A monumental work formerly held in the prestigious collection of Melva Bucksbaum, Large Figure Composition is a vivid demonstration of George Condo’s art-historical imagination. Over three panels conjoined in the manner of a grand altarpiece, a female nude unfurls upon a bed, with curtains parting behind her to reveal a gathering of onlookers. Multiple hands clamour across her sinuous monochromatic form, speckled with flashes of gleaming red nail polish. Exquisitely rendered in gesso, wax crayon and coloured pencil, the work belongs to a series of works from 2008—the so-called Figure Compositions—in which Condo’s distinctive hybrid characters confront the viewer in a variety of staged groupings. Here, the artist takes on one of art history’s most time-honoured subjects, situating his reclining muse in a tradition that extends from Titian and Velázquez through to Manet, Modigliani, Matisse, Picasso, Bacon and Freud. She is part-temptress, an apple raised symbolically to her lips; she is part-prop, subservient to the gaze of Condo’s motley cast members. It is an image of the complex mechanisms—seduction, desire, voyeurism and appropriation—that define our encounters with the art of the past.
As far as I’m concerned, the Renaissance was yesterday and Cubism was a hundred years before it”
Over the course of his oeuvre, Condo’s distinctive, cartoon-like caricatures have shouldered complex existential questions. Often assuming archetypal everyday roles, their grotesque, mercurial features seek to highlight the shifting, multifaceted nature of human identity in the postmodern age. ‘I describe what I do as psychological cubism,’ Condo has said. ‘Picasso painted a violin from four different perspectives at one moment. I do the same with psychological states’ (G. Condo, quoted in S. Jeffries, ‘George Condo: “I was delirious. Nearly died”’, The Guardian, 10 February 2014). In the present work, the fractured face of Condo’s muse—and those of her entourage—capture the artist’s engagement with this principle, conjuring the split perspectives and contours of Picasso’s own portraits. The rabble of onlookers spans a gamut from classical beauty to monstrous chaos, offering a snapshot of the human condition and its depiction across the ages. The figure at the bottom, meanwhile, evokes Condo’s central protagonist Rodrigo—a fictional scoundrel, variously styled as a butler, brothel owner, gambler or valet—who appears throughout the Figure Compositions. The drapes that envelop the figure, evocative of the compositional staging in works such as Manet’s Olympia (1863) or Titian’s The Venus of Urbino (1538), serve to heighten the work’s voyeuristic implications. We as viewers are made aware of the implicit judgements we bestow upon these seemingly alien figures, and in turn come to recognise them as reflections of ourselves.
What interests him are how paintings function, how illusions are created, and how stories are told”
As a young man, Condo spent nine months working in Andy Warhol’s ‘Factory’, where he became fascinated by the ways in which meaning is created from images. While this conceptual concern underpins much of his practice, his work is equally bound up with the rise of Neo-Expressionism in the 1980s: a return to expressive figurative idioms, as championed by artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen. Large Figure Composition, in particular, bears witness to Condo’s extraordinary facility as a draughtsman. The late 2000s saw the emergence of his so-called ‘Drawing Paintings’, which effortlessly combined the two media with intuitive linear freedom. Here, the interplay between them creates a shimmering, illusionistic space, in which the familiar and the unfamiliar shift in and out of focus. Condo’s line twists and turns with the euphoria of improvised jazz—another potent influence—weaving its way through semi-abstract and figurative formations. It is a vision caught between worlds: between the graphic and painterly, the past and the present, the real and the staged, the monstrous and the human.
Lot Essay Header Image: The present lot illustrated (detail).