Last spring George Condo received a phone call from Hawaii. It was Kanye West, asking if the painter was interested in collaborating on art for his upcoming album. “He was new to me,” Condo says. “I was very old school rap, you know what I mean?” The ensuing partnership resulted in the five covers that West has presented for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. From his Upper East Side studio, where he’s preparing for a major retrospective at the New Museum, Condo talked to us about Macbeth, ballerinas, and how the pair might have a few surprises up their sleeves.
On Kanye’s first visit to Condo’s studio, he blasted “Power.” “Immediately,” Condo explains, “I started having all ideas about these mythological creatures and volcanic landscapes. Parts and pieces from Macbeth. Parts and pieces from some sort of sci-fi landscape.” But when Condo heard the song’s hook, from King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man,” he told West he wanted to paint a portrait. The next afternoon, West came back and posed. “It’s sort of cubist, you know, this portrait with all these different dimensions to it. Like an African mask with almost a modern face. I wanted to get that feeling that he’s almost a Miles Davis-like guy.”
“That’s a good painting,” Condo says matter-of-factly. “She’s a kind of fragment, between a sphinx, a phoenix, a haunting ghost, a harpy. And then Kanye is also in some sort of strange 1970s burned-out back room of a Chicago blues club having a beer — so far away from the real Kanye West that it’s just a scream.” In painting Kanye in such an outrageous situation, Condo says, “I was challenging him with the imagery as well. He said, ‘I’m shocked, but I like it, and I gotta go with my gut feeling.’” This cover’s already been banned by Wal-Mart and Apple’s iTunes Music Store, much to Condo’s disgust. “The superimposition of people’s perceptions on a cartoon is shocking,” Condo scoffs. “What’s happening in their minds should be banned. Not the painting.”
Condo remembers that West came to his studio between eight and ten times over the course of the summer. The ballerina — a concept that later worked its way into West’s “Runaway” film and performance at the VMAs — came from one of those visits. “We were hanging around one night, and we were listening to that tune ‘Runaway,’” Condo recalls, when his wife, Anna, showed West a a shot of French dancer Sylvie Guillem moving in slow motion. “And somehow Kanye grabbed onto that idea of the ballerina,” Condo explains. “He just said, ‘Hey man, I’d like to have a great ballerina painting.’ I thought of a ballerina toasting. You know, ‘let’s toast to the scumbags.’”
“I really like that idea of a Shakespearian thing,” West told Condo about this painting of a severed head wearing a crown. The piece’s two contrasting styles -- “cubism and classicism forged together in a single painting” — dovetail, Condo says, with West’s music, with its “layers of different styles happening simultaneously.” What did Kanye see in the picture that made him like it? “His tragedy was a kind of exile that Kanye imposed upon himself,” Condo says. “He was free from exile by having the cathartic moment in the image. He’s alive in the painting, you know what I mean? In a strange way it’s like, he opened his eyes.”
“He’s lost in the world,” Condo says, of this cover that Kanye showed during a recent web chat. “All of a sudden, he was gone. The crown was there, the sword was there, but his head had disappeared. You feel his presence but you don’t see him. He’s been somehow reduced to symbols.” He describes this painting as “a variant, like an outtake,” and hints that it may not in fact be the fifth cover. (Just before getting on the phone, Condo was visited by a Def Jam representative with the album’s final packaging.) “That’s the funny thing,” he says lightly. “This will all come out and there’ll be a few surprises. You can always trust Kanye for a surprise.”
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