15 Minutes with George Condo

The artist shares tales of Basquiat and his time in L.A. as ”People Are Strange” inaugurates Hauser and Wirth’s new location on Santa Monica Blvd.

George Condo’s extraordinary exhibition People Are Strange inaugurates global contemporary gallery Hauser and Wirth’s new outpost on Santa Monica Boulevard and North La Peer Drive in West Hollywood. Opening with a new body of paintings and sculptures, Condo speaks on living in Los Angeles as a young artist and recounts stories that have shaped his illustrious career. He also discusses his musical ties to painting and love of jazz, classical music, The Doors, and Jimi Hendrix.

Condo was born in Concord, New Hampshire in 1957 and now lives and works in New York. He studied Art History and Music Theory at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell.

LAMag: People Are Strange opens at the new Hauser and Wirth West Hollywood gallery space and references The Doors’ song from their album Strange Days (1967). What are your connections to the band and the lyrics?

George Condo: Throughout the summer, I ran through albums from various periods while driving around in my car while working on these works. Suddenly the song “People Are Strange” came on, and I thought it was so great, and I hadn’t heard it for years. Then I grabbed another album, The Soft Parade by The Doors, and I just started thinking about how much trouble they caused as a band and their whole beginnings at the Whisky a Go Go. Originally, my exhibition title was Transformations, which is about the idea of the paintings transforming from younger to older figures in a time-lapse. However, looking for a more precise title that resonated with the Los Angeles scene, People Are Strange suddenly became a reflection of the divisive politics we’re living under and the news, dehumanization, disenfranchisement, and peripheral beings out there on the fringe. I’m asking myself a question: who are the strange ones? Who are the ones that impose this kind of reality upon people? Artists have the power to point it all out and explode on our canvases as a voice.

You mention the Whisky a Go Go, and the West Hollywood Hauser and Wirth space is amidst Los Angeles’s film and music history. It’s down the road from the Troubadour and Sunset Strip. Do you consider these sites in your paintings?

I always thought that area was the most fantastic spot in Los Angeles when I was out there in 1982. It was still happening there when I was hanging around in Los Angeles with Jean-Michel [Basquiat] and a bunch of guys working on the graffiti yard. We had no frames of reference other than “that’s the Whisky a Go Go” and “that’s where Jimi Hendrix played.” None of us knew anything about West Hollywood and needed more of a grasp on the new L.A., which has since developed into its own architectural landscape. 

Where were you staying when you were here in L.A. during that time? 

I lived in a house on Alfred Street off of La Cienega, where I made a lot of paintings. I remember working on Hollywood Boulevard and Cherokee Avenue, selling pens. I didn’t have a driver’s license, so I had to walk all the time to work; it was close to Musso and Frank’s and Frederick’s of Hollywood. I went to L.A. with a girlfriend, Susan Tyrell; she was in the movie Bad (1977) by Andy Warhol and Fat City (1972). She got a job as an actress, and she said, “You should come out here to L.A.” On a side note, I worked for Andy Warhol in New York for about eight or nine months, and it was just such excruciating labor. I would get in at nine o’clock in the morning and get home at one o’clock in the evening. We spent the entire day diamond dusting, silk screening, and trashing probably billions of dollars worth of reject prints and dragging them down five flights of stairs on Greene Street in Lower Manhattan. 

So much history right there! But what happened to the pens?

So I went out to L.A. Then her T.V. show, Open All Night (1981-1982), got canceled, and unexpectedly, there was no way to get back to New York. I remember we looked at the back of the L.A. Weekly, and they had a job page, and one of the listings said something like, “if you’ve got talent or are an artist, a creative person, a writer, or an actor, and you’d like to make a thousand dollars working part-time, come see us.” And so I thought, that must be something awful, you know, it must be a porno. And so I went, and the guy was like, “Well, what we do is sell pens.” I thought, “How do you do that?” So I got the job selling the pens, and it turned out to be so much fun. We would make cold calls all day. The only person I knew in L.A. at that time was Ed Ruscha. I met Ed once Jean-Michel and the New York guys had split. I was just left out on my own and trying to figure out how to make enough money to return to New York City. 

Transitional Portrait in Turquoise and Gold, 2022 (Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth)

Did you continue making work at that time?

I was working on paintings the entire time. At one point, I told one guy that worked with me, “Listen, if you buy me a roll of canvas, I’ll give you the first painting I make from the roll,” because I couldn’t even afford a roll of canvas which was a couple hundred bucks. So he did. He was a kid from New York, and we were in our early twenties. I remember I gave him a painting, and about fifteen years later, he tracked me down and said, “Hey man, I’ve been looking for you for a long time.” And I said, “What’s going on? What are you doing?” And he said, “I wrote a Broadway play, and it’s up now. In case you ever want to see it, let me know. But I’ve got something to tell you. My brother stored the painting you made me long ago.” And I said, “Yeah, I remember.” And he said, “Well, my brother had kept it in his closet. And he asked me if I wanted to throw this thing out or what to do with it. And I said to throw it out, but he kept it hidden.” Then he said he found out I became a famous artist, so he sold the painting for 60,000 bucks, which paid off all his rent for the next two years. So I told him, “Well, you made an excellent investment.”

That’s incredible!

Yeah. It was one of the best things that ever happened and worked.

Did you go to any concerts or art shows that left a mark on you during that time? 

I worked so much on my stuff and went to the Pasadena Art Museum. I also remember seeing all the museums I could make it to in L.A. County. I visited Ed Ruscha’s studio to see his work in Venice Beach and met Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses, Molly Barnes, and James Corcoran. Larry Gagosian was the biggest one showing New York artists to people that everybody knew. I would go over there with Basquiat, hang around, and listen to music in the middle of the gallery. He was working on his show and Toxic, and the guys from New York came out, too.

A funny thing I remember is with Roger Herman at Ulrike Kantor Gallery. He kept saying to Ulrike, “You should look at this kid George Condo’s work.” But she wouldn’t look at it. And so she said, “Well, have him come in and show me what he’s doing.” I had no other way to present my work except for a box of blurry Polaroids. I painted the box black so it wouldn’t look like a regular old box and brought it in. She just took one look and didn’t care about it. And then Roger said, “You know what I’m going to do? Ulrike’s out to lunch with one of her big clients, and the gallery is in between shows. I’ll drive up in my van to your garage on Alfred Street, and we’ll load a bunch of stuff in and put it all over the gallery. She’ll probably freak out when she walks in.” So Ulrike comes in with this big collector, Robert A. Rowan, the President of the Pasadena Art Museum, with a great Pop Art collection. And so my stuff was all around the room, and her first reaction was, “What the hell?” Rowan said, “I like this. I wouldn’t mind buying that one, and I’ll buy that one. Who is this?” And she said, “That’s my newest artist. His name is George Condo. He’s from New York City.” And so, just like that, I had an exhibition at her gallery in 1983.

That is so wild. It’s like a Hollywood story in a lot of ways. What was the painting scene like in Los Angeles?

I watched this talk Glenn Gould did about Johann Sebastian Bach, and he said that the real genius of Bach is that he was 400 years behind his time. So I went back 400 years in my paintings and used techniques to bring contemporary subject matter into the artwork as something new and radical; the paintings were 12 by 18 inches and 20 by 24 inches. I was so concentrated on forming myself as a painter in L.A. at that time, and I couldn’t necessarily relate to the Los Angeles painting scene. Other than Ed, I couldn’t relate to it because I thought I saw somebody else in every artist. Like, if it were stripes, it would’ve been Agnes Martin. If it were this, it would’ve been someone else, and they weren’t in Los Angeles. I went out and hung out with Matt Dike, who worked over at Larry’s, and he became a music executive and started a place called The Rhythm Lounge. I also befriended Tim Kelly, who was working with him then and was Gene Kelly’s son; Gene bought a couple of paintings of mine, and I remember playing ping pong with him. That was like my first exposure to a real Hollywood movie star. I learned something about L.A. If you’re not a movie star, nobody cared about you at that time. Do you know what I mean?

It hasn’t changed that much. <laugh>

Well, I love that they like painters and artists now. <laugh>

Since the location is right in West Hollywood, is there one story you could share about your time in the area where the show will be? 

Well, having come from New York, there is one. Jean-Michel and I were out one night and heard about this fancy party. He had gone to Maxwell Blue and got an Armani suit and all kinds of things. So we went to the party, and they wouldn’t let him in. They said, “You can come in, but he can’t.” I said, “Why not? I mean, he is the most famous painter in the world. What are you fucking talking about?” They said, “Well, we don’t let those kinds of people in here.” So I stood up to them and said, “What do you mean those kinds of people?” And Jean-Michel said, “Come on, let’s go.” I said, “No, wait a minute.” And so I started a fight with the doorman, but he eventually convinced me to leave it. We ended up past midnight at this place called The Tail O’ the Pup on La Cienega. Sitting on an outdoor picnic bench, we spent that evening discussing racial discrimination and the heated confrontation of that particular moment in that neighborhood. We stayed til way after the place closed.

Thank you for sharing this story. It’s so compassionate of you to respond by sticking up for your friend in a difficult moment. 

I’ve never shared that story before. 

Psycho (Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth)

Music is intrinsic to your work. How do you express the notion of sound in painting?

If you consider the idea of interchangeabilities, constants, and variables, all the little black dots on a page are notes; half notes, quarter notes, sixteenths. In three measures, you can tell whether you’re listening to Mozart, Bach, or Arnold Schoenberg. Even if you listen to Luciano Berio, who composed sixties experimental music, they’re all the same notes being rearranged. I thought there must be something to do with painting involved in this way.

What about the tempo of music informing the painting? 

Tempos are also very important. If you were to play one of Bach’s solo violin pieces at rapid fire, it doesn’t allow you to miss a million notes just because it’s played so fast. And if you’re painting quickly, you still have to hit the notes. They often say the slow pieces are just as challenging as the fast pieces. 

Absolutely. They are not dissimilar in terms of execution. 

The tempo is a crucial part of painting. Certain things are uptempo, especially considering, not even classical. Take Bebop and how fast those things are moving and how many in-sync notes are played. The demand placed on the musician is so high. The demands placed on a painter should be the same in my mind. All the information I learned from studying music and understanding the complexities of rhythm, chord structures, and music theory can be applied tonally with paint. Even if the painting looks as if it took 15 minutes to make, it might have taken me three weeks, but I want it to look like it all happened at once. In the same way, somebody has to rehearse a piece a thousand times to get it to the point where they can play it perfectly at that tempo. 

How do you bring out the expressive qualities in your figures?

Rembrandt or Frans Hals painted backgrounds for figures. I took a single figure and painted a scene where the light part of the face would be the dark part of the background, and the dark parts would be the light elements. And I noticed patterns in how artists bring out the figure by understanding classical painting, like classical music, to create a visual language. When I talk about divisiveness in politics and the dehumanization of disenfranchised people, I think about the fractured aspect of our minds and the internal self. As a result of those things, how we are perceived on the outside as opposed to how we perceive ourselves is a sort of Hegelian idea having to do with the appearance of being. When I look at somebody or a figure in a painting, I assess the mechanics and techniques to bring out the external appearance of what’s happening internally in that person’s mind. I used the phrase “psychological cubism” to describe it. From my perception of a figure, I want to capture every aspect of the human personality in a single glance or at least four views in a single person’s mind. I aim to simultaneously capture horror, joy, happiness, and grief because they coexist within us. 

You also give the human experience dignity through this lens. What are your thoughts on perspective and how the human eye views the body?

I consider them psychological and psychoanalytical paintings to a certain degree. If you dig deep enough into somebody’s psyche, you start to discover triggers that bring them to places within their mind that they don’t necessarily want to go. It might be something lodged in their subconscious. It might be something hardwired, downloaded, or Dropboxed into their brain that they have no recollection of, yet it’s there. And as a result of it being there, it’s inhibiting them from expressing themselves purely and honestly. If you are a painter and want to bring out all of those things onto the surface, it creates the most intense moment, form, and force of the human condition. There are moments when it’s not just a mirror of them.

What is the intrinsic nature of being or the emotive capacity of music to you? 

It’s like the range we have and how the range of music can portray place and time. Something happens in an incredible emotional part of a painting that lasts forever. It’s always there. Once you capture it, it stays on the wall, and you can always look at it and see it forever. And that’s where I made the dividing point between myself as a musician and being a painter when I realized that with music, I could only capture it in space and time, but with painting, it lasts forever. The image will always be there, and it’ll always reflect the conflicting, interchangeable emotional states that can happen simultaneously in a person’s mind. It’s a lot of freedom. I read once that Lucian Freud looked at his figures like his grandfather, Sigmund Freud, looked at his subjects. 

We’re all united by our emotions when it comes down to it. I can see all the feelings you’re talking about in your figures. It’s almost as if I can sense the adrenaline in their forearm, the introspection of their thoughts, or if they’re naturally disarming. There are so many emotions that you capture within these. I’ve seen your magnificent gold sculpture Constellation of Voices (2019) at the Lincoln Center on the balcony. Even in this work, each pupil and eye changes shape depending on the light, creating psychological tension. What is the impetus for this sculptural work?

They travel in time between Grecian proportions, and I took a couple of years to work on the idea to investigate proportions and the human face based on Greek classicism. Then I could take all that information and scramble it to the extent that it would be useful for those emotional states to take place simultaneously. I called it Constellation of Voices because people’s voices need to be heard, and opera’s all about the voice.

I love that.

Whether it’s gun control or gender equality, all these things are happening simultaneously. It involves the clarity of constructing forms, shapes, sparks of light, and catching the sun from different angles to make a solid sculptural statement that won’t go anywhere. This is the unifying essence of us as people. 

This relates to empathy and being visible to others.

The sculpture sees us, and we see it. I look and think, what’s going through the mind of that sculpture? What’s going through the mind of that figure? What’s going through the mind of an inanimate object? Is the superimposition of our minds onto that object that makes it have sense?

I think about that when I’m with my dog. (laughs) I ask him how he decides to jump off the sofa in some random direction. 

(laughs) It’s like my cat. I go, “Hey, Maria.” And she looks at a wall. She’s a Persian cat and a good friend. What is going through the mind of an animal? We can never really be sure. 

How do you know when a work is finished?

A friend of mine said when it’s sold, and I said, no, that’s not good. (laughs) If I sign it, it might tell me if it’s finished. And if I mark it and I see something’s wrong with it, I knock off the signature and go back to work on it again. And then when I finally feel like I don’t see anything, and I don’t see any little corner or crack or fissure or anything that looks as if it could be any better. That’s when I know it’s done, or all I can do from here on out is ruin it. There is a good feeling when work is resolved.

Then again, why does it have to be resolved? What is resolution? What if the next phase of art is that work should never be resolved? 

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