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Interview with George Condo: Finding a theatre for the absurd

Velázquez meets Bugs Bunny in George Condo’s first major retrospective on the South Bank

Visitors to the first major George Condo retrospective at London’s Hayward Gallery (“George Condo: Mental States”, 18 October-8 January 2012) can decide for themselves if there is more to the veteran US artist’s work of the past three decades than comic absurdity and outrageousness. More than 50 bulbous “imaginary portraits” of society’s misfits, along with disquieting, droll caricatures of Jesus and the Queen, draw upon a wide range of art historical references. Indeed, Condo’s “fake Old Masters” put him at odds with the New York art scene of the early 1980s, when he moved to Cologne and later Paris, spending over a decade immersing himself in the painterly techniques of the past. By synthesising the post-war US traditions of pop-infused painting and European historical portraiture via Rembrandt, Velázquez, Goya and Picasso, Condo creates, as he puts it, “composites of various psychological states painted in different ways”. Key sections of the mid-career survey highlight pivotal aspects of Condo’s practice: “Abstract Figuration”, for instance, includes a selection of large-scale works from the past 25 years. Ten bronze sculptural heads inspired by Nietzsche should also surprise Condo devotees. An exhibition of new works on paper runs in parallel at Sprüth Magers gallery in London until 12 November.

The Art Newspaper: You worked for Andy Warhol in the early 1980s. Do you consider him a genius or an opportunist?

George Condo: I’ve always considered him a genius, especially the way he broke through from abstract expressionism into pop. I was in my early 20s when he took me on [in 1981] and went on to work in production as I knew how to make silkscreens. He was only really superficial in front of people. I was with Andy, Jean-Michel [Basquiat] and Keith [Haring] in this gallery one time when some lady asked if her kid could have his photo taken with us. Warhol was smiling crazily and just as she pressed the shutter, Andy tapped this kid on the head. It was like a bee sting.

You’ve been called the missing link between an earlier tradition of US painting—exemplified by abstract expressionists Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston—and a younger generation of artists, such as John Currin and Glenn Brown. Do you agree?

I think it’s great that somebody has said that. John and Glenn are great painters. To some degree, like myself, they use traditional means to arrive at something radical, unlike artists like Anselm Kiefer and Julian Schnabel, who use trees and plates to make their paintings. Back in the mid-1990s, when John, Glenn and other artists such as Cecily Brown and Lisa Yuskavage became hot, people turned around and said: “Take a look at Condo.” I guess it’s always good to be an artist’s artist. A few big collectors bought my work early on, but now [in New York], MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum and the Whitney have begun collecting my work. I’m older, anyway; I was born the year after Jackson Pollock was killed in a car crash. Art is ingrained in me.

The way the works were displayed at the New Museum in New York had a huge impact. Will the display be just as radical at the Hayward?

There’ll be three “Crucifixion” paintings [2007] not seen at the New Museum. And the portrait wall will be easier to see, as it was frightening there—you could not see the small paintings hanging way up on the top. There won’t be six paintings on top of one another; it will be more human-scale.

Why does the Queen appeal as a subject?

My portrait of the Queen [Dreams and Nightmares of the Queen, 2006] was an issue when it was shown in the Wrong Gallery at Tate Modern in 2006. But I didn’t want to degrade her; she’s amazing with all her white gloves and matching outfits. At the Hayward, there’ll be nine portraits of her. What I would say is that if you were having your portrait painted by Modigliani or Cézanne, would you ask them to stop painting in their recognisable style? I don’t think so. I love Lucian Freud’s painting of the Queen because it was definitely a Freud painting.

Regarding your painting Jesus (2002), Ralph Rugoff, the director of the Hayward, asks: “How absurd can a painting be and still be considered serious?” Is this a valid point?

My paintings are a reflection of the world and there’s a lot of absurdity out there. There’s the absurdity of people thinking they know what Jesus looks like. There’s always an opportunity to take something that’s a given, change its appearance and reformulate it in a different language.

Has your Catholic upbringing affected you in any way?

It was not one of those extra-uptight versions of Catholicism; my parents just wanted us to have a religious background. But [it] brought about a lot of good imagery. It made me think about the spiritual ideas of different religions. I did get one very positive thing from it: a sense of compassion for people who are suffering.

So you empathise with the diverse subjects of your paintings?

I can empathise with the pathetic characters as much as I can relate to my manic characters.

I feel a strong bond with them. That’s why Ralph put together the “Melancholia” part of the show; you can see that these people have weathered difficult lives through the filter humour.

The show includes your first work, The Madonna, 1982, which you called a “fake Tiepolo”. Are you an artist in the classical tradition?

In the early 1980s, I started to get the surface and look of European painting, without being a copyist. In 1982, I just wanted to take the classical language of painting and make it contemporary. It was very anti-Picasso.

Which is the strongest influence in your work: Picasso, Goya, “Looney Tunes”, Francis Bacon or 17th-century Spanish court portraiture?

I hate to say it, but probably “Looney Tunes”, because there are two sides to a cartoon character: the idea of personification, when the human turns into a cartoon character, and possibly a kind of metamorphosis, turning back into the human form. Which is where I come in. Cartoons are less important to me than Picasso or Rembrandt’s art. But the way [Picasso] worked with African masks, pasting them onto Cézanne’s bathers, is quite amusing.

I guess I take Velázquez and put a Bugs Bunny face on it. I’ve never appropriated, but referenced techniques and combinations of colours. It’s an improvisational approach. It’s all a projection of myself.