Every morning last summer, artist George Condo arrived at his New York studio, shot the same John Coltrane “Live in Sweden” CD he had worked on for years and began to exorcise the characters from his paints. In sync with the growing power of Coltrane’s saxophone, Condo threw paint on the canvas, then demolished and resuscitated the human forms that appeared in its wake.
“The web would get this figure fully formulated,” he explained on a video call. “(And then I) realize this figurine reminds me of someone who’s been here too long and has to go … I would smash the figurines with paint, and then sometimes I would come in and bring them back to life.”
George Condo painted a frenzied new group of works for an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in London. Credit: Courtesy of George Condo / Hauser & Wirth
Although Condo’s practice has long been linked to music, this intuitive way of working marked an important departure for the artist, who generally approaches his paintings more like drawings. Condo, now 63, has become renowned for its distinctive way of transforming the human form into something recognizable but utterly uncomfortable – a taxonomy ranging from cartoonish to grotesque.
But letting a mercurial force guide his hands, he began to rid his compositions of the recurring characters that have haunted them over the years.
“As Coltrane gets more manic and his solos get more complex, I find myself getting more complex, following the rhythmic aspects of the music and the paintings,” he explained. “So they improvise in that sense.”
Condo still paints to music, but these works were “improvised” in the way it responded to its rhythms. Credit: Courtesy of George Condo / Hauser & Wirth
The new paintings, which will be on display at the Hauser & Wirth Gallery in London from October 12, still carry the psychological intrigue that has been the backbone of the Condo practice. But leaning more towards abstraction, with shards of human figures emerging and crashing into each other, his latest work illustrates the chaos of fragmentation – a fitting theme for art made during a pandemic.
Condo has been prolific for the past 18 months, producing new work at its outpost in the Hamptons last year, as well as a series of more recent “Blues” paintings shown in a retrospective of his work at the Shanghai Long Museum this fall.
“I would crush the figures with paint and then sometimes I would go back inside and bring them back to life,” Condo said. Credit: Courtesy of George Condo / Hauser & Wirth
Dissecting his own work became one of Condo’s daily rituals – the one he performed after drawing early each morning and then feeding his cat, who is “a singer” and named after soprano Maria Callas.
He found his new approach to painting “very satisfying”, he said. “It was like that feeling when you’ve got something lying around your house for a really long time, and you want to throw it away, and you finally do it.”
“Eliminate” his style
More than four decades into his career, deconstructing his own work is the only next step that makes sense for Condo. Like the decaying matter that nurtures new growth, he hopes the decay of his paintings will uplift them.
“I think eliminating my own style and my own recognizable imagery is probably the most important thing I can do at this point in my life,” he said.
The Shanghai retrospective traces the evolution of this style, from portraits with bulging cheeks and lidded eyes; spectral shapes smeared in neutral tones; with frenzied and colorful facial features.
Condo’s other fall exhibition, at the Long Museum West Bund in Shanghai, is a massive retrospective of his works. Credit: Martin Parsekian // George Condo / Long Museum
“(My numbers) speak to our generation, they speak of the idea of multiple channels of communication, multiple personalities, multiple emotions, multiple (ways) to access information, all at the same time,” said Condo.
The artist has changed his approach to figuration over the years, but they’ve always been a “kind of human,” he said. Credit: Martin Parsekian / George Condo / Long Museum
“I explored the idea of a continuum of figures constantly
Condo combines artistic influences that include Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. Credit: Genevieve Hanson / George Condo / Long Museum
According to Condo, it was his painting style that had provoked, with West and the strange angel both vaguely smeared on the canvas like a young child would. “When you have a childish take on an adult subject, it infuriates (people),” Condo said. “We combined our forces to infuriate the establishment, essentially. And that’s what made it so fun.”
Back to the roots
Some of Condo’s new works respond to our collective experiences during the pandemic. Credit: Courtesy of George Condo / Hauser & Wirth
“There was that moment … where all of a sudden it felt like we were all out of our cages and we could come out and do whatever we wanted,” he said. . “The paintings were a celebration of this freedom.”
Elsewhere, his paintings “Blues”, of abstract figures in black and white on stripes of blue, express his discomfort at leaving a long period of isolation.
His recent “Blues” paintings wonder how to re-enter the world after prolonged isolation. Credit: Thomas Barratt / George Condo / Long Museum
“The ‘Blues’ paintings were this strange lament of – training for a year to live in solitude – to come back to the real world,” he said. “In my mind, I was trying to keep a body of work together, but I was like, ‘I don’t care about (doing a) body of work anymore; what matters to me is the pure expression, “” he continued. “And I care to empathize with those feelings that everyone maybe has. We all feel that pressure and we need to let go of that pressure.”
And if his new job doesn’t look much like “a George Condo,” he said, “that might be a good thing.” He, like us, is never quite sure what will come next.
“I’m just wondering what these (next paintings) are going to look like. I don’t know what they’re going to look like,” he said. “And so that’s what is exciting.”
Top image: George Condo in his New York studio.