‘I describe what I do as psychological cubism. Picasso painted a violin from four different perspectives at one moment. I do the same with psychological states. Four of them can occur simultaneously. Like glimpsing a bus with one passenger howling over a joke they're hearing down the phone, someone else asleep, someone else crying – I'll put them all in one face’ (G. Condo, quoted in S. Jeffries, ‘George Condo: “I was delirious. Nearly Died”’, in The Guardian, 10 February 2014).
In Abstract Portrait, George Condo presents us with a monumental and spectacular homage to Pablo Picasso. Clad in Picasso’s instantly recognizable black and white striped sailors shirt, the figure stares directly at the viewer with a single uncanny eye. With its distorted cubist shapes and distinct placement of the eye, the work is also formally reminiscent of Picasso’s own unique artistic vocabulary and immediately recalls his Buste d’homme en tricot rayé, 1939 (Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice). The classic simplicity with which the beautifully cross-hatched deep purple and mauve background is rendered is belied by the figure’s comic, jutting teeth and bright red nose, reminiscent of a circus clown. Executed in 2008 and exhibited in the artist’s solo show at the Museé Maillol in 2009, the present work demonstrates the artist’s iconic style of ‘Psychological Cubism’; Condo employs the Picasso-esque architecture of instantaneously depicting different facets of an object, only to then deviate from it by painting the internal ever-changing, and often conflicting emotions and sensation of the human face. Articulating the dichotomy of abstraction and figuration, the topography of the sitter’s face in Abstract Portrait becomes a colourful pictorial landscape that leaves behind physical appearance in favour of revealing a profound insight into the subject’s psyche.
Condo dissects the tradition of art history while simultaneously invoking the American impulse to build something new upon centuries of pre-existing artistic achievement. The subject’s three quarter pose is a hallmark of the Italian Renaissance, which at once invites the viewer to draw closer to the subject, while retaining an enigmatic quality. 'My painting is all about this interchangeability of languages in art’, Condo has explained, ‘where one second you might feel the background has the shading and tonalities you would see in a Rembrandt portrait, but the subject is completely different and painted like some low-culture, transgressive mutation of a comic strip' (G. Condo, quoted in J. Belcove, 'George Condo interview', in Financial Times, 21 April 2013). Introducing a comedic quality that is infused with a sense of the macabre, Condo has consistently aimed to push beyond the rigidity of human portraiture. Condo has compared himself to a playwright creating multi-dimensional characters: ‘Felix [Guttari] said I was the only portrait painter who ever painted entirely imaginary subjects. Picasso was always painting Dora Maar or whoever, Bacon’s portraits could always be traced to some existing person. But not my portraits. They were all imaginary’ (G. Condo, quoted in S. Jeffries, ‘George Condo: “I was delirious. Nearly Died”’, The Guardian, 10 February 2014).