Painted in 2013, Diagonal Portrait is a monumental masterpiece of George Condo’s ‘psychological cubism’: a signature blend of abstraction, figuration and art-historical plunder through which he depicts aspects of the human condition with rich and humorous intensity. The present work leans toward the abstract, with a vibrant conglomerate of shapes that only just register as a human profile. Graceful, tumbling strokes of charcoal enclose loops, planes and facets of colour, ranging from sloped shoulders of khaki and burnt umber to a riotous tangled head of lavender, red, jade green, and neon yellow. A V-shaped orange block hints at a nose, adjoining one vertical eye and a flash of piano-key teeth; a sketchy second eye hovers further up amid a dripped and splashed haze of white. Pastel and paint conjure a variety of textures. While influences from Picasso to Disney clamour in Condo’s explosive reimagining of portraiture, this work also has an Old Masterly sense of light: as if lit from the composition’s right-hand side, the luminous off-white background gives way to slaty sepia tones behind the figure, throwing its chromatic drama into shadowed relief. ‘When a painting has neutral space around it,’ Condo explains, ‘there’s a tone where from the light side – let’s say we’re dealing with a portrait – from the light side of the face to the shaded darker part of the face, you’ll notice that the background corresponds in an opposite way … That’s just the way that Rembrandt or Frans Hals or any of those portrait painters usually framed their portraits. It does something to classicize 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). Indeed, while Condo’s title foregrounds the work’s abstract formal dynamics over any emotive content, Diagonal Portrait is alive with a sense of real humanity.
Condo has always worked in conversation with his predecessors. ‘People might say that one of my paintings looks like Guston meets Monet in a Picasso format in Cézanne’s world,’ he says, ‘but ultimately I just consider it to be about the knowledge of painting. You want to reach a point where your work is the sum total of everything that ever happened before you’ (G. Condo, ‘Modern Painters’, in George Condo: Artificial Realism, exh. cat. Gary Tatintsian Gallery, Moscow 2008, p. 72). In Diagonal Portrait, we might pull out dialogues with the vigorous action painting of Pollock and de Kooning, the cubism of Picasso – on whose works Condo has riffed throughout his career, as if jamming on a jazz standard – and the energetic, scrawled portraits of Basquiat. If Rembrandt and Hals play a role, there is also a touch of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the 16th-century Italian painter who composed imaginary portrait heads entirely from objects such as fruit, vegetables, flowers, fish, and books. Here Condo does similar building work with abstract shapes, creating a distinct sense of individual components that mirrors his omnivorous approach to art history. ‘The point’, Condo explains, ‘is not to see how well somebody paints a figure, but something beyond that. A way of saying that the figure itself becomes a map of a number of intellectual processes involved in the idea of making an art work. The figure 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, 2005, pp. 32-33).
In Diagonal Portrait’s maelstrom of art-historical stimuli, however, there is also an element of personal narrative – of something that happened to Condo, rather than before him. It is among a number of large-scale portraits that Condo painted in 2013 after a bout of Legionnaire’s Disease and triple pneumonia. Drawing on phantasmic figures he saw in his hospital delirium, these works have a glow of triumph and innovation, acting as vital celebrations of the artist’s recovery from a near-fatal experience. Employing charcoal, pastel and acrylic paint, Condo fully united his virtuoso draughtsmanship and his talents as a colourist, challenging the primacy of painting to conjure exuberant choruses of bold line and kaleidoscopic hue. The present work is perhaps the most beautiful of the series, balancing its more chaotic flourishes with a classical restraint of composition. There is a poised dignity to Diagonal Portrait’s fragmented figure. Assured and vivid, the work sees Condo pushing his medium into daring new territory, and grinning in the face of death.