Lesson: George Condo: Invented Portraits

  • Subject Area: Art History, English Literature, History, Literacy
  • The Butler, 2000.The Butler, 2000.
  • Bowery Bum, 1998.Bowery Bum, 1998.
  • Insane Queen, 2006.Insane Queen, 2006.
  • Homeless Harlequins, 2004.Homeless Harlequins, 2004.

George Condo: Invented Portraits

By Mark Joshua Epstein


George Condo has stood out since the 1980s as an artist whose practice is grounded firmly in the history of figurative painting. He borrows liberally but meticulously from the techniques of iconic artists ranging from Giovanni Battista Tiepolo to Pablo Picasso, and among his chief strengths is an ability to manipulate such artists’ methods to serve his own unique vision, synthesizing references that teeter between beauty and grotesqueness. While Condo borrows from painters throughout history, his subject matter is original and often improvised. Over the past three decades Condo has created an extraordinary range of portraits of both historical figures and invented characters.

George Condo’s portraits, paintings of both single characters and groups of figures, are the topic of this lesson. The lesson will introduce students to some of the artists throughout history who have inspired Condo, as well as to his methodology of improvisation.


Two forty-five-minute periods and a reading assignment


• Students will investigate artists from whom George Condo has drawn inspiration, identifying aspects of these artists’ works that appear in Condo’s own paintings.
• Students will examine two portraits by George Condo in detail, comparing them with the work of Condo’s artistic predecessors.
• Students will learn about Condo’s studio methods through a reading assignment, paying particular attention to the concept of improvisation.
• Students will explore Condo’s studio process by engaging in improvisational art-making.


Synthesis: The combining of often-diverse conceptions into a coherent whole; also: the complex so formed
Mutation: A significant and basic alteration
Improvise: To make or fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand
Narrative: The representation in art of an event or story; also: an example of such a representation
Influence: The power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways

*All definitions from Merriam-Webster.com. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/> (accessed June 15, 2011).

Suggested Procedures:

1. Begin by projecting the installation view of the large portrait wall, hung salon-style, from the New Museum’s exhibition “George Condo: Mental States.” Have students spend time looking at the entire image, comprised of over fifty paintings.

Ask students to choose a work they respond to from a stack of reproductions of works by one of the following artists:

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Rembrandt van Rijn
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes
Paul Cézanne
Willem de Kooning

These works are all by artists who have influenced George Condo’s practice.1 We are going to examine these works in depth to investigate whether we as viewers can find visual evidence for that influence.

Divide students into small groups and give each group a worksheet with the following discussion questions:

• Examine the reproduction you have received. Choose a George Condo work from the large portrait wall that reminds you in some way of the reproduction. Consider both the composition as well as the subject matter.
• Which painting do you feel your reproduction relates to?
• In what way does your reproduction relate to the Condo painting?
• Do you see similarities in the way the pieces look? In the subject matter?
• What are some differences between the reproduction and the Condo piece you chose, both in the way they look and in subject matter?

2. Ask students to read excerpts from “Portraits of Imaginary People,” Calvin Tomkins’s New Yorker profile of George Condo from the January 17, 2011 issue of the magazine. Instruct students to familiarize themselves through research with any of the artists mentioned in the article with whom they might be unfamiliar.

3. After reading the article, project the installation photo again. Engage students in a group discussion about what the article revealed about the artist, specifically in terms of his process and his influences.

• What impressions did you get of the artist from this profile?
• How does he choose subject matter? Were you surprised by the description of his working method in the article?
• How does George Condo relate to artists who have preceded him in history? Let’s make a list of artists he cites as influences on his studio practice.

4. Discuss the terms inspiration and influence with students. Draw students’ attention to the sections in the New Yorker in which George Condo discusses his influences.

George Condo talks extensively about his influences in the Tomkins profile. We are going to focus on one in particular: Pablo Picasso.

Project two images of Picasso and Condo paintings simultaneously: Homeless Harlequins (2004) and Acrobat and Young Harlequin (1905).

The harlequin was a recurring theme for Picasso during the early years of the twentieth century and again about a decade later, when he reintroduced the motif with a new cubist interpretation. Although the harlequin does not resemble Picasso physically, the character acts as stand-in for the artist himself, allowing Picasso to insert a covert self-portrait, or self-reference, in many of his works.2

For more historical context about the harlequin character, hand out or read the following paragraph aloud:

One of the principal stock characters of the Italian commedia dell’arte is the harlequin (in Italian, arlecchino; in French, arlequin). He is often a facile and witty gentleman’s valet and a capricious swain of the serving maid Columbine. In the early years of the commedia (mid-sixteenth century), the harlequin was a zanni (a wily and covetous comic servant), and he was cowardly, superstitious, and plagued by a continual lack of money and food. By the early seventeenth century, the harlequin had become a faithful valet, patient, credulous, and amorous. This last quality often led him into difficulties from which he managed to extricate himself by cleverness and irrepressible high spirits. He was amoral without being vicious, and, unlike his fellow commedia servants, he did not hold a grudge or seek revenge against those who tricked or cheated him.3

• Describe the images. What subject matter does Condo portray? What subject matter does Picasso portray?
• Focus on the expressions on these characters faces as well as their body language. What can you infer about these figures from both the artworks’ titles and these details?
• Why do you think Condo would appropriate one of Picasso’s most recognizable themes?
• Formally, where do Condo’s and Picasso’s artworks converge? Where do they diverge?
• How has Condo treated Picasso’s subject matter? Is he reverent? Irreverent?

4. Explain to students that in order to understand more about Condo’s studio process, they are going to do a short improvisational drawing activity. Project the installation shot again. Ask students to choose one of the paintings in the photograph, and do a two-minute sketch of the character(s) in that piece. Warn students that the drawings they are doing are not precious.

After two minutes, collect student drawings and redistribute them randomly, ensuring that students do not receive their own works. Turn the projection off and ask students to finish the drawing they have received using only their imagination as a reference point. Students are allowed to add new elements and to alter the existing drawing in any way they’d like.

Discuss the experience as a class.

• What did it feel like to begin a drawing that you didn’t finish?
• How did it feel to have to respond to someone else’s marks/vision when you encountered a new drawing?
• What choices did you find yourself having to make when you arrived at a partially started drawing?
• What might you have learned about someone’s process or method? How did you respond?

Tell students that this is the first step in a longer drawing and collage activity. Write the following instructions up on the board.

Create a new piece of artwork inspired by George Condo, by improvising with a combination of collage and drawing. These works should include the following elements:

• The whole, or parts of the last drawing you just worked on
• The whole, or parts of the printout you chose
• Elements you draw yourself
• Any other collage elements you wish to include from the magazines provided

Your new piece should have a cast of characters and a location.

Questions to consider while working:
• How can you combine different figures to generate new characters?
• How can you invent characters out of a combination of collage and hand-drawn elements?
• What narrative has brought your characters together?

5. Ask students to tape up finished work and then conduct a short critique.
• Had did the improvisational process in which you were asked to engage affect the outcome of your work?
• Did you find working in this way liberating, or possibly confining?
• How could you push your work further? What would you do if given another class period to complete the piece?
• We’ve talked about Picasso and other artists’ influence on Condo. Did any of the artists we’ve mentioned today, including George Condo himself, influence or inspire your own work? How?

1. Calvin Tomkins, “Portraits of Imaginary People,” New Yorker, January 17, 2011, 56–66.
2. Kirk Varnedoe, “Picasso’s Self-Portraits,” in Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, ed. William S. Rubin (New York: the Museum of Modern Art, 1996), 111.
3. “Harlequin,” from the Encyclopedia Britannica Online. (accessed June 15, 2011). <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/255421/Harlequin/>.

Lesson Plan: George Condo: Invented Portraits