From the archives: August 9, 2005
The little-known abstract expressionist, Congo the chimp, has art going up for sale at Bonhams, an auction house in England. Three of Congo’s paintings are being sold alongside such masters as Renoir and Andy Warhol. (Not that Congo isn’t a master in his own right.)
Congo began his artistic career when he worked with Desmond Morris, anthropologist, TV presenter and writer of such books as The Human Animal, The Naked Ape, and Chimps-r-Us. Initially, Morris gave Congo the paints just to mess with the poor ape’s head, but after a couple of years, Congo got the hang of it, and he found a dealer in NY.
What happened to poor Congo thereafter is a cautionary tale for all artists.
The dealer knew Picasso, and the famous swordsman was enthralled with Congo’s “primitive” aesthetic. News of Picasso’s approval spread, and soon Congo found himself in a group show at MOMA, alongside the likes of Andy Warhol. (So it is fitting that his work is auctioning along with Warhol’s now.)
The NY arts scene in the late 50s was wild, and a little bit more than the young Congo could handle. (He was only six when he arrived.) At a party, an impish Truman Capote introduced the impressionable chimp to the banana daiquiri, and from there it was all downhill.
After a few lukewarm reviews from the MOMA show, Congo felt he should be more experimental, and changed artistic medium : he started working exclusively with canvas and his own fecal matter. This aromatic work was received rather coldly from critical circles, and even his patron, Picasso, withdrew support. (Thought it must be noted, this was after a wag commented on how similar the famous artist looked to congo.)
As his fortunes changed, Congo could neither afford his loft in Soho, nor even continue to support his daiquiri habit. Instead, he found solace in a slow degradation of fruity beverages: slivovice, ripple, and finally, Aqua Velva laced with vanilla extract.
Eventually, his health began to suffer, and Congo died of TB.
Putting an upbeat coda on this sad story, a spokesperson from the auction house Bonhams said:
Paintings by apes may be seen as humorous or as a derisive commentary on modern art. However, Morris’s studies were a serious attempt to understand chimpanzees’ ability to create order and symmetry as well as to explore, at a more primeval level, the impetus behind our own desires for artistic creativity.
Congo’s work sold for more than $26,000, while works by Renoir and Warhol remained unsold.