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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Masterpieces from the S.I. Newhouse Collection

Portrait Composition in Blue and Grey

Portrait Composition in Blue and Grey
incised with the artist's signature and date 'Condo 2012' (upper left)
oil on canvas
66 x 58 1/8 in. (167.6 x 147.6 cm.)
Painted in 2012
Skarstedt Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 2012.
S. Baker, George Condo: Painting Reconfigured, New York, 2015, p. 107 (illustrated in color).
Special notice
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.

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Max Carter
Max Carter Vice Chairman, 20th and 21st Century Art, Americas

Lot Essay

At once becoming and dissolving, building and demolishing, materializing and evaporating, George Condo’s Portrait Composition in Blue and Grey both engages an age-old tradition of portraiture and paints a novel path forward in abstract figuration. Blocks of weighty color cram and abut within the contour of a traditional bust against an evanescent background that passes from light blue to grey and back again. Arranged geometrically, these lush passages mimic three-dimensionality—prisms and spheres caught in a moment of expansion—yet a realization of the perspectival impossibilities halts the deception in its tracks. Bricks of white and pastel hues imitate the cool light that would presumably fall on the bridge of the sitter’s nose, the tops of the ears and the proper right clavicle, but their clearly defined edges again belie any sense of illusionism. Similarly, what first appear as shadows quickly dissolve into varying shades of the same palette, citing the Impressionist realization that darkness does not require blackness. The formless, ethereal space enshrouding the figure borrows from the early seventeenth century, when portrait subjects abandoned their luxurious environments for the barren canvas. Thus, Condo obeys the portrait recipe in name alone, following the art historical rules for the express purpose of breaking them.
Hailed for his abiding knowledge of the Western European canon tempered by an ongoing dialogue with his contemporaries, Condo has long sought precedent beyond his immediate landscape. A brief stint in Cologne in 1983 and a near-decade in Paris contributed to the visual morass amounting in the mind of the artist, then contextualized through contact with the post-modernist, conceptual leanings of late-twentieth-century New York. Unbound by standard chronological classifications, Condo continually synthesizes disparate styles and embedded motifs in an atemporal menagerie of Piero, Picasso, and Pop: “As far as I’m concerned the Renaissance was yesterday and Cubism was a hundred years before it” (S. Baker, George Condo: Painting Reconfigured, New York, 2015, p. 104). His characteristic conflations manifest in iconic dreamscapes peopled by the regal, the comical, the fractured, and the ubiquitous, as exemplified in the present portrait.
Condo’s unique brand of “artificial realism” simultaneously obscures typical portrait features and excavates an inescapable psychological dimension that perhaps elucidates more of his subject than sharp cheekbones and coiffed hair ever could. Rather than drawing from life or painting from a live model, Condo constructed the present work, along with others in the 2012 Toy Heads series, out of imaginative fragments; free from the restrictions of real light and space, the internal color relationships are pure fictions of the artist’s creation. In this way, Condo attains the pictorial liberation of which influential curator Henry Geldzahler wrote several years earlier: “It is a freedom that Condo is seeking, the freedom to be burdened by the freight of history, or the freedom to walk away” (“On George Condo,” in George Condo: Paintings and Drawings, exh. cat., The Pace Gallery, New York, 1988, n.p.). In choosing both precedent and progress, Condo travels beyond the formulaic discipline of portrait painting, of capturing likeness, to, as the present work’s title confirms, solely compose in color. Released from strict representation of an individual subject’s physicality, Condo’s invented mental persona bears literal facets that bespeak the disparate multiplicities of which any given human being is created.
No group of artists approached the depiction of multiplicities more closely than the early twentieth-century Cubists, namely George Braque and Pablo Picasso. In his Portrait of Fernande Olivier (1909), Picasso pictures his first muse, the French artist and model, from a variety of angles before an anonymous, sculptural landscape and eschews proper perspective to coax the utmost complexity out of a two-dimensional canvas. Condo unabashedly borrows from such an influential project on a regular basis, yet Portrait Composition stands out for its commitment to showing “all sides of the same head in different ways at the same time” (The artist quoted in W. Dickhoff, “In Ictu Oculi: The Post-Nondeconstructive Paintings of George Condo,” George Condo: Recent Paintings, exh. cat., The Pace Gallery, New York, 1991, n.p.). Not only is a plethora of personalities on display here, but also a medley of moments—the head turns this way and that, ever clicking in and out of view. Movement inheres in each separate chunk of color, such that the unity of the portrait is tentative at best, ever threatening to decompose. Yet according to the Cubist impulse, the most accurate image of life is the one that accounts for all of life’s dynamism—living, breathing humans are not static, immobile busts, nor is the arbitrary notion of time always linear. Out of this twisted logic of reality, Condo’s ersatz entity emerges as the truest representation of the archetypal portrait subject, even as it remains devoid of attributes grounded in reality.
Condo’s investigation, then, is not confined to the gallery wall, but instead contains an undeniable universality, as the present work comes to reflect any viewer at any time, rather than a single historical personage. “As an artist, you have to be grateful that you are able to transmit some kind of a life force through your work, and that life force is for all the people out there who question their existence and say who am I, where do I come from, what do I do? They realize that they’re alive because they are looking at it” (The artist quoted in “Conversation: George Condo and Bernard Ruiz-Picasso,” Life is Worth Living, exh. cat., Almine Rech, Paris, 2017, p. 1). Across the ocean, across the centuries, Portrait Composition in Blue and Grey thus stares back at its ancestors who bestow upon it that endless life force and gazes ahead toward a future that celebrates every facet of diverse humanity.

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