The Lives of Artists – George Condo

The New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins offers readers insight into the artfully crumpled life of this great painter
George Condo
George Condo

If you want to know what it’s like to be in the presence of important and groundbreaking artists, you should really ask Calvin Tomkins. Over the past 59 years, Tomkins has profiled almost every culturally significant figure in the contemporary art world for The New Yorker magazine.

Our new six-volume anthology of his work, The Lives of Artists, brings these profiles together. There are many delightful long reads in there, but there are also moments when, in just a few finely chiselled sentences, Tomkins describes the range of impressions and emotions one might experience meeting an artist for the first time, face-to-face. Take this description of the painter George Condo’s instinctive approach to his work.

“He picked up a piece of white chalk and began drawing, left-handed, on one of the two stretched canvases. After a few quick, sure strokes, I recognized the bald head, upward-thrusting chin, and large bow tie of Rodrigo, one of the recurrent characters who have populated his pictures over the past few years. Rodrigo is ‘a kind of lowlife,’ Condo confided, ‘the one who parks your car.’ Also, as he once put it, he’s ‘the piano player at a wedding, doing the worst song you’ve ever heard.’ 


Calvin Tomkins photo by Sara Barrett
Calvin Tomkins photo by Sara Barrett

”Without a pause, he started another figure to the left of Rodrigo, a slender nude girl facing forward, her right hand casually shielding her pudenda in the classic pose of the Cnidian Aphrodite. The chalk made a whispering sound as it touched the canvas in large, sweeping arcs, precipitating a delicate rain of white dust. ‘White chalk is nicer than charcoal,’ Condo said, ‘because you can go right over it with oil paint. Charcoal gets into the paint, makes it muddy.’ He sketched in a third figure, to the girl’s left, an older woman, wearing a long dress with a scalloped neckline. Pausing to pick up a carpenter’s spirit level, he used it to see whether the vertical lines on the canvas were true. (They were.)

"’What happens now,’ he said, ‘is I sit down.’ Sprawled behind the little maple desk, whose top was covered with cigarette burns, loose cigarettes (Camels, no filter), crumpled dollar bills, pencil stubs, and other debris, he studied the work in progress.” 


The Lives of Artists by Calvin Tomkins

For more encounters like this order a copy of The Lives of Artists here. This six-volume set includes 82 of Tomkins's most significant profiles dating from 1962 to 2019. Part art history, part human interest, Tomkins offers insights and observations about the artists, their work, and the ever-changing art world they inhabit. Buy The Lives of Artists here. And find out what George Condo told us about the music that gets him in a creative mood here.

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