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Red and Black Diagonal Portrait

Red and Black Diagonal Portrait
signed and dated 'Condo 2016' (upper left)
acrylic and oilstick on canvas
213 x 208.6 cm. (83 7⁄8 x 82 1⁄8 in.)
Painted in 2016
Sprueth Magers, Los Angeles
Private collection (acquired at the above by the previous owner)
Christie’s London, 4 October 2018, lot 17
Acquired at the above by the present owner
Los Angeles, Sprueth Magers, George Condo: Entrance to the Void, 2016.

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Lot Essay

George Condo’s monumental painting Red and Black Diagonal Portrait vividly demonstrates the artist’s mastery of line, colour and composition. Executed in 2016, it reaffirms the artist’s interest in the dance between figuration and abstraction, witnessing his continued fascination with what he terms ‘psychological Cubism.’ Condo explains that ‘Picasso wanted to show multiple sides of an object simultaneously. That was a kind of perspectival Cubism: not being limited to a single view in one view where you can see all four sides of a box. But what if you could see all four sides of human nature? That’s what I call psychological Cubism.’

Red and Black Diagonal Portrait displays a scarlet background, rich in painterly texture and backlit with subtle ochre flashes. Hinting at the work of colour field painters like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, whilst simultaneously conjuring conflicting psychological associations of passion and rage, the monumental work’s mismatched complexity extends to its medium through the use of both acrylic paint and oil sticks. The emotional power of colour in this painting lends to the personal strife that the artist was going through at the time. Following a major surgery on his vocal chords, after being diagnosed with cancer in 2015, the artist’s painting method assumed a new degree of personal significance. ‘I was starting to feel very scrambled up’, Condo writes; ‘… I was in five different places in my mind at the same time.’ In the wake of this trauma, Condo set about performing a kind of exorcism, confronting his inner demons through the medium of paint. With its scraped, scratched and scarred textures – aided by his new adoption of the palette knife – the figure at the centre of the work confronts the viewer like a defaced sculptural edifice, its features skewed to the point of illegibility. ‘It’s the obliteration of the characters that keep haunting me’, explains Condo. ‘I’m getting them out of my system’.

The psychological drama of Red and Black Diagonal Portrait is apparent in the eyes, rigid rows of teeth, the bulbous curve of the face and the shoulders – each is reshaped and resized. Condo transforms the established portrait form, with a figure truncated below the shoulders in a manner common in Italian Renaissance portraiture to reveal a multitude of perspectives that run deeper than the surface of the figure’s appearance. The subject reaches to the edges of the canvas, occluding both the background and itself. Its identity, even down to its gender, is elusive, although its exaggerated eyelashes suggest some degree of femininity. The figure is shattered into irregular platinum-grey tiles and then glued back together with thick black lines. Its eyes are positioned at impossible angles from each other. A set of twirling black tendrils stemming from a root-like tangle resembles hair, but could equally be something else entirely. Condo disassembles his subject like a jigsaw puzzle. In contrast to this compartmentalisation, the vermillion field fringing it is open and flowing. Golden brown splotches resemble billowing flames. This abstract element would conventionally form a painting’s background, but here Condo allows ambiguity as to the position of these two elements. The line defining the figure’s left shoulder leaps over the red, and yet the fiery morass also effaces parts of the figure. Strands of scarlet, russet and black drip over the figure’s face, as if leaping out from the surrounding colour field. In this, the interplay between figurative and abstract creates a palpable dynamism.

Condo’s painterly prowess links him to his illustrious predecessors. The thick black lines, for instance, are redolent of those found in the 1930s work of Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso, who used them to pull the discrete forms in their work together. Condo’s incandescent paintwork, from splatters to dense strokes, draws on the action painting of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, which foregrounded the importance of the physical act of painting in the artistic process. Condo’s practice engages with his own understanding of the history of art. ‘People might say that one of my paintings looks like Guston meets Monet in a Picasso format in Cézanne’s world, but ultimately I consider it to be just about the knowledge of painting’, he explains. ‘You want to reach a point where your work is the sum total of everything that ever happened to you’.

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