True Blue

Kondos works on

Kondos works on "Rosebud Farm, Sacramento River" at his home studio in December 2012.

Photograph by Max Whittaker

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If Sacramento is the River City, then Gregory Kondos has been its most faithful champion. Long celebrated for his local landscapes that employ virtually every shade of blue in the spectrum, the soon-to-be 90-year-old painter is about to get the birthday present of a lifetime—his first solo show at the Crocker in
20 years. Blue skies are here again.

LLike other great artists from the Sacramento area—such as Robert Arneson, Mel Ramos
and Wayne Thiebaud—Gregory Kondos can be easily found in any number of encyclopedias and reference books. But unlike his peers, Kondos can also be located on Google Maps. It’s quite easy to find where Kondos, one of the finest Sacramento painters of his generation, lives and works. You simply navigate the grid that is midtown Sacramento until you come to the street that bears his name: Kondos Avenue. This “avenue” has, in fact, a fairly modest provenance. It’s a former alleyway, a shaded funnel of a side street that runs two short blocks between P and Q streets, starting at 12th Street and ending at 14th.

The midtown-grid approach to Kondos’ home means passing under lampposts bearing banners festooned with art by his close friend and fellow Sacramento painter, Wayne Thiebaud. Considered one of America’s foremost living artists, Thiebaud is a few years Kondos’ senior. (Kondos was born in 1923, Thiebaud in 1920.) These banners are for the Crocker Art Museum, and soon enough the same lampposts will likely bear images of Kondos’ own paintings, since he has a massive exhibit—A Touch of Blue: Landscapes by Gregory Kondos—opening at the museum on Feb. 24, two decades after his last major Crocker solo exhibit, which occurred in 1993. The new show will close nearly three months later, on May 19, and during the interim (on April 2), Kondos will turn 90 years of age. The landmark Crocker show will feature approximately 70 works, and in anticipation, the museum will release a nearly 300-page monograph on the painter’s art in early February. The book features an appreciation by Thiebaud, in which he describes Kondos as a member of the family and singles out Kondos’ unique character: “His avuncular role and generous attention have been treasured.”

Kondos has much to celebrate in addition to this milestone birthday and coinciding exhibit. His work is shown and collected around the globe, most recently throughout China—an increasingly major force in the 21st-century art world—which has embraced his work by showing his paintings in three major museums there. In the U.S., museums from Monterey to Tucson to Washington, D.C. (the Hirshhorn), in addition to the National Academy Museum & School of Fine Arts in Manhattan, have obtained his work. Closer to home, his work hangs prominently in the Sutter Club and at the Sacramento International Airport. A predominant portion of that work not only displays the greater Sacramento area—perhaps most notably his hypnotically horizontal images of the Delta—but has become representative of the region; a Kondos even hangs in the D.C. home of a member of the House of Representatives (Congresswoman Doris Matsui is a collector and a friend of the family). His work also provides a symbol of home to Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, the Sacramento-reared U.S. Ambassador to Hungary. (The ambassador is the daughter of the well-known real estate developer Angelo Tsakopoulos, also an avid Kondos collector.) She says, “In my office at the Embassy the first two things to go on the walls were a photograph of Hillary [Clinton] from Brigitte Lacombe, and a painting by Greg called Vineyards. Greg is the master of blue, and all the shades go well with the American flag.”

All said, not bad for a kid who moved with his family to Sacramento in 1927 at age 3, having been born to Greek immigrants who didn’t speak a lick of English.

Indeed, like the avenue that is named for him, Kondos comes from modest provenance. Though he’s often mistaken for a Sacramento native, he was, in fact, born in Lynn, Massachusetts—a short drive north of Boston—in 1923 to Kanela and Steve Kondos, who had relocated to the United States from Greece six years prior. But after 86 years in this area, the few he spent elsewhere earlier are equivalent to a mere rounding error. Gregory Kondos’ story is Sacramento’s story, and like all historic Sacramento stories, it is an admixture of urban and rural; it takes place in the shadow of the state Capitol, and it unfolds along the river.

*** Kondos at age 17 kayaking in Lake Tahoe. (Photo courtesy of Gregory Kondos)

On humble Kondos Avenue, an enormous crape myrtle in full bloom stands guard as you make your way up to the front door, which is actually on the second floor of the building. An American flag hangs in the windless morning light, displayed at just the correct angle for no wrinkles to sully the stars and stripes. The front door opens into a sizable, two-story living room that’s an art gallery unto itself. The works are hung salon style, mere centimeters between pieces, the walls a brain twister of a puzzle of variously sized paintings, prints and sketches. It’s like if the Louvre were a level in Tetris. A Thiebaud of candied apples shares wall space with, among many others, works by Nathan Oliveira and William Gatewood, the latter the deceased brother of Kondos’ wife, Moni Van Camp-Kondos. (She is his second wife. The two met after his first wife, Rosie, passed away from cancer in 1985. It’s with Rosie that Kondos raised their two children, who have significant accomplishments of their own. Son Steve Kondos is an Aerojet engineer who helped build the first Mars Rover. Daughter Valorie Kondos Field is in the Athletics Hall of Fame at UCLA, where she coaches women’s gymnastics.)

The artist at age 3 in Boston holding a copy of Studio Light magazine (Photo courtesy of Gregory Kondos)

Moni is a whirlwind disguised as a hostess, ready with fresh croissants, hot coffee and enough rapid-fire anecdotes to fill a book. She knew him first through his art, and met him at an exhibit six months after Rosie died. “I bowed,” she says, in a tone that still approximates awe.

Following a domicile docent tour of the seemingly countless pieces of art displayed, a narrow, winding staircase leads the way down to Kondos’ economical first-floor studio. The room is packed with books, lined with paintings in all stages of completion, filled with the low-level sound of a TV newscast, and decorated with hat after hat after hat—not just the cowboy style that Kondos often wears, but the odd fedora, and also a horse-riding cap from daughter Valorie’s youth. This is the studio where the painter spends the majority of his days when he and Moni aren’t traveling.

Kondos sketching in Yosemite National Park in August 2008 (Photo courtesy of Gregory Kondos)

Unlike most nearly 90-year-olds who favor hats, Kondos still has quite a bit of hair. He is slight if not quite frail, and a little stooped. He is 89, after all. His eyes, however, are as clear as one might wish to have at such an age. They’re the eyes of someone with half his years.

Kondos immediately jokes about the street having his name. His tone isn’t aw-shucks modesty so much as that of someone who takes particular pleasure in making fun of his own lack of modesty: “The first week that we had the garbage picked up, everybody brought their garbage out here, and they had ‘Kondos’ on every garbage can,” he says. “I was standing up there like Mussolini. I said to Moni, ‘Look at this: I finally made it.’ ”

Kondos leads a painting workshop at the Sanchez Art Center in Pacifica in October 2008 (Photo courtesy of Gregory Kondos)

Of course, he had long since made it. The Kondos Avenue naming was the result of his distinction, not the cause of it. His name had already come to adorn a more prominent Sacramento location, the art gallery at Sacramento City College, where he taught for nearly three decades. His name also appears, among other places, on the wall at the Sacramento International Airport, where the massive, 570-foot-long River’s Edge—constructed from etched and colored glass in 1998—welcomes new arrivals. Also on display is his Sutter’s Gold, a new work installed in 2011, which lets people passing through to and from Terminal B feel like they’re at another juncture entirely: the North Fork of the American River.

Kondos at his first solo exhibit at Gump’s Gallery in San Francisco in 1962 (Photo courtesy of Gregory Kondos)

Kondos Avenue was established by local Greek developer Sotiris Kolokotronis in 2001. “He’s a puppy,” says Kondos of Kolokotronis, noting the generational gap. “He gave me some perks when we moved in,” adds the painter, who was living with Moni in the Delta city of Clarksburg at the time. Asked to list the perks, he points thankfully, and without any irony, to the ground-floor bathroom. “[Sotiris] said, ‘If you move in, I’ll have the city name the street after you.’ I said, ‘I’m ready to move because of my age.’ I had to get closer to the hospital. And that’s how we got here.”

This small studio area is the center of Kondos’ existence, and so much of his ongoing activity is evident in it. There are small-scale line drawings in charcoal and pencil, tracing contours of the landscapes from his travels to France and China and elsewhere. There are also larger-scale images, closer to completion, the light blues of his sky and his florid earthy palette on full display.

Kondos with fellow Sacramento artists Wayne Thiebaud (middle) and Fred Dalkey (right) in January 2009 (Photo from Sacramento Bee/ZUMA Press/Newscom)Fred Dalkey, an accomplished Sacramento painter in his own right, is almost exactly two decades Kondos’ junior, and he eagerly accepts the opportunity to sing the praises of his former teacher and mentor. (At Sacramento City College, Dalkey studied under Kondos, who also got his student a job there as an instructor.) Dalkey speaks in particular of that Kondos palette: “It’s always sunny in a Greg Kondos painting. You don’t see a lot of clouds, and you only occasionally see a night painting or drawing—they’re fascinating because they’re so rare.”

Kondos painting with Thiebaud in Thiebaud’s backyard in Land Park in 1967 (Photo courtesy of Gregory Kondos)Night may be rare in Kondos’ oeuvre, but it’s nonetheless essential to it, as his schedule shows. Kondos sleeps so little, his day can be said to start at any point on the clock. He’ll go for a walk, catch up on the televised news and have dinner. Then comes bed, though that’s really just the beginning of things. “I get up early,” he says. And when he says early he means early. “Between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. I am up and painting. It’s quiet. My wife is sleeping. This morning I was here at 3 a.m. I’d rather be down here, just looking at my work.” If the octogenarian’s eyesight is enviable, the same can be said of his productivity. People who find themselves on Kondos Avenue in the middle of the night and see a light on are likely witnessing the room where Kondos is hard at it, pulling out a work in progress, nudging it toward completion. Once a work has dried for four to six months, then it’s time to varnish. The smell of varnish and paint fills his studio. A young woman from a San Francisco gallery drops by for a visit, and he jokes that the smell is his cologne.

Kondos with wife Moni at their wedding on the Greek island of Kea in 1996 (Photo courtesy of Gregory Kondos)

There will be one more Kondos address, truth be told, and he treats it with his usual mix of humor and bluntness. He tells a story about visiting East Lawn Memorial Park, off Folsom Boulevard, to discuss burial plans. He’d intended to be cremated, but was going through with what he describes as his kids’ wishes. He met with a woman who handled the sale of plots. “I said, ‘I just wanna make sure that nothing screws up, because I’m doing this because of my children.’ She said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of it. In fact we’re going to put a flag out there with your picture on it, and your name.’ They’ve got some VIPs—congressmen and stuff.” This posthumous tribute would put him alongside such historic figures as William Land, and such contemporary figures as Joe Serna, the former Sacramento mayor, and Robert Matsui, the late congressman and husband of Doris Matsui. Kondos’ joke would be morbid were its subject not its teller, and were the teller not so vibrant; his point is evident: in death as in life, accomplishment has its perks.