VS Gaitonde at the Guggenheim

01 December 2014

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.

The retrospective comes on the heels of a December 2013 sale, via the auction house Christie’s, of an untitled Gaitonde painting from 1979 for $3.8 million. Since that commercial success, anecdotes from the artist’s life have been spun into the stuff of art legend; even his reclusiveness is now famous. Yet to stand in front of a Gaitonde canvas is to experience that reclusiveness first-hand. The muted, mysterious paintings, devoid of the sociopolitical themes and ornamentation often associated with Indian art, resist easy appreciation. Unlike his noted contemporaries—SH Raza with his concentric circles, and Tyeb Mehta with his bisecting diagonal lines—Gaitonde is not associated with any obvious or familiar motifs. His work quietly confronts the viewer’s expectation of being entertained. His paintings subvert the desire to be wowed or wooed by visual art. Don’t gawk, they seem to say, there is no spectacle here.

GAITONDE DIED IN GURGAON in 2001, at the age of 77. He left behind no wife or children, and what little we know of his life comes from his friends, a handful of interviews he gave, and a documentary in which he refused to acknowledge the camera. Born in 1924, into a working-class Goan family in Nagpur, Gaitonde was raised first in Goa and later in a chawl in Girgaon, Bombay. Against his family’s wishes, he enrolled at the Sir JJ School of Art in his late teens.

In 1947, a year before Gaitonde graduated with a diploma in painting, a group of six young artists, including FN Souza, SH Raza and MF Husain, formed the Progressive Artists Group to explore what it meant to be both Indian and modern. As Rebecca Brown puts it in her book Art for a Modern India, “the Progressives offered not a single new direction for Indian art, but rather a pivot around which various artists, critics, galleries, and collectors could redefine what it meant to be Indian and modern in the post-independence context.”

When Gaitonde was invited to join the Progressives, in the early 1950s, his paintings were still representational. An untitled 1955 piece—the works in the Guggenheim are arranged chronologically, offering an opportunity to trace the artist’s development—shows two embracing figures, depicted as blocks of color in a style reminiscent of the Swiss-German painter Paul Klee. Gaitonde’s association with the Progressives was brief, and by 1956 the group was scattered, but there is no doubt that this rich moment in the history of modern Indian art left its mark on his development as an artist.

In 1957, Gaitonde won a prize for ‘The Bird and the Egg,’ considered one of his last forays into figurative painting, at the First Young Asian Artists Exhibition in Tokyo. That painting is unfortunately not part of this exhibition, but Gaitonde’s definitive move away from figurative painting, and from the geometric forms he employed in the 1950s, is evident. Through the 1960s, Gaitonde worked towards a monochromatic use of color, sometimes punctuated by contrast; a minimalist approach to form; and a further exploration of texture. These elements became part of his signature style.

Over the course of many years, Gaitonde experimented not just with how his paintings looked, but also with how they were created, refining his “lift-off” technique. After applying multiple layers of paint to a canvas using a roller, he would scrape some of the pigment away with a palate knife. The process might seem Sisyphean, but then the act of meditation itself is nothing if not Sisyphean, and Gaitonde’s painting is perhaps best understood as a meditative practice.

‘Painting No 6’ is part of a 1962 series that coincided with Gaitonde’s turn to Zen as a spiritual and artistic philosophy. I stood in front of the roughly three-by-three-foot canvas, taking in the murky green surface, the whimsical blotches of blue and yellow, the dabs of vivid green and red at the center. The colors in the painting’s second layer seemed almost trapped, but they also pulsed with energy, in tension with the containing surface. I remembered a bleak afternoon last winter when I was walking in a park in Brooklyn and saw a yellow, autumn leaf preserved in a bed of ice—a fleeting reminder of another season, frozen so pristinely as to emphasise its ephemeral beauty.

VS Gaitonde’s penchant for reclusiveness is now well known.
courtesy Shalini Saran / Gugenheim Foundation

Unlike the myth of Sisyphus, however, in Gaitonde’s work, every action upon the canvas leaves a scar on a layer of the painting, and these scars manifest as interplays of light and texture. This dance between creation and erasure recorded gives the paintings their brooding, sometimes unsettling, energy.

THE CONNECTION BETWEEN ABSTRACT ART and spirituality has a long history. More than a hundred years ago, the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky wrote in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art that the interplay of form and colour in abstract art was interesting not in itself, but as a language that expressed hidden spiritual truths. To Kandinsky, abstraction represented the opposite of materiality:

Our materialistic age has produced a type of spectator or “connoisseur,” who is not content to put himself opposite a picture and let it say its own message. Instead of allowing the inner value of the picture to work, he worries himself in looking for “closeness to nature,” or “temperament,” or “handling,” or “tonality,” or “perspective,” or what not.

While Gaitonde may have agreed with the sentiment, he preferred the term “non-objective” to “abstract,” and it is instructive to tease out the theoretical distinction between the two: abstract painting can include an attempt to represent an object (even an imagined or symbolic one, like a bindu or lingam), whereas non-objective painting specifically rejects such efforts. Both are free from the conventions of figurative representation, and may share visual tropes—a lack of clarity of form, unusual colour schemes, a play of order and chaos—but artists who call themselves “non-objective” deliberately highlight their rejection of representation.

The semantic debate about what non-objective art is, and whether it is different from abstract art, is decades old, and the Guggenheim Museum has, from its inception, played an active role in the conversation. In 1927, the European artist Hilla Rebay met the wealthy philanthropist Solomon Guggenheim in New York. She began guiding Guggenheim in building an art collection, steering him towards works by Kandinsky and other painters that she considered non-objective artists. This collection slowly grew into the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, originally housed in a small midtown Manhattan gallery, which was renamed after its patron in 1952.

The suspicion towards non-objective painting at the time can be gleaned from a satirical poem published in the Baltimore Sun in 1939, while the museum’s collection was on display in the paper’s home city:

We are art that’s non-objective, minus sense and sans perspective …

As against a background crimson, every figure simply swims on …

Some of us are balls cerulean, some of us are points Herculean …

Defying its sceptics, the combination of European vision and American wealth prevailed, and the Guggenheim’s collection of Western artwork flourished. Rebay took it upon herself to educate the American public about non-objective art through publications, lectures and traveling exhibits, going as far as to write, echoing Kandinsky, that the step from objectivity to non-objectivity in painting was a step forward from materialism to spirituality.

Non-objective art addresses an absence—a lack of form—and then tries to contain that absence within visual forms. Its commanding power comes from an attempt to escape representation—from rebelling against the human need to create meaning. Despite its quest for purity, however, it comes out of a certain tradition, which has its own history. In the West, non-objective painting would go on to feed abstract expressionism, an American movement that came into its own at the end of the Second World War. Internationally, an aggressive programme of exhibitions, organised covertly by the CIA through the Congress for Cultural Freedom to promote American art and culture, brought everything from the colour fields of Mark Rothko to the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock to cities around the world.

The influence of the American avant-garde, especially in recently decolonised countries such as India, grew in the middle of the twentieth century, just as New York became the new capital of the art world. (In fact, the Japan Cultural Forum, which organised the Tokyo exhibition in which Gaitonde participated, is believed to have been part of the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom campaign.) Institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art (originally established by the Rockefeller family) and the Guggenheim became the arbiters of emerging art around the world, far before they began to show it within their galleries.

In 1964, Gaitonde received a Rockefeller scholarship, set up to bring international artists to New York for a year. A fundamentally inward-looking person, Gaitonde gravitated towards the vocabulary of non-objective art to express himself. Yet if his approach emerged partly out of a Western attempt to break with Western representative tradition, he still developed a style that was all his own. As Jackson Pollock, whose abstract expressionist paintings are well represented in the Guggenheim’s permanent collection, said in a 1956 interview, “Every good artist paints what he is.” While Painting as Process undoubtedly grants Gaitonde a certain legitimacy in the international art world, it is important to keep in mind that he was a complicated figure who existed at the crossroads of many traditions.

OVER A DECADE BEFORE Gaitonde painted ‘No 6,’ Mark Rothko had made a similar transition, away from mythological symbols towards rectangular fields of color and other “multiforms,” as he called them. In a 1945 essay, the painter, reputed to have been one of America’s most reclusive artists, proclaimed, “I insist upon the equal existence of the world engendered in the mind and the world engendered by God outside of it.” Gaitonde visited Rothko’s studio during his time in New York, and watched him paint. While both artists were drawn to representing the inner world, Rothko’s expression of it is bright and concentrated, while Gaitonde’s is cloudy and muted.

Many details of Gaitonde’s life remain as nebulous as some of his paintings. But if there’s one thing that everyone who knew him remembers, it’s his silences. In the late 1960s, Gaitonde, apparently estranged from his family, moved from Bombay to a one-room flat in Delhi’s Nizamuddin East, a neighbourhood with several artists’ barsatis around that time. The artist Krishen Khanna, who lived nearby and was also with Gaitonde in New York, recalls (in the Painting as Process catalogue) wordlessly walking the length of Manhattan with him. The journalist Pritish Nandy, who interviewed Gaitonde in 1991 for the Illustrated Weekly (this was one of the few interviews the artist ever gave), said later that there had been barely any typical conversation between them. “He was what you could call a reluctant speaker,” Nandy wrote to me in an email. “But … we spoke about many things. In short monosyllables, through silences … through sketches and drawings.”

In Sunil Kaldate’s 1995 documentary VS Gaitonde, the artist does not speak at all. Among the sparse details the camera takes in is a photograph of the guru Ramana Maharishi on the artist’s fridge. In the catalogue, the curator Sandhini Poddar writes that the guru’s “silent teachings,” wherein disciples gleaned spiritual knowledge from the vibrations of their teacher’s being, were considered his most direct and powerful modes of instruction.

Shortly after Gaitonde died, the prices of his work started rising. An untitled 1962 oil-on-canvas piece fetched Rs 23 lakh at a Mumbai auction in April 2002, setting a new Indian record. As with the work of many of his contemporaries, the market value of Gaitonde’s art has risen quickly since then, even if his reputation has not extended beyond a limited art circle, especially abroad. Unlike MF Husain, Gaitonde has not become a household name in India, even though today, after the 2013 sale of the untitled 1979 painting, he has the dubious distinction of being the most expensive artist India has produced.

After the Christie’s auction, both the Indian and the Western media has often referred to Gaitonde as India’s Rothko. While this is meant as a compliment, it can serve to make Gaitonde seem derivative. The Guggenheim’s methodically researched catalogue for Painting as Process, which is titled Polyphonic Modernisms, does its best to resist this tendency. In the introductory essay, the cultural theorist Geeta Kapur is quoted as saying, “It is crucial that we do not see the modern as a form of determinism … We should see our trajectories crisscrossing the western mainstream and, in their very disalignment from it, making up the ground that restructures the international.” Yet given the hype now surrounding Gaitonde, and in the absence of greater scholarship, it is perhaps inevitable that his work will be simplified, and the idea that many modernisms coexist and intersect will get lost.

THE MEDIA’S RECEPTION of the retrospective is a study in how good intentions can pave the road to reaffirming old power dynamics. The journalist Arthur Lubow, writing for the New York Times, gushes about how amazing it is that Sandhini Poddar, the Guggenheim curator responsible for organising the show, picked an Indian artist shrouded in “obscurity.” Lubow’s article, for which he interviewed Poddar, ends on this mystifying note:

When the topic turned to India’s place in the history of modern art, she became a bit less certain. Asked who stood on the same rung as Gaitonde, she hesitated. “I think he is rather exceptional,” she said.

Inevitably, the Guggenheim’s positioning of Gaitonde as a singular artist lends itself to a certain narrative about Indian modernist art, and a certain narrative about the Guggenheim itself as a magistrate of modernism, which perhaps runs counter to the idea of polyphony.

In the exhibition catalogue, Poddar mentions two exhibitions—Two Decades of American Painting, 1945–1965, held at Delhi’s Lalit Kala Akademi in 1967, and the First Triennale India, held in Delhi in 1968—that were emblematic of “the internationalism of the capital’s exhibition circuits in the 1960s and ’70s.” She also points out an “emphasis on transculturalism and globalism in the cultural arena in India in the early post-independence decades.” “Transculturalism” and “globalism” here seem suspiciously like euphemisms for Western exposure.

Yet as the art critic G Roger Denson, writing in the Huffington Post, shows, it is possible and necessary to understand Gaitonde’s use of abstraction in a more holistic way, going beyond looking at it as “modernist or Western in the sources it springs from.” Denson notes:

For while it is true that the painter born in Nagpur, and who spent most of his reclusive life in Delhi, came to embrace the Euro-American paradigm of abstraction, it was only after he studied the formal attributes of the great range of India’s historic paintings, a legacy that stretches back nearly two millennia. Gaitonde also studied other Asian and Western art histories and metaphysics…

Perhaps some of the obscurity around the life, work and influences of India’s foremost abstractionist will be dispelled by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, A Biographical and Comparative Research, a forthcoming book co-authored by Denson, Meera Menezes and Roshana Shahani. In particular, the book ought to shed some light on the influence of Zen philosophy on Gaitonde’s work—a bit of a blind spot in Paintings as Process. Though the exhibition and catalogue go to great lengths to trace various connections—some seemingly tangential—between Gaitonde’s work and American and European art, they touch only glancingly upon the artist’s encounter with Japanese philosophy.

Yet this was clearly an important influence for Gaitonde. In a 1963 questionnaire that he answered for the Museum of Modern Art, for instance, Gaitonde wrote that the study of Zen “has helped me to understand nature, and my paintings are nothing else but the reflection of nature. I want to say things in few words. I aim at directness and simplicity.”

Some of Gaitonde’s work, such as this untitled oil-on-canvas piece from 1975, recalls the style of Zen calligraphy.
Courtesy Christie’s

Granted, there is very little information, much less scholarship, on this topic (something that the increased interest in Gaitonde generated by Painting as Process will hopefully correct). But even a brief engagement with the subject could have yielded a more rounded understanding of Gaitonde’s artistic practice. For example, some of his oeuvre distinctly recalls the stark, unfettered strokes of Zen calligraphy. This includes a series of ink-on-paper works that the artist executed in the mid 1980s, after an automobile accident left him temporarily unable to do large oil-on-canvas paintings. His later paintings incorporate some of these calligraphic shapes, resembling something like a burnished ceramic glaze on canvas.

The renowned Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, in his classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, insists that a novice’s mind, with its many possibilities and its openness, is much more Zen-like than that of a master. He also writes on modern art:

Nowadays traditional Japanese painting has become pretty formal and lifeless. That is why modern art has developed. Ancient painters used to practice putting dots on paper in artistic disorder. This is rather difficult. Even though you try to do it, usually what you do is arranged in some order. You think you can control it, but you cannot; it is almost impossible to arrange your dots out of order.

It is helpful to think of Gaitonde’s art as a spiritual rebellion against artistic order, an ever deeper meditation on disorder, and an embrace of randomness. In the later paintings included in Painting as Process, there is a spontaneity of form that balances beautifully with his technical expertise in composition, colour and texture. At this level, it is hard to separate the artistic practice from a meditative or spiritual one. Ultimately, the magic of moving through this magnificent collection lies in seeing not just the canvases, but the evidence of a master at play, exploring the very nature of painting.

Shahnaz Habib is a freelance writer based in New York City.

Keywords: modern art New York Progressive Artists Group Indian painters Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde Guggenheim Museum abstract paintings Zen