New York City artist George Condo has become New York state artist George Condo, a surprising move for someone so intensely intertwined with the city’s culture. The Hamptons is his new normal, after he ditched Manhattan in March.
Not that he is keeping track of time. “The month of May soon turned into August, which then turned into November,” Condo says to the Guardian from his studio later that day. “2020 is just the framing of the time lapse.”
It’s all a blur, much like his messy paintings, which are now on view at Hauser & Wirth in New York City. Internal Riot, opening this week, features 18 paintings and drawings, ranging from nightmarish splashes of insanity, to portraits of Virginia Woolf, Bugs Bunny and the rapper Travis Scott.
There are also a series of chaotic landscapes, depicting the artist’s own inner storm, which easily mirrors our own anxious moment. The show digs into self-isolation, madness and the divided disarray that America is today.
“The ‘divisive inequality of America’ is how I would describe it,” Condo corrects me. “It was always there, but now change can’t just be an idea or a slogan – it has to get real and fulfill the ideals it supposedly stands for.”
It ties into his trademark abstracted portraits, calling to mind Pablo Picasso’s cubism, but updated with an expressionistic, pop art flair, painted with a bold Disneyland palette, where outer conflict meets inner struggle.
Condo calls this style of painting “artificial realism” or “psychological cubism”. He describes it as tracing the thoughts of each character, capturing their overlaying, fluctuating moods with a paintbrush.
“People are torn apart in and of themselves, barely human at times,” said Condo. “You can see a person trying to break free from a structure and become whole again.”
The new works in this show – all made in 2020 – range from Father and Daughter with Face Mask, two freaked out figures all masked up, Hysteria, a figure screaming in the dark, and There’s No Business Like No Business, which depicts a sad, solitary figure in distress (it calls to mind all the small business owners in New York who have closed up shop).
And his own mirror? What does Condo see when he looks in the mirror today? Just look at his latest painting entitled Internal Riot. On a crimson red background, it looks as though a man is yelling at himself.
What does the creator see when he looks at it? “A combination of images scrambled up from newscasts and footage of the riots that took place across America,” he says. “It’s the desire to relentlessly pursue the perpetrators who inhabit the periphery of the mind and root them out.”
The artist came into the spotlight after befriending Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s, which led to him working at Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York. He then fled to Paris, where he lived and painted for years, and outraged the UK with his ghastly portrait of the Queen as a scabby-looking monster in 2006. He then returned to New York, where he painted Allen Ginsberg’s final portrait in the hospital before he died. Up until March, Condo was living on the Upper East Side.
He’s well versed in the rap world. Condo painted the album cover for Kanye West’s 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and shortly after, painted a Hermès Birkin bag for Kim Kardashian West (West has shown his face at Condo’s studio and museum openings). Even Jay-Z name dropped Condo’s name in a rap song (“Condos in my condo I want a row of”), from his 2013 album Magna Carta Holy Grail.
But for now, Condo is alone, relishing in solitude. Be it good or bad, it reminds him of his childhood, growing up in a small New England town.
“I would spend hours in my room alone painting, not even knowing there was such a thing as what we call ‘the art world,’” he said. “So, it feels a bit like that, where I am totally out of touch with everything for purposes of safety and health.
“There’s nothing to do but create art.”
Condo’s latest work can be seen as a continuation of his online exhibition from April called Drawings for Distanced Figures, which featured ink, pencil and crayon figures capturing the paranoia, fear and panic brought on by the onslaught of 2020.
“It is an eerily existential feeling knowing that you are somehow existing in the absence of a familiar world,” he adds. “It is very isolating at times, and my moods change with the weather.”
While each character represents a different mental state or mood, they also act as visions of what it’s like to be living in this very moment. “Fractured portraits tell us about the multiple emotions we are experiencing, all at the same time,” he says. “They mirror the normal person in today’s world. I suppose this is the new normal.”
It’s hard to imagine one of New York’s most iconic artists gone without any plans to return. “I had a feeling the country was not prepared to handle it, and it wouldn’t be healthy to stay there,” said Condo. “Knowing that once I left, I would be stuck, I felt I was doing the right thing, regardless of how isolating it might become.”
After eight months away, he finally returned to New York City, “to look around”, he says, then left again. “It’s just not the same anymore to be dependent on anything, other than oneself.”
Condo reached a breaking point at the end of May (around the time George Floyd was murdered). He painted a piece entitled The End of May 2020, depicting a portrait of a figure immersed in trouble and darkness.
“It was a cracked head with a splat of gold thrown in its face,” as Condo describes it. “It certainly did express my own crazed mental state, at that point.”
The three things that have kept him grounded in quarantine are this: staying away from the news, making art and keeping loved ones close. “I’ve had frequent visits by my partner Leila Josefowicz, with whom I started a film project about art and music,” said Condo. “It was nice to have just one visitor every week or two for a couple days.”
“In between, I just drive around listening to Jimi Hendrix full blast in my car,” he says. “In the Hamptons, the trees, the ocean and the fish store help, too.”
In terms of where his compass points him next, it all comes down to politics. “The migratory sense, in my mind, has to do with the fight or flight instinct,” says Condo. “And I honestly believe many people in this country feel that if Trump wins again, they want to leave and move somewhere else.”
Condo has an understandably bleak view of what’s been happening of late. “I think that perception and comprehensible information based in truthful reality is what has been burned to the ground,” he says. “Answers are lit on fire like burning leaves in the wind. Nobody really has any facts.”
Despite the current dystopian storm, Condo is looking forward to 2021 with a slice of hope, though. “I think the outcome of the election will have a huge impact on the basic state of the world,” he said.
“I just hope to continue making art in a healthier environment, and most of all, that my kids can take what they’ve learned from these horrible times of suffering and move forward in a more optimistic and healthy world.”