From Kanye West to Goya: George Condo on the art of influence

Updated 6th May 2016
From Kanye West to Goya: George Condo on the art of influence
Written by Janelle Zara, CNNLos Angeles
Considered one of America's most influential contemporary artists working today, George Condo's career spans three illustrious decades. From his early days as a punk guitarist, to a stint working for Andy Warhol in 1981 and his collaboration with Kanye West for the cover of his 2010 album "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy", Condo's career, like his work, reveals a willingness to take risks.
Known for his skewed take on classic portrait paintings, Condo's work straddles the lines between old and new, familiar and unsettling, conventional and radical. CNN Style caught up with the artist at his first L.A. exhibition in nearly 20 years, "Entrance to the Void", to discuss art, music and taking inspiration from madness.
CNN: Your work is known to be rooted in art history. Has it always been that way or did it evolve over time?
George Condo: My work has always dealt with art history because I love it. And it's all about including everything that you like in your work, I mean art is about everything that influences you in life.
To represent reality is really kind of a falsehood in painting, because the reality that you're representing is a sort of continuum of ideas that have existed in art, as an artist, since whenever; going back to the Egyptians and hieroglyphics, to the extent that they represent figures, represent language. And so the languages, and the interchangeability of language in painting, to me, is what's most interesting.
There's three pieces in the exhibition that very strongly reference Goya. Tell us a little bit about your love for Goya.
Goya was a very radical painter in the sense that he really rejected the idea of being a subject of the court. And even though those were the subjects of many of his paintings, he was still able to find a way to inject his own sort of internal madness into the painting. And he's so skilful and so technically gifted that I've always just loved his take on portraiture. I was looking at this painting ["The Countess of Carpio"], saying I remember this from the Louvre when I was in Paris, and I wanted to do improvisations on that painting, so I did three of them.
When you say he puts the madness into his paintings, is that an approach that you also adopt in your own work?
I think so. More or less any form of hysteria and any kind of extreme of human emotion, is what's most interesting to me.
Was Andy Warhol one of your influences?
Andy Warhol was definitely influential to me. The idea of having it seem so easy, it just looked like you know; he just pushed it out. But when I worked there as a kid in 1981, for about 9 months, I saw how much of a perfectionist he was at getting what he wanted out of the paintings.
And then I realized there were points where he worked on the surface of a painting with a mop, like on the "Ladies and Gentlemen" paintings, and he would just sort of mop random colors on and then go over it with a black screen. And so I started to think, maybe I should just paint some really random colors and then go over them with these dark black lines, but then I painted into them.
He impacted the way that you start with one thing, and then you move to the next step and so on, to get a painting done. The subject matter [of my paintings] is completely different, which is interesting as well. I think that one thing that is really important for artists is that you can paint like anyone you want, you just can't paint what they painted.
These are definitely artists with a lasting legacy. In your own work, what legacy are you injecting into your paintings?
I think the legacy of my painting will be the fact that they maintain a life beyond the artist. That they are alive, that there's really somebody real inside of these kind of abstract figures, that you can feel the soul of somebody.
You listen to music while you're painting. What do you listen to?
For all of the recent paintings that are in the show, I was listening to a lot of late John Coltrane music. The way he was playing something that everybody knows, a song like "My Favorite Things", and then extending them out into 23-minute improvisations, and just sort of ripping the structure apart -- I felt like I wanted to just deconstruct and completely blow up my own imagery the way that he did. So that was what I was listening to. It's like Hendrix feedback out of a Hendrix Marshall amp -- into a painting!
You're known as a painter, but do you ever think about going into other forms of art?
If I ever did, it would probably be to start over. If I ever thought of going into any other forms of media to use as an art tool, I would probably work in animation.
What I'd love to do would be like an old master animated film; sort of the idea of a motion picture, but like motion painting. Because when you think about a painting, it's a frame, it's like one still from a Disney movie, and you don't see what happened before the painting, you don't see what happened after, so it would be nice to be able to see what lead to the painting, and what it continued. I'd do it like Disney, I'd have real illustrators and people that were working you know -- really great draftsmen.
Actually I think that one of the funny things about abstract expressionism and why art became so abstract in the 40s and the 50s, is because all the really great draftsmen that were incredibly technically gifted were sort of inducted into the use of making millions of frames in these animated films. But when you look at those pages, like of the dwarfs of "Snow White" and all that, and you see the drawings, they're amazing. Incredibly technical, beautiful drawings, they remind me of you know, Bosch or somebody.
"Entrance to the Void" runs until the June 11, 2016 at Sprüth Magers Los Angeles.
Video by Gabe Ramirez, Sophia Chalmer and Holly Vear, CNN