the Modernist painters were about deconstruction, and they were deconstructing the figure and deconstructing everything? I’m now on a path of reconstruction. The idea for what I’m doing is reconstructive painting, as in something goes off into the horizon, getting smaller and smaller, and you only have your memory of what it was in front of you. As that comes forward, it’s a construction of your memory.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So it’s a much more complex and historical process, though still subjective, than people may have thought. Because people tend to simply see the grotesque or comic in your work.
GEORGE CONDO — Yeah, it’s tricky. In a lot of ways what people call grotesque is in fact reality. We did some collage work of people on the streets by Diane Arbus. So, Simon Baker, the photography curator at the Tate, brought up Diane Arbus’s photos. He said, “If you look at her photos, the people she likes to shoot are kind of the same people you like to paint.” So then I took some Diane Arbus photos, and I cut them in half, and on one half was Arbus and the other half my painting. It’s crazy. They look like the same picture.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is this the first time you used photography?
GEORGE CONDO — Yeah, it was interesting to see that the characters from Arbus were not that different from the characters in the paintings. That’s what I was saying about the grotesque.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The grotesque is everywhere.
GEORGE CONDO — And the thing is, most of the photographers were capturing this in their work during the late ’50s and ’60s, and painters … in a way even Picasso was very grotesque. But by the time someone like Andy Warhol came out, it was only glamour and beauty. With artists, it’s nice to juxtapose beauty and horror and to really combine these two things in a single painting. It’s hard to define the grotesque because if it’s done beautifully, you have the beautiful image of something grotesque, but at the end of the day, I think that I was fascinated by the average. They’re not that far away from reality is what it comes down to. Normal kinds of people, but then really abstracted somehow.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you meet Andy Warhol? You were at the Factory, right?
GEORGE CONDO — I got into New York in late 1979. I think I came right after Christmas, from Boston. When I came down, I realized I had to find work. And I couldn’t find anything. So a friend of mine said to go to this temp agency. They give you a job for two weeks, then you don’t have to work there anymore. Then you can get another job for three days, and you don’t have to work there anymore. That was perfect for me; I didn’t want a real job. I just wanted to get money for art materials and to somehow pay rent. So one of the jobs was at a gallery that didn’t show any important artists at all. But they showed Warhol’s printer, Rupert Smith. He was the master printer, one of the real important guys working for Andy Warhol, and of course he made his own art, and nobody important was showing him. So he convinced Andy Warhol to have a show together with him in Florida in some shitty gallery that nobody had heard of. So I got the job to put slides together for the transparencies, and they called me from the Factory, saying they needed a press release. So I wrote one, and the guy shows it to Warhol, and Andy read it and said, “Hey, I really like this. I would like to get who wrote this to come work here and everyday just write about what’s going on.” So I went there and after three days started working on the printing. So that was right at the beginning of ’81.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Right at the beginning of the ’80s, an amazing period.
GEORGE CONDO — Yeah, after one year, I got there, and he was doing the Myth Series with Superman and Dracula and Mickey Mouse and all that stuff, so I got to work on those pieces. I ended up being there for nine months, and I only met Andy once. He never came to where we were printing his stuff because the smell of the ink was so strong; he didn’t want to come near it. So we would bring the things to show him. Twice I got to go actually. Once, I just stood outside when they showed him the stuff, and another time I went alone and brought him the things and put them in front of him, but I was so young. I was working at Keith Haring’s studio in New York, and Keith said, “Andy Warhol bought four of your paintings, and he wants to come meet you.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — He bought four of your paintings?
GEORGE CONDO — Yeah. So I said yes, but I didn’t want to tell him that I was working for him, you know? I said, do you think he’s going to recognize me? And Keith was like, “No, he’s not going to know.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was he an influence of some sort for you?
GEORGE CONDO — Yeah, he was definitely a huge influence on me. Not so much the art but the personal influence. When I met him at Keith’s, I was working on a painting called Dancing to Miles, which is the big, expanding canvas, and he took a lot of photographs of me in the studio.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You were sharing a studio with Keith Haring?
GEORGE CONDO — Well, you know, Keith was working at my place in Paris, and when I called him and said, “Listen, I’m coming to New York, and I need a place to paint,” he said I could come to his studio and use one of his big canvases. I have a photograph that Andy took of me at Keith’s studio. Anyway, after that I went to dinner with Andy, like, five times, and he came to my opening at Barbara Gladstone.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did Andy Warhol like your work?
GEORGE CONDO — He was super-supportive. He bought quite a few things. You know, everybody always says that Andy always said, “Oh that’s great, oh that’s great.” I wasn’t sure how much he really loved it or if he was just buying it. But the most touching thing really was that a guy came to me and said, “You know what, Andy really loved your work and had one next to his bed when he died.” So in his bedroom when he died in the hospital, when they came to take everything out, he only had, like, one painting by a contemporary artist in his room, and it was mine: a little painting about 8×10 inches.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s really touching.
GEORGE CONDO — It was really touching because I thought, god,
he really did like my work. I thought he did because he liked calling me to come to dinner, and we used to talk a lot. He was so nice, and he was extremely knowledgeable about what was going on in the museums, and he really liked what I was doing. And he said he could never do that because he got locked into being Andy Warhol. And I thought that was interesting. I said, “Why would you want to be anything else? You know, it would be great if everyone was that lucky.”

Large Head on Lilac and Silver Field, 2014, acrylic, charcoal, and pastel on canvas Large Head on Lilac and Silver Field, 2014, acrylic, charcoal, and pastel on canvas

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did he give you some advice?
GEORGE CONDO — No, he wasn’t strategic. He always felt like he was the guy who was mistreated. Roy Lichtenstein was more expensive than him, and I remember him saying, “Roy’s much more expensive than I am,” and this kind of stuff. Like he was always complaining about those kinds of things, saying, “Young artists sell for more than I do.” He would call up the galleries and ask how much different works were. And he would compare them to his own.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Interesting. Which happens for you today, too — I am sure there are younger artists who are more expensive than you.
GEORGE CONDO — Oh yeah, definitely. You know, it happens all the time. I don’t mind if they cost more than me. I hope eventually my prices will go up, you know what I mean? I hope someday they get better.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You also met Jean-Michel Basquiat.
GEORGE CONDO — Yeah, I met him through music. Well, what happened was, when I came from Boston, we were in a band, a punk band, and it was kind of an art punk band. At that time, music changed. All the artists became inspired by punk, the graphics that were used by the Sex Pistols in their original albums. All the graphics involved with the punk movement were so cool. And people were looking more like human artworks with blue hair and all this kind of thing. So I think that in the art schools, the kids started getting really into punk. It was more like ’79 when I finally met these guys in Boston, when I was working with a silkscreen, and they asked me if I could play bass or if I knew how to play an instrument, and I said, “Yeah, but I’m a classical musician.” They said, “Well, if you’re a classical musician, this is going to be really easy. This is just boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, one note and then another note. You can pick it up immediately. We need a bass player.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — You had a musical education?
GEORGE CONDO — Yeah, I had a musical education at the same time I did painting when I was a kid. I was taking classical guitar lessons, so I was very interested in classical music. When I went to college, I did music theory and art history.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Like Manuel de Falla?
GEORGE CONDO — Yeah, Manuel de Falla and all the flamenco guys, but also Segovia, and then I later got into different players, like Hopkinson Smith is my favorite lute player. So I learned all these classical pieces, and I knew how to play and read music. I was playing violin partitas from Bach on the guitar. While waiting for the paint to dry, I’d be doing a lot of that. So these guys asked me if I could play. I auditioned for the band and got the job as the bass player. We went to New York to play their first gig there in 1980, I think, or ’79. At this one club our band was playing together with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s band, so it was a double bill. He was Gray, and we were The Girls. That was the name of the band: The Girls. It was this really comical, hysterical, electronic punk. Really crazy art punk. We played with Gray. They were a bit serious.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Trying to be edgy or arty.
GEORGE CONDO — Ours was art music, but it was like John Cage and Stockhausen combined with the Ramones or something. So it was really wild. We had a synthesizer player, and sometimes I was playing electric violin. A lot of it was extremely experimental, let’s call it. With crazy vocals. The drummer that looked like Basquiat, he was a really good writer. His lines were amazing.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I guess The Girls was better than Gray because Gray wasn’t so good, to be honest.
GEORGE CONDO — They were not so great. They were just making sounds. They opened for us. We were the main act. And so at that point, I met Basquiat. He said “Hi,” and I said, “I’m from Boston. I don’t know anything about New York.” So he took me to the Mudd Club after the show, and I loved hanging around in that place, and then we played the second night. I think we had two nights, Friday and Saturday.

OLIVIER ZAHM — He was already sort of famous, no?
GEORGE CONDO — He was just doing the graffiti. His first show was coming up soon at the Times Square at PS1. He hadn’t done it yet. He was still doing the wall graffiti. And he was moving into painting at that point. And I told him, “We are painters, we’re artists, but we just do music for fun, and we don’t intend to try to get record contracts and all that kind of shit,” but the other guys did. That was the problem. So when me and the guitar player realized they wanted to be famous, they wanted to have a record contract with some big company, that’s when I got scared. I didn’t want that, you know? So then I moved to New York, and I knew Jean-Michel.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You were friends with him?
GEORGE CONDO — I became friends with him. But then I didn’t see him for about a year. Then I had this girlfriend who was an actress in some Warhol movies. She was like 10 or 15 years older than me. She was out in Los Angeles, and she said “You should get out of there. You should come here!” So I went to LA, and there I saw Basquiat was living at Larry Gagosian’s house, so I saw him every day at that point.
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OLIVIER ZAHM — Trying to escape the New York craziness.
GEORGE CONDO — Yeah. And then later I came back to New York and he did, too, and I didn’t see him. Then I saw him in Paris all the time.

OLIVIER ZAHM — He was so confident about his paintings and so focused. Did that impress you?
GEORGE CONDO — He had an incredible amount of energy.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you jealous of his ease?
GEORGE CONDO — No, because you know what, me and Jean-Michel and Keith were all basically the same age. I was older than Keith by one year, and Keith was older than Jean-Michel by like a year, so all of us were like 26, 27, 28; or 25, 26, 27.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And just emerging.
GEORGE CONDO — They were closer in style because Keith was doing the crowns and the baby, and Jean-Michel did the crown, but I was doing the Old Master paintings. And so I had no competition, but everybody was ripping off Jean-Michel, and everybody was ripping off Keith, and Keith was ripping off graffiti, and I was not really interested in that. If anything, the closest connection I had was the graffiti writers putting their names everywhere, and then I did the paintings of my name. So that was like Old Master graffiti. Paintings that just said Condo.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you have the feeling that you were all sharing something?
GEORGE CONDO — Everybody was hanging around together. We were like best friends. That was when I was living at the Hotel Vendôme in Paris. It’s not there anymore. When I first moved to Paris in ’84, I was at the Hotel Lotti on Rue de Castiglione. The reason I stayed there is because they let me paint. They had no problem with painters in the hotel. Every time I came back, the shades were down, and I said to the lady, “Why do you always put down the shades; it’s so dark.” She said, “Oh, we don’t want the soleil to get on your tableaux, monsieur.” [Laughs] Only in Paris. In New York they would take everything and throw it out and look for stains on the floor. In Paris, they were just like, we don’t want the sun to get on the paintings! I lived there for six months, and then where the Costes is now, at the Hotel Vendôme. It was rundown and terrible, and I got a double suite. All the artists would come. That was what was so great: I set up camp. I was the concierge for all the artists coming to Paris. Keith was living above me. I had a lot of fun working with him in Paris. We were taking over the hotel and painting there and making artwork. Jean-Michel was always staying at the Lenox in Paris.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I didn’t know you were so close to Keith Haring.
GEORGE CONDO — Yeah, we were really like the best of friends and I introduced him to all the bad things. I made him take the Concorde to Paris. I said, “Stop taking the regular plane, fuck that shit. Take the Concorde man, that’s what I do. So then you get there in three and a half hours, you don’t have to think about it. You can smoke on the plane.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s how you spent your money.
GEORGE CONDO — Yeah, but it was only because we were young artists. You get money for your paintings, and you have no responsibility. So you just look at it like, well, the only reason to have money is to spend it! There’s nothing else you can do with it. It has no value if you save it. It’s only worth something when you spend it. And so, like it was really fun to be in Paris. For 10 years, I was there off and on, between New York and Paris.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you taking drugs?
GEORGE CONDO — I mean, probably at that period of time, but not really out of control. Jean-Michel was super out of control with drugs. We had a lot of fun, though. One time Jean-Michel and I were headed to the Bains Douches to have dinner, and he had a few stink bombs in his pocket. They were so strong. He was like, “Let’s put one in the Bains Douches.” I said, “We’re never going to be allowed to go back if we do this inside the Bains Douches.” So we go there, and Jean-Michel takes an enormous amount of heroin, and we get into the Bains Douches and by then he is kind of sleeping on his table. I said, “Do you want to eat something?” So we’re there at the table like that, and he gets something to eat, I get something to eat, and I’m sort of having dinner by myself because he’s just completely out of it. I’m having some wine and eating a steak, and he just has his plate there, and he’s like, “Oh, okay, I have food.” And then finally, he says, “It’s time for the thing.” I said, “Wait until more people come,” and we’re waiting because we were there early. So more people came and the whole first floor was full. He puts it under his shoe, and I go, “Let’s go.” He says to wait a little bit for the smell to start. I said, “We gotta get moving, man.” So the smell starts to come on, and you can already see the people next to us getting a little bit weird, people smelling around. And then it gets stronger and stronger, and I said, “Let’s go,” and I knew the whole entire place was going to be bombed, you know. As it grows it’s just worse and worse, so I go out onto the street, and I go, “Let’s go,” and he goes, “No, no, no.” We have to stand in front of the door and see the expression on people’s faces when they come running out. There were like 20, 30, 40 people coming out of the restaurant screaming, and the guy running after them trying to figure out who did this.
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OLIVIER ZAHM — Crazy. That’s a good story.
GEORGE CONDO — So, at a certain point, it was really fun to hang out with Jean-Michel.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In Paris, you also met Félix Guattari, a philosopher I like a lot and whom I used to be friends with.
GEORGE CONDO — Yeah, Félix also lived on the Rue de Condé. Félix was downstairs, and I was above him. So all night long, I’d be running around painting, and he would hear me painting. I would go downstairs sometimes for dinner and sit with him, and we would talk.

OLIVIER ZAHM — He was a brilliant mind.
GEORGE CONDO — He was amazing, so smart. All the work he did with Deleuze and the work he was doing at La Borde on schizophrenia. Félix pointed out something really interesting to me. He said, “You know, I want to write about you. I’m happy to write this introduction to your catalog, and I was trying to think of something about your work that looks a lot like this guy, a lot like that guy, but never really looks like anybody but you.” He said, “But that’s one thing. The really unique thing about your work is I think you did more portraits of people who don’t exist than any other painter.” It’s true. Because every painting you see by Picasso, it’s always Jacqueline or Maya, even if they’re really fucked up. “But yours,” he said, “they’re never real people.” He said he couldn’t think of another painter like that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You don’t sometimes have someone in mind when you start to paint?
GEORGE CONDO — Yeah, I think of the way people look, you know? And the way people are and the way people move. I can create a sort of ideal human this way. These are the people I want to bring into my world.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But sometimes you do an actual portrait, right?
GEORGE CONDO — I’ve done portraits of people. I did [Félix’s friend] Joséphine. I did Allen Ginsberg’s portrait. He wanted me to do his portrait for his last book. And when he was sick in the hospital, he wanted me to do all the portraits of him at Beth Israel. So I would go every day. It was really sad. And then he told me that, like all the great poets, I had to do his death mask. And I was like, “Shit.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — He was already sick?
GEORGE CONDO — Yeah, it was terrible, and I went to his bed before he was dying. He was at home when he died, and I remember sitting there with a canvas, and I couldn’t work with oil paint. I had to work with gouache. It was really so sad; I was crying and when the teardrops would go on the painting, I was like mixing the paint with them. So it was really like a lamentation painting. So I did it for him, but it was sad. But a lot of friends of mine died: William died, Jean-Michel died, Keith died. It was a drag. The best thing that happens when all your best friends die is that you have children. And then you have a whole new group of best friends: they’re little, and they don’t know about all this kind of tragedy, and it’s much nicer. You really have a new life with children.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Didn’t you also meet the protopunk painter Walter Dahn?
GEORGE CONDO — Yes. And Dokoupil. Before I got to Paris, I was in Cologne. The sensibility of Dokoupil was really funny. He was humorous.

Ballet in Silver, 2014, acrylic, metallic paint, charcoal and pastel on linen Ballet in Silver, 2014, acrylic, metallic paint, charcoal and pastel on linen

OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s a connection with you and them.
GEORGE CONDO — Definitely. I have this kind of German sensibility of accepting the much more outrageous aspects of human nature. That they were willing to accept this kind of outrageous exaggeration, and then in New York, everything seems so controlled. People in New York told me, like in 1983, that people in Germany would appreciate the crazy clowns in my work. I didn’t meet Walter in New York, but I met Dokoupil, and he said I should go to Cologne. So I went and arrived there on the day of the carnival. Even the driver of the train was wearing a mask. It was wild. I loved arriving in Germany like that. I went to the studio where Walter and Georg were working together, and I could see how they had no problem in Germany accepting art that was actually humorous. I realized there are two kinds of art. There’s the kind of art that you can see it’s funny that he painted that; and there’s what he painted is funny. So, Warhol, it’s funny that he would paint a Campbell’s Soup can, but the soup can is not really funny, but it’s really funny that he would do that, okay? And Richard Prince, the paintings are really funny, but it’s not funny at all that he would do it very cynically, like the joke paintings; they’re hysterical to read.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Which category do you fall in?
GEORGE CONDO — I think I fall into the category of “It’s funny that he would paint clowns. It’s funny that he would paint his name. It’s funny that he would do something like that.” Because if I show you those paintings, they look like they’re really about painting, but the subject of the painting is so ridiculous. So you would say it’s funny that a guy who would probably be able to paint everybody’s portrait never does. It’s funny that I would paint this kind of character, but I think it’s funny that Diane Arbus would take these pictures. They’re funny in some ways. In a way with her, it’s kind of both.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What did you like about the art scene in Cologne?
GEORGE CONDO — In Germany everybody was very friendly. So Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen and all those guys were coming to Cologne all the time. I sat and hung around at one table with Georg and Walter and some of their guys, and next to us at this place Hammerstein there was Kippenberger and Albert and Werner Büttner and all those guys from Hamburg. The artists were just always trying to do one more crazy thing than the next guy. Whereas in New York, it was really about the market, like breaking new ground in the market. First it was the art. But then it quickly turned to being about the market, and that happens over and over again in New York. Like it begins with the artist discovering some new territory and then it becomes, what’s the market result? And it’s a shame.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Exactly. Because the market gives the value.
GEORGE CONDO — Yeah, some validity or something.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The criterion.
GEORGE CONDO — It’s the ruling critical factor in New York, and it’s not like that in Europe. I think what you have to do as a painter is take your own work one step further. You can’t be concerned about the market.

END

[Table of contents]

S/S 2015 issue 23

Table of contents

purple EDITO

purple NEWS

purple BEST OF THE SEASON

purple INTERVIEW

purple FASHION WOMEN

purple FASHION MEN

purple DOCUMENT

purple BEAUTY

purple LOVE

purple TRAVEL

purple SEX

purple PHILOSOPHY

purple TRAVEL

purple NIGHT

purple STORY

purple VISUAL ESSAY

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