Dispersed Figures
acrylic on canvas
50⅛ x 70⅛in. (127.4 x 178 cm.)
Painted in 1998
Sprüth Magers Lee, London.
Private Collection, USA.
Anon. sale, Christie's New York, 21 September 2011, lot 26.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
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Lot Essay

‘Could I be the court painter for an Alien King?’, asked George Condo (G. Condo, quoted in S. Baker, George Condo: Painting Reconfigured, London 2015, p. 69). Throughout his oeuvre, the artist has conceived his work in perpetual dialogue with the past. Beginning in the 1980s with paintings that he described as ‘fake Old Masters’, he borrowed widely from the art-historical canon, ruthlessly absorbing subjects, techniques and compositional devices into his strange, hybrid universe. Scouring museums in Europe and beyond, he imbibed influences from the Renaissance, Post-Impressionism, Cubism and Abstract Expressionism, fusing their lessons with ideas plucked from cartoons and other contemporary sources. From these investigations sprung a cast of monstrous characters – at once familiar and alien – through which he sought to explore the curiosities and complexities of the human condition.

Though Condo engaged with a wide variety of genres and idioms throughout his career, he remained particularly entranced by the Old Masters. Over the years, he developed an acute sensitivity to their achievements: ‘the way Vermeer could paint light or the way that Caravaggio could paint shadows, the way that jewels were painted, as well as the way Rembrandt laid on all these textural layers and shiny golden helmets’ (G. Condo, ibid., p. 26). Though many of Condo’s early works appeared to appropriate specific paintings, his later canvases navigated these teachings on a more technical, cerebral level. As Calvin Tomkins explains, ‘instead of borrowing images or styles, [Condo] used the language of his predecessors, their methods and techniques, and applied them to subjects they would never have painted’ (C. Tomkins, ‘Portraits of Imaginary People’, The New Yorker, 10 January 2011).

Dispersed Figures (1998)is a lyrical example of the increasingly schismatic, abstract style that Condo adopted in his ‘Expanding Canvases’ of the 1990s. Though superficially riffing on the language of artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, the work may ultimately be read as a broader expression of Condo’s philosophical principles. Over the course of his career, he preached the view that art could capture multiple emotional, temporal and aesthetic states in a single image – an idea he described as ‘psychological Cubism’. Informed by his love of jazz and improvisation, he dispensed with the view of human existence as a linear narrative, viewing it instead as a web of intersecting realities and time-frames. Just as artists such as Brueghel sought to capture the great flux of daily life, the present work offers an image of simultaneity, where figures, faces and forms collide in a single frozen moment. It is an abstract vision of Condo’s own underlying conviction: that our only hope of understanding the present is to view it in chaotic, messy counterpoint with the past.

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