Two Exhibitions Respond to Art in the Age of Anxiety and Distance

George Condo and Rashid Johnson talk about their new simultaneous digital shows, politics and how the role of artists has changed.

George Condo’s “Together and Apart” (2020).
Credit...© George Condo, courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

The artists George Condo and Rashid Johnson are old friends who both debuted new work in simultaneous online exhibitions for Hauser & Wirth gallery that opened last week. Condo, 62, first emerged in the early 1980s as a figurative painter whose portraits walked a line between realism and sardonic conceptualism. His new show, “Drawings for Distanced Figures,” explores how changes in perspective distort his subjects. Johnson, 42, first gained attention in the early 2000s for photographs, sculptures and paintings that explored identity in 21st-century America. His show, “Untitled Anxious Red Drawings,” revisits his “Anxious Men” figures — square-jawed faces with wide eyes and chattering teeth — which have become a staple of his work. (A portion of proceeds from both shows will benefit the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund.) Like everyone, both artists have had to adapt to a new set of circumstances in the last few months that has made them see their art — not to mention their respective creative processes — differently. This interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, took place via Google Hangouts (Condo and Johnson were both at “undisclosed locations on Long Island,” as Condo put it). The artists discussed producing art while sheltering in place, the virtues of online exhibitions and how they think the Covid-19 pandemic will change their profession.

Credit...Antonio Santos for The New York Times

Can you tell me about this new work you’ve both been making?

Rashid Johnson: These are characters I started making around five years ago, the “Anxious Men.” The conversation around those works then was that they must be about police violence and brutality in communities of color. Even though they were quite abstracted and intended as merely a representation of the human condition and human concerns — the idea of mental anguish and anxiety and stress — the assumption, because of who the author of the work was, was that it was really determined and focused on the position of a certain community, of the black community and what was happening there. And I always kind of resisted that position. I always said that I never gendered or made race the prominent concern of those characters. But the assumption was that was how they were. As those works evolved, and as Trump was elected, I feel like more people felt as if they were graduated into this group of anxious characters. It became Democrats, liberals, progressives, all seeing themselves as part of this collective, this group that I had conjured. And now, with coronavirus and with the transition of those characters from where they began, as stark black characters against sharp white backgrounds, into these red characters, these kind of urgent characters, I think people are starting to understand that the intention of this work was to encapsulate everybody. We are at a time in the world where I think we can actually say we are seeing everyone struggle. Everyone is subject to a certain condition. Obviously, there are levels to this. Some people are subject to it and are put in incredibly difficult and problematic positions because of financial and social agency, because of the actual effect of the virus on them and their families.

ImageRashid Johnson’s “Untitled Anxious Red Drawing” (2020).
Credit...© Rashid Johnson, courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

George Condo: Right before the end of the summer, I started working on these black paintings. One of them was called “Random Consequence of Varying and Opposing Perspectives.” It was basically about the idea of marginalization — of people being pushed to the edge of the canvas to the point where they were almost dematerialized by the consequences of random perspectives. And the random perspectives were, you know, between Fox News and CNN and MSNBC and what is real and what is not real. I created the term “artificial realism” back in the late ’80s. That idea about representing reality, but reality being a construct of man-made appearances. I felt like artificial realism took over when Trump was elected, not as an artistic discussion but a political discussion. It was sort of like creating a formula for disaster. Then the fake-news concept came about and everything was about fakes, and my whole thing in the early ’80s was, “Oh I paint fake masterpieces,” so I didn’t have to think about whether they were or they weren’t. I could sort of objectify everything. Coming through that lens into these black paintings, which were about my figurative works being pushed to the extreme, to the point where the dehumanization factor was taking place throughout a spectrum — of racial injustices and social discriminations at varying levels. Whether it’s Mitch McConnell or Lindsey Graham or Brett Kavanaugh, you know all the things that we lived through, nothing could compare to what was gonna come, which is this microbiological warfare that’s been created somehow — in my opinion, to get Donald Trump re-elected. Vote for me or you die. That’s the message I’m getting from coronavirus.

As to what I’m doing as an artist, I’m just exploring the psychological impact of those kinds of thoughts in my work right now, and how fear, anxiety, panic — how do you put that into some kind of poetic language that maintains your identity and integrity as an artist?

Credit...Gioncarlo Valentine for The New York Times

RJ: When I saw George’s drawings, what made me so excited is that great artists pivot. They don’t invent. You can’t work to a new scene out of the blue. This is in the spirit of what George has done over the last 30-plus years. And he was able to just pivot the work to consume where we are. I think that’s what a great artist is capable of doing. The work is like Pac-Man. It just kind of eats everything that comes in its way and says, “Hey, this is part of it now, too,” rather than just responding and being reactionary.

GC: I think what we’re saying is that when we started these works, it seemed as though they started from one perspective, but now we’ve grown into that perspective, and it’s become us. Once you create something solid, you can break it apart, smash it into pieces and rebuild. The idea of deconstruction was a 20th-century idea, but this is a time of reconstruction as opposed to deconstruction. There’s gonna be a lot of reconstruction after this Covid-19 situation, and where this seismic shift is going to take culture will be very interesting. Pre-Covid, post-Covid, and I really wonder the way it’s gonna be perceived.

RJ: It’s a total fault-line situation.

Credit...© George Condo, courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Have either of you thought at all about how what you do as artists will be different after we emerge from isolation?

RJ: I’ve got a question for George, actually, on that front. George and I are friends, and one of the best walk-throughs I did of one of my shows was George coming in and saying, “I love the work, but this one should have been in the front room.” And he was totally right. Artists always have to think about the architecture of space in terms of how a work is consumed over the course of an exhibition. So my question is: How the hell do you do an online exhibition? What is the architecture, and what does this mean for us now?

GC: What I did with Hauser & Wirth, I had help from my buddy Peter, who’s been out here staying with me. We’ve been out here for five weeks. We haven’t been able to see our kids or anything. I’m too high-risk to see my kids. They’re young, they could be asymptomatic. He basically walked around the room with a camera while I was in the act of making my drawings. To have somebody see you in the act of making something, and then to see that flat on the screen, you can say that thing was made by hand. I didn’t have to shut down my factory for it to be made — I don’t have one. I can remember several years ago going over to Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s place in Bridgehampton, and she was saying, “All I want is a guitar and a good song. I don’t need all that studio [expletive].” The idea of a singer like Beyoncé just picking up a guitar and strumming something, well you can do that. You can’t have the studio right now. You can’t have your mixing board. It’s almost like we’re back to reel to reel, where someone just pushes a button and says what’s happening today, like a folk singer. I think the idea of things being homemade, like the way we have to cook every night, the way life has become about breakfast, lunch and dinner and how to make yourself happy with your own two hands, I think that’s where we’re headed. I’m hoping that, post-Covid, people don’t forget that. We all work so hard to be able to get to a point where we could travel and take our family on vacation and go to a nice hotel, but now you can’t. So you have to make all that happiness in a small space, the way people used to. During the Depression, a loaf of bread would be the greatest thing that could happen to a family. I hope people don’t just go back to being money-grabbing and horrible. What do you think is gonna happen?

Credit...© Rashid Johnson, courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Credit...© Rashid Johnson, courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

RJ: I think there are two themes. One is simplicity. And I think you captured that: All you really need is this and this, simple ingredients. The other thing is being humbled. I think people have been really humbled by this. Because it doesn’t matter how much money you have or how much agency you are accustomed to having, you’re still home, too. Some people’s homes are nicer than others, and we know there are people who are able to stay home whereas other people aren’t. But we’re all restricted in some way. And that’s humbling, for people who believed that they could do whatever they wanted, that’s just not the case anymore. Because you are responsible to other humans. I think taking that feeling of being humbled and applying it to the way that you behave in the world after this is gonna be ideally the most significant outcome. People realized that we’re not masters of the universe. Nature can come into your space at any time and it can sit you on your ass and change what you are capable of doing. I think it will lead to a re-examination of how and why we do things. As far as art is concerned, people are going to be asking the existential questions: Does the work establish a position in which we see an honest investigation of the human condition?

GC: There are always layers of madness. Like post-9/11, the entire world was cheering for these American heroes who were giving their lives to dig people out of the rubble and it didn’t matter what race, what color you were, everyone was in it together. And George W. Bush’s way of thanking everybody was to start World War Nine, you know? After this is over, I just hope that our optimistic concept of how the world is going to be more together, more simplified, more humbled, more compassionate is not going to be destroyed by that same kind of retaliation.

RJ: Yeah, let’s hope not. We definitely see people who are in more disadvantaged positions suffering more. This has pointed a real spotlight on wealth disparity, and on who gets to be safe. It’s just nuts. People need to recognize that — just look out your window and see who’s out there right now, see who’s trying to save us — that there are people who are taking more risks and are more exposed.

Credit...© George Condo, courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

What do you think a more humble version of the art world looks like? I can’t think of a single moment in which I’ve thought that the art world is humble.

RJ: When I say “humble,” I mean in some ways a sense of self-exploration, where you imagine yourself in the narrative and you make art with the idea of the self in mind, as present in the work. Maybe it means making less work toward other people and more work about substantive concerns. Showing a real investment in your relation with and engagement to the world. Where the artist says, “OK, I am a part of the world, and the artwork is me, and it is all-consuming,” as opposed to being able to make art as if it’s business as usual, where you have a strategy and you in effect go to the office and produce a thing with a team of people. That is probably not going to be the answer that we need, right? In my thinking, that’s not what we need from art right now.

GC: You can never predict what’s going to happen in the future, but you can look back at what happened in the past sort of innocently. Like how did Picasso react to the Second World War? When the Nazis walked into his studio in Paris and saw a skull on the table and asked him, “Did you make that?” he said, “No, you did.”

How does the experience of opening an online show compare to your usual experience of opening a show?

RJ: How we imagine what space is has changed. Just from this exhibition I did with Hauser, thinking about digital space, like what is that? I’m not even ready and equipped to navigate that yet. I don’t know what the hell is possible in there.

GC: I think it’s so much better. You don’t have to talk to people and shake hands and get in selfies with people hanging around. All that stuff was great for me in my 20s. But for artists right now, an online exhibition saves us the whole hassle of walking into the opening and everyone talking to you before you even have a chance to look at your own installation. I actually kind of hate that stuff. I don’t know if it’s just me.

RJ: Same. I hate openings, man. I’ve always hated openings. I do miss the spaces. I miss installing the show and looking at the show during the install, but I don’t miss the opening at all. I went to my opening in my pajamas. An exhibition challenges sight lines and how you see things, but these online exhibitions are more like viewing rooms. The viewing room is this back room at a gallery where they hang up, like, one work, and you come into the room and it’s clean and small and you get to just sit there with the work. And that’s one of my favorite spaces at a gallery, and it’s one where the public is not generally welcome. But it’s this really autonomous singular moment with a lone artwork. A one-on-one experience.

GC: Artists like isolation.