Fittingly for the iconoclastic George Condo, the artist says the subject that brought about his first mature painting was the Madonna. That 1982 work is the lynchpin of a retrospective, "George Condo: Mental States," which opens at the New Museum tonight. The lender list alone speaks to the eclectic demand for Condo's work, and the excited build-up to the opening tonight.

Visitors to the exhibition will probably be familiar with the artist's scenes featuring screwed-up, clown-like, dumb-eyed subjects—often reproduced, most recently in a "banned" cover for Kanye West's most recent album. What they will here see is a themed survey that breaks down Condo's impassioned exploration of the human figure. The New York edition, curated by Laura Hoptman, is the show's first presentation; it will travel to the Hayward Gallery in London, and to Frankfurt and Rotterdam.

What is it that's so enduringly controversial about Condo's gaggle-eyed forms? And what might we learn from him? "The topographical aspects of the human face are frightening," he says. "And when they resemble the average person, rather than a magazine cover, viewers recognize themselves..."

ALEX GARTENFELD: Abstraction is something that comes across in so many different ways with your work, and it's addressed in each of the catalogue essays. Have you ever felt that abstraction was a category that made your work more polite?

GEORGE CONDO: Abstract is a word that lends itself to pre-conceptions, especially when applied to painting. People have all different reasons for it. I see abstraction as another way of describing the experience of transformation. What I always said is that when I look at a Jackson Pollock, I see faces. I paint the people and the places and the things that I see while looking at an abstract painting. In other words, it's the reverse process of Leonardo looking at drips on a wall and putting buildings in there. And the opposite is true, too.

GARTENFELD: The earliest work in the show is a 1975 drawing. Why begin there?

CONDO: That is the first time I used the idea of an all-over abstract painting, one that begins in the center and expands to the edges, almost like static on a television screen.

GARTENFELD: You were in high school in New Hampshire in 1975, I presume?

CONDO: I was in my parents' house... [laughs] upstairs in my bedroom.

GARTENFELD: How would you describe the work, looking at it today?

CONDO: I would say it stands up. I think one of the  threads that I developed early in life, as a kid—I graduated high school in '76—was an interest in making art that looks "official," that looks like art. And thinking, "What does it take for art to look like art? What does it require for that to happen?" Luckily for me, it requires technical skill-a feeling for what the European masters were doing.

GARTENFELD: How would you describe the transformations that occur in your paintings? Would you say they take on a prevailing structure, whether it be something as simple as becoming or falling apart? Would you say that it's more psychological?

CONDO: I would say that it's closer to this idea of becoming, in a Heideggerian sense. It's also a presence thing—the presence of memory-based forms combined in the final image.

GARTENFELD: What is the most recent work in the show?

CONDO: The most recent work in the show is... Ah! I know what it is... [laughs]. It is the series of drawing-paintings on the third floor. These are a kind of synthesis between mediums. I think I've managed to excavate the territory between abstraction and figuration, so [the drawing-paintings are] is another way of getting out the urge to eliminate the distinction between drawing and painting.

GARTENFELD: How much do you typically draw before you paint?

CONDO: Well, drawing-paintings happen simultaneously, and the drawing is the painting. But I draw a lot during the process of painting. I like to figure out aspects of certain figurative works, rather than go up there with a paintbrush and mush it all up. I do a number of studies.

GARTENFELD: But in spite of the sheer number of your portraits, you've only intermittently drawn from life. Has that changed throughout your career?

CONDO: I've tried it over and over again, inside and out. And I find that anything that looks like what I'm seeing in real life looks better in real life. That's the necessity I feel to transform it—it's kind of a philosophical idea.

GARTENFELD: Refusing to re-represent nature?

CONDO: Yeah. My idea about artificial realism, for example, was that realistic representation of that which is artificial is all about that. Artificial, if you look in the dictionary, is "man-made." One of the Webster's definitions of "artificial." And reality is basically defined, to a certain extent, as that which exists external to us, independent to our perceptions. And if I think about the idea of something independent of our perceptions, it doesn't interest me as an artist.

GARTENFELD: In Rugoff's essay in the catalogue, he isolates the Madonna as your first mature work. Was it the ambition that made it "mature," or the breadth of the reference, or was it stylistic? Do you stand by that declaration?

CONDO: Yeah, I do. Make an arc from Picasso and Braque, incorporating words and letters into a painting-Ma Jolie. Take that line and run it to Stuart Davis, who puts more and more advertising symbols into a painting. And then go all the way to Andy's soup can, where everything is gone-the background, everything. All that's left is the symbol of advertising. That's the full cycle to me.

Then come at it from another angle, from the Neoclassical revival in painting-what everybody left behind in the Abstract Expressionist period. The Old Master language disappeared from discussion of contemporary art completely. So that was the pure irony, I suppose, in my thinking, "The only thing new today... would be using Old Master language without the imagery."

GARTENFELD: Do you think that came with a revival of some of the other responsibilities of the Old Masters, or would you say your recovery remained in the realm of pastiche?

CONDO: I think that at the moment, nobody had really been able to synthesize a new image into-synthesize that disparate concept. Nobody was committed to it. It was just symbols, just appropriations. There was imagery from Caravaggio thrown in here, thrown in there, but it was still Caravaggio.

GARTENFELD: Looking back, did that reinvigorated style reflect a changed atmosphere in the early 1980s? Were there permissions—political or otherwise—that allowed return?

CONDO: I think it represented new potentials: You no longer have to deal with figuration as a self-imposed primitivism. From Demoiselles to Dubuffet to Basquiat, it was the end of that kind of thing.

GARTENFELD: Having moved to New York in the '80s, was there a palpable sense that these certain techniques were burned out?

CONDO: It came down to something more desperate. I got here at the very end of '79, and by the time '80, '81, '82 had rolled around, I'd had a lot of really lousy jobs. I got the stupid work you get at agencies, with the exception of the one job had at Warhol's Factory, which was great. But I lasted eight months there and then I quit. It was a sweatshop there. I could see why he never went, because the fumes were so intense.

You got in there at 10 in the morning and didn't get out until 12 at night, and afterward you couldn't breathe.

But I realized, man, if I don't think of something original, this is what I'm gonna be doing for the rest of my life. And then I thought of that famous statement where Warhol's mother said-he'd said, "Well, what am I supposed to do?" And she said, "Just paint what you like the most." And he liked Campbell's soup, so he painted a Campbell's soup can.

GARTENFELD: And that took you to the Old Masters, and the Madonna picture?

CONDO: I like European painting. I like Old Master painting. I've seen everything: I've seen Agnes Martin; I've seen David Hockney—I'm thinking of what was going on back then—and my favorite things were Old Master paintings. Frans Hals, Rembrandt. So I create generic hybrids.