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  • “Aggression and dividedness in the world cannot destroy the human spirit—art speaks louder than words sometimes.” — George Condo

     


    George Condo 
    Photo Courtesy Melissa Brice Shea

     


    Recognised as one of the most inventive and prolific artists of his generation, few have dedicated their careers as singularly to one genre as George Condo has to that of portraiture. From his oeuvre, Sketches of Jean Louis is an exceptional work, the largest of Condo’s cherished black and white portraits to have come to auction, rising tall at over two metres high. At the forefront of the imposing composition is a handsomely dressed figure who emerges from a labyrinth of texture and line that seemingly takes on a life of its own. His twisted, exaggerated face dons a bulbous nose, protruding ears, grimace-like toothy overbite, and an incongruous pair of Condoesque eyes that confront us with a striking stare. Straddling the line between the ludicrous and the exquisite, the macabre and the carnivalesque, Sketches of Jean Louis brilliantly showcases the acclaimed American artist’s mastery as a puppeteer of the human form.

     

     

    A Rich Tapestry of Influence 

     

    Created in 2006, Sketches of Jean Louis is a quintessential example of the ‘Artificial Realism’ philosophy Condo pioneered in the late 1980s and has applied to his portraits of metaphysical mannequins ever since, a cast of whom the fictitious French character Jean Louis heads as the main figure. Defined as the realistic representation of that which is artificial, the principals of artificial realism are central to Condo’s work, guiding his construction of his motley crew of mythic heroes whose imagined lives serve as a mirror for human nature, providing a fanciful recreation of our contemporary world. 

     

     

     
    Jean Michel-Basquiat, Untitled, 1981
    As sold by Phillips New York in November 2018 for US$4,575,000

     

     

    His distinct aesthetic comes as the result of the fascinating life he has lived, having found himself at the intersection of major art movements. At the age of 21, he was an assistant in Andy Warhol’s Factory, befriending fellow New York artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Julian Schnabel, whose influence we can trace in Condo’s scrawling, bold line, and adroit understanding of texture. In 1989, he travelled for the first time to Europe, where he came to be greatly influenced by the German ‘Neue Wilde’ – a neo-expressionism movement championed by artists including Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer, which was characterised by intense colour and quick, broad brushstrokes. Boldly contrasting his contemporaries, however, was Condo’s unique amalgamation of these more modern painting styles with those of the Old Masters, as he also referred to tropes of traditional portraiture in the development of his oeuvre, finding influence from artists as varied as Rembrandt to Caravaggio and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

     

     

     
    Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Self-portrait of Bernini, circa 1623
    Collection of Galleria Borghese, Rome 

     

     

    Condo’s work refuses to play art historical snakes and ladders, however, as whilst he draws inspiration from a rich tapestry of sources, he constantly ricochets between different styles and subjects, rejecting to submit to the shadows of one single set of influences. As aptly described by art historian Simon Barker in response to Condo’s exclamation, ‘all languages are interchangeable’, the artist works in a remarkable manner as if he has learned ‘to speak all of them at the same time’i

     

    "I believe that painting needs to transform in order for it to become interesting for each and every generation, but I think of it more in terms of being liberated by history. Liberated by what has come before." 
    — George Condo

     

    Whilst Rembrandt, Cranach, Velázquez, and Caravaggio are just a few of the greats Condo has paid homage to over his forty-year career, it is Picasso, however, who Condo engages with most consistently. Although there are numerous overlaps and distinctions that are shared in both their legendary practices, it is arguable that Picasso’s most significant influence on the younger artist was his persistent reinvestigation of the possibilities of portraiture. Specifically, Picasso’s ‘analytical cubism’ is interesting to consider in relation to the work of Condo, a style of working Picasso followed to expose his viewer to a invented type of fractured portraiture, characterised by fragmented shapes and overlapping viewpoints that brought his figurative works close to total abstraction. 

     

     


    Pablo Picasso, The Milliner’s Workshop, 1926
    Collection of the Centre Pompidou, Paris

     

     

    The influence of this aesthetic is notably evident in works by Condo such as Sketches of Jean Louis, where the figure’s faces have been twisted and angularly distorted over many layers, parodying any attempt at naturalism. At the same time, ‘claiming that colour weakens’, Picasso repeatedly restricted his palette to black, white, and grey throughout the various stages of his prolific career, often favouring a reduction of colour to depict compelling imagery such as his masterpiece The Milliner’s Workshop, executed in 1926. Indeed, this recurrent motif carries through two of his most important contributions to art history—analytical cubism and Guernica— which were mostly monochromatic, suggesting that the artist worked in a limited palette when he had something serious to say. 


    Testament to his black-and-white works being widely celebrated as a robust strand of Picasso’s output, marking another similarity to Condo’s masterful rendering of Sketches of Jean Louis, the prestigious Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York dedicated a museum show to Picasso’s muted colour palette. Entitled Picasso Black and White, the exhibition ran from 5 October 2012 – 23 January 2013, before traveling onward to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, between 24 February – 27 May 2013.


    But whilst Picasso worked from an intimate group of his close connections, using family members and lovers as his sitters, Condo’s protagonist are invented figures inspired by contemporary culture, created with no single person in mind. As such, whereas Picasso established new approaches to portraiture in order to illustrate the emotions of his subjects, Condo’s imagined cast force the viewer to analyse the contrast between fact and fiction, thereby representing our individual and complicated awareness of humanity and humanness. Ultimately, this unique fusion of multiple pictorial styles has allowed Condo to form his own brand of psychologically charged portraiture, as he has invented and expanded not just one painterly language, but an entire lexicon.  

    "Picasso painted a violin from four different perspectives at one moment. I do the same with psychological states. Four of them can occur simultaneously… hysteria, joy, sadness, and desperation." 
    — George Condo

     


    Lot 29 – Picasso, Nu couché et musician, 1967
    Estimate HK$9,000,000 – 14,000,000 / US$1,150,000 – 1,790,000


    The Iconic Jean Louis


    Both traversing and abolishing the border between abstraction and figuration, Sketches of Jean Louis is a superb example of Condo’s remarkable ability to warp the representational. Set against a backdrop of textured strokes in varying opacities, the melodramatic Jean Louis meets our gaze through the fractured facial landscape of Cubism, his warped visage revealing a distorted array of features. Often presented as a butler, maid, chef, or banker, in the present work Jean Louis is smartly dressed with a white-collared shirt and sharp black bow-tie, his depiction both nodding to a kaleidoscopic array of art historical references whilst also feeling conspicuously contemporary, bringing to mind an array of sources that range from the slick James Bond to caricature, comics, and the comical Looney Tunes. 

     

     

    “What is Jean Louis? Is he a waiter, a chef, a driver? Is he a real person?” — George Condo

     

     

    As a defining, recurring subject in his oeuvre, in Sketches of Jean Louis, Condo presents the fictious Frenchman full of pointed humour and unexpected angles, with an expression that intrigues us as his mouth is wide open as if shouting out in alarm. In searching for answers for the cause of his half-pained look, we notice the hand clasped around Jean Louis’ shoulder, a gesture that appears simultaneously friendly and eerie - the latter of which owing to its claw-like grasp. Whilst the hand is clearly defined, the possessor is not, their face smudged into darkness as their features smear into the dense topography of the background, which appears as a labyrinth of sensuous de Kooning-esque line. Contributing to the uncanniness of the overall scene is the bare-breasted woman to the left of the composition, whose torso juxtaposes the notably expressive backdrop in that it is left predominantly clear of mark-making, thus existing within the canvas as a contradictory place of negative space. The beauty of her face too, is morphed and mangled, through expressive strokes that animate her bug-eyed look with an unsettling mixture of torture and parody. Twisting and merging together, a sense of manic horror emerges, leaving us to believe we perhaps understand Jean-Louis’ surreal gasp.

     

     

     


    Willem de Kooning, Attic, 1949
    Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

     

     

    Subverting the chaotic scene is the fact that it strangely feels as if the protagonists of the work are having a sort of hysterical fun, and the more the viewer engages with the trio that Condo presents us with, the more ‘human’ the characters become. Indeed, as the artist asserts, ‘essentially what I am painting is […] a new conjunctive hyper-reality or hybrid image showing the simultaneous presences’ii. As such, in rendering the various psychological states of his subjects concurrently, the deformed nature of Condo’s imaginary cast can therefore be viewed not as abstractions of humanity, but rather, as a representation of the raw, honest, and disconcerting reality of the paradoxes and complexities of the human psyche. 


    As perfectly embodied by Sketches of Jean Louis, this urges the viewer to step outside of tradition and delve into the aspects of the painting that both shocks and delights us, forcing us to reconsider and experience Condo’s masterwork as a surreal reflection of our own humanity.

     

     

    George Condo at Work

     

    “In the beginning I took fragments of architecture to create a person. Now I take a person and fragment them to make architecture.” 
    — George Condo

     

     

     

    George Condo: The Artist at Work, 2017
    Courtesy Louisiana Channel

     

     

    Collector’s Digest 


    Widely revered as a major figure within the art historical canon, Condo has exhibited extensively throughout his career. Notably, this has included a mid-career retrospective held at the New Museum in New York, in 2011, which later travelled to Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Hayward Gallery, London; and Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt – and was described as ‘sensational’ by The New York Times iii; a museum-wide exhibition hosted at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in 2016; and his representation at the 58th International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia: May You Live in Interesting Times, curated by Ralph Rugoff in 2019. 


    Condo has an upcoming major exhibition scheduled to open in September 2021. Hosted by the Long Museum in Shanghai, The Picture Gallery will present the largest solo exhibition of Condo in Asia.


    Attesting to his position as one of the truly exceptional artists of his generation, works by Condo are now housed a multitude of prestigious public collections worldwide. This includes, but is not limited to, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles; Tate Modern, London; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Staedel Museum, Frankfurt; and ORS Ltd., Tel Aviv.

     

    "I guess you can say I manufacture the characters in the same way a playwright comes up with the lives of characters... Jean Louis and Rodrigo are serial characters. They live out a life that I never could. They live out a life while I'm in a room painting. They're experiencing life for me." — George Condo

     

    Condo’s Presence in Public Collections


  • i George Condo, quoted in Ralph Rugoff, George Condo: Existential Portraits, Berlin, 2006, p. 7
    ii George Condo, quoted in Ralph Rugoff, George Condo: Existential Portraits, Berlin, 2006, p. 8
    iii  Holland Cotter, ‘A Mind Where Picasso Meets Looney Tunes’, The New York Times, 27 January 2011, online
     

    • Provenance

      Luhring Augustine, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2006

    • Artist Biography

      George Condo

      American • 1957

      Few artists have dedicated their careers as singularly to one genre as George Condo has to that of portraiture. He is drawn to the endless inquiries posed by the aesthetics and formal considerations of Caravaggio, Rembrandt and the Old Masters. Emerging on the New York art scene in the 1980s alongside contemporaries such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Condo developed a distinctive visual lexicon that is unmistakably his own. 

      Student to Warhol, friend to Basquiat and collaborator with William S. Burroughs, Condo tracked a different path. The artist frequently cites Picasso as a predominant influence in his contemporary cubist compositions and joyous use of paint. Condo is known for postmodernist compositions staked in wit and the grotesque, which draw the eye into a highly imaginary world. 

      View More Works

Property of a Private European Collection

28

Sketches of Jean Louis

signed and dated 'Condo Jan. 19.06' upper left
oil on canvas
215.6 x 203.5 cm. (84 7/8 x 80 1/8 in.)
Painted on 19 January 2006.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
HK$10,000,000 - 15,000,000 
€1,050,000-1,580,000
$1,280,000-1,920,000

Sold for HK$13,560,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 8 June 2021