Almost two metres in height, Untitled (2013) is a vibrant and monumental portrait by George Condo. A kaleidoscopic figure faces us, with multiplied eyes, ears and teeth fragmented into colourful Cubist disarray; graphic charcoal lines frame its cartoonish features and abstract facets of fluorescent green, magenta and orange. These psychedelic hues—echoed in scribbled swatches on the subject’s harlequin-like shirt—are applied in oil pastel. The figure’s neck is more conventionally rendered in paint, as is the warm, mahogany-brown backdrop. This rich variegation of surface is typical of Condo’s hybrid ‘drawing paintings’, which he began making around 2008. These works synergise pastel, charcoal and acrylic, reconfiguring traditional media in a way that mirrors Condo’s complex dialogue with art history. Clashing disparate references from Rembrandt to Picasso, Basquiat, and Walt Disney, Untitled sees Condo explore the fantasy and artifice inherent in figurative painting. A cacophony of signals compete, pushing the portrait into a strange, beguiling new realm.
They are about beauty and horror walking hand in hand. They are about improvisation on the human figure and its consciousness”
I love the idea of two incompatible worlds brought together—opposing forces harmonically melded”
While the figure’s prismatic, brightly-coloured face is a hallmark of Condo’s postmodern ‘psychological Cubism’, Untitled also displays an Old Masterly sense of light. As if lit from the left, the background shades from tan to a deeper burnt umber, throwing the figure into spatial relief. ‘That’s just the way that Rembrandt or Frans Hals or any of those portrait painters usually framed their portraits’, Condo explains. ‘It does something to classicise the constellation of human psychology that might be represented in one of those portraits’ (G. Condo, quoted in C. Moore, ‘Mondo Condo: Exploring the Extreme Vision of George Condo’s Work’, Ran Dian, 20 March 2018). Another antecedent might be Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the 16th-century Italian painter who composed surreal portrait heads entirely from objects such as fruit, vegetables, flowers, fish, and books. Here Condo does similar work with abstract shapes, building an assembly of diverse components that reflects his omnivorous approach to artistic idioms. ‘The figure’, he says, ‘is somehow the content and the non-content, the absolute collision of styles and the interruption of one direction by another, almost like channels being changed on the television set before you ever see what is on’ (G. Condo, quoted in T. Kellein, ‘Interview with George Condo, New York, 15 April 2004’, in George Condo: One Hundred Women, exh. cat. Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Ostfildern-Ruit 2005, pp. 32-33).
Amid its riotous art-historical burlesque, the present work also holds an element of personal narrative. It is one of a number of large-scale portraits that Condo painted in 2013 after suffering a bout of Legionnaire’s Disease and triple pneumonia. Partly inspired by phantasmagoric figures he saw in his hospital delirium, the works from this group of ‘drawing paintings’ have a glow of triumph and vitality, and can be seen as celebrations of his recovery from a near-fatal experience. The present example balances its hallucinatory visuals with a classical restraint of composition. Condo seamlessly unites his virtuoso draughtsmanship and his genius as a colourist, conjuring an exuberant chorus of bold line, polychrome shape and psychic complexity. The artist pushes his media into daring new territory, and grins in the face of death.
Lot Essay Header Image: The present lot (detail).