I STOOD IN FRONT OF ‘PAINTING NO 6,’ pausing on my walk through the maze-like galleries of the Guggenheim Museum. It was a rainy Saturday, and New York City’s most eccentric museum of twentieth-century art was crowded with tourists, gamely traipsing up and down the conch-shell-like inner atrium—in lieu, perhaps, of a stroll through the adjacent Central Park. Few had likely given modern Indian art a second thought before, much less heard of Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde, the self-effacing artist considered one of the country’s foremost modern abstract painters. Still, many stopped, as I had, to contemplate his work.
“Soothing,” a woman behind me whispered to her friend, in the hushed voice people reserve for museums. I looked again at the painting before me: a field of cloudy olive-green pressed over a long, vertical streak of deeper green that ended in a block of red, below which were dark, inky squiggles. I did not feel soothed.
I had arrived at VS Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life—an ambitious retrospective comprising 45 paintings—expecting to encounter something monumental. More than fifty years after Gaitonde first exhibited in New York, as a middle-aged artist just beginning to garner international attention, this show at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum constitutes the most prominent international honour he has received. This is only the museum’s third exhibition of an Indian-origin artist, and the first for an Indian artist who is no longer alive.