Famous for his distorted portraits, American painter George Condo is one of the most celebrated artists working today. His polyphonic style is instantly recognisable. References to Pablo Picasso, Pop Art, cartoons and the Old Masters often collide in a single painting. For Condo, this visual flux speaks to a fractured, postmodern experience of selfhood. ‘I describe what I do,’ he explained in 2014, ‘as psychological cubism. Picasso painted a violin from four different perspectives at one moment. I do the same with psychological states.’
Condo came of age in 1980s New York, at a time when figurative painting was making a comeback. His friends included Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring; he also spent a brief stint assisting in Andy Warhol’s Factory. Reworking greats such as Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Goya, his early paintings clashed Old Masterly styles with an American Pop attitude. He went on to splice and mutate a vast range of art history in his pictures. Classical nudes, surreal monsters, ballerinas and Batman meet on equal footing. Picasso has remained a kaleidoscopic touchstone. Imaginary characters, including the dastardly butler Rodrigo, recur across his oeuvre like actors in a play.
Condo is no stranger to controversy. The Daily Mail compared his portrait of Queen Elizabeth II to a ‘toothless cabbage patch doll.’ Walmart refused to stock Kanye West’s 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on account of Condo’s explicit cover design. While anarchic and playful, however, Condo’s art has a profound intellectual edge. He has collaborated with writers including William S. Burroughs and the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who was a close friend. The philosopher Félix Guattari, who lived below Condo’s Paris studio in the 1990s, has written extensively on his work.
Music, too, has played a key role in Condo’s practice. He majored in music theory at the University of Massachusetts before studying art history. To this day, he approaches his paintings like a classical composer or jazz virtuoso. Dense, active passages are counterpoised with more quiet, open sections. He mixes modes of painting and drawing, combining acrylic, charcoal and pastel. These intuitive, structural concerns have come to dominate his recent works. Many have the drama, scale and vibrant colour of the grandest Abstract Expressionist canvases. With decades of critical respect behind him, Condo’s late paintings are among the world’s most in-demand at auction.