Many Western abstract painters in the early 20th century — Albers, Kandinsky, Mondrian — were deeply influenced by Asian art and philosophy, though no one dismissed them as Orientalists. Their cosmopolitanism was a point in their favor, and proof of Modernism’s wide embrace. By contrast, if Asian artists showed signs of absorbing Western models, their work was disdained as derivative, inauthentic and evidence that Western Modernism was the only true one, the source that supplied the world.
When you visit — as I urge you to do — “V. S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life” at the Guggenheim Museum, keep this paradox in mind just long enough to see how its biases operate. Then put it aside, and give yourself over to some of the most magnetic abstract painting of any kind in New York right now. It’s by a 20th-century Indian modernist who looked westward, eastward, homeward and inward to create an intensely personalized version of transculturalism, one that has given him mythic stature in his own country and pushed him to the top of the auction charts.
Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde (1924-2001) grew up in what was then Bombay and attended art school there, finishing in 1950, three years after India gained independence. This was a heady, discombobulating time for young Indian artists. On the one hand, in the spirit of liberation, they felt pressure to think and act globally. At the same time, nationalist politics demanded that they turn their attention to South Asian history and traditions. It was from these pressures, differently weighed in different hands, that a complex local modernism, already well underway, took speeded-up form.
Most artists lined up on one side or the other of the divide. Mr. Gaitonde (pronounced guy-TON-day), always interested in old art and new, strove for a synthesis. He aligned himself with a group of artists in Bombay who long admired and emulated European figures like Paul Klee and Picasso and were attuned to internationalist trends. Simultaneously, he immersed himself in a study of Hindu, Jain and Mughal miniatures dating back as far as the 11th century, carefully copying their narrative images.
One of the earliest pictures in the Guggenheim show is a 1953 Gaitonde drawing of a woman done in western Indian miniature style: The body is fully frontal, the head and feet, impossibly, in profile; arms and breasts look tacked on. To better highlight the figure’s proto-Cubistic properties, he leaves color and landscape, other traditional features of miniature painting, out. In a pastel drawing from the same year, he eliminates figures and gives us landscape alone: fully colored, but impressionistic, nearly abstract.
This exercise of copying and dissecting traditional art was, for Mr. Gaitonde, a valuable form of self-training: He learned to use color as an independent expressive element and to break representational forms down to their abstract core. In doing so, he revealed an important historical truth: Indian painting had always been, fundamentally, about abstraction, an aesthetic mode that Western Modernism often claims as its own innovation.
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The young artist’s hands-on research must have been labor intensive, though evidence of sweat work is largely missing from the show organized by Sandhini Poddar, an adjunct curator at the Guggenheim, and Amara Antilla, a curatorial assistant. A few exploratory figurative images are all the early Gaitonde we get before this survey-that-isn’t-really-a-survey leaps ahead to the full-fledged abstract painter he became.
We can guess at reasons for the editing. With images that look specifically “Indian” all but left out, we have an artist who fits smoothly into a streamlined picture of Modernism that the Guggenheim likes to project. (The museum’s 2013 exhibition “Gutai: Splendid Playground,” which too neatly lined up a familiar strain of Japanese avant-garde art with Abstract Expressionism, fit this scheme, too.) In addition, by presenting Mr. Gaitonde’s mature art shorn of an evolutionary context, the show unhelpfully enhances an air of mystery that has gathered around the artist and has made him seem like an isolated phenomenon within South Asian culture, a solitary genius.
In some ways, he was pretty much alone. Although involved in vanguard circles in Bombay, where he mentored younger artists, including the great Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990), Mr. Gaitonde gained a reputation for being reclusive after relocating to New Delhi in 1972. He traveled a bit, including to New York City in 1964 on a Rockefeller grant, though he is reported to have kept a low profile wherever he was. He attracted loyal friends, but never married and lived simply. In 1998, he announced he was giving up art, and did. By the time he died, he was already a cherished legend within the contemporary Indian art world.
In its tailored view of his career, the Guggenheim seems intent on freezing that legend. Yet even in the monumentalizing white-box display of some 40 paintings in fourth-level annex galleries, you see clear evidence of this artist’s conceptual and formal restlessness. In the early 1960s, after he had decisively left figures behind, he picked up new techniques and tools (palette knives and rollers) and began doing painting that appear to be based on different forms of writing: ancient Indian carved inscriptions, scratchy Japanese calligraphy.
A devotee of Zen Buddhism — a pan-Asian sensibility had pervaded Indian modernism since at least the early 20th century — he switched from horizontal to vertical canvases to emulate the format of Chinese and Japanese hanging scrolls, covering the surfaces with luminous mists of color punctuated by light or dark circles symbolizing, in his spiritual vocabulary, meditative silence. Spiritual content, or perhaps just a spiritualized perspective, however hard to define, was the grounding element in Mr. Gaitonde’s art, which he always referred to as nonobjective rather than abstract, implying that something specific was there even if you couldn’t see it.
What makes this later work wondrous, though, is its painterly experimentation. In a career that lasted nearly a half-century, Mr. Gaitonde kept trying out new moves. He built paint up and scraped it off. He laid it down in layer after aqueous layer, leaving stretches of drying time in between. He said himself that much of his effort as an artist was in the realm of thinking, planning, trying things out. After what appeared to be unproductive periods — he averaged only five or six paintings a year — he suddenly plunged ahead, letting accident have a hand, as he pressed bits of painted paper to canvas to make patterns, or placed paint-soaked strips of cloth on surfaces and left them there, like patches of impasto or embroidery.
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The latest painting in the show, from 1997, is like no other. Regally colored light gold on dark gold, it is based on a single graphic design — four sets of arrow-shaped lines shooting toward a central circle — that looks at once cruciform, tantric, Rorschach-like; balanced but adamant, oddly aggressive.
For a long time, Mr. Gaitonde’s reputation, which barely existed in the West, languished in India, partly because abstraction as a genre was viewed as culturally irrelevant, even un-Indian. As the South Asian market has hugely expanded, valuations have changed. What was un-Indian about Mr. Gaitonde now makes him desirably global. In December 2013 in a Christie’s auction in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), an untitled 1979 Gaitonde painting went for $3.8 million, the highest price paid for a modern Indian work. The picture, a tall panel of coruscating gold with what could be nymphs and lotuses circling a sun-yellow heart, is in the show.
Mr. Gaitonde’s triumph — an unlikely word for so recessive a figure — is also a triumph for a concept that Ms. Poddar calls, in her catalog essay, “polyphonic modernisms,” the idea that varied but comparably vital versions of Modernism have flourished at different times and different places. In this revised vision of history, certain Western claims to innovation must be reconsidered.
The art historian Hal Foster has written: “Since abstraction is primordial to the arts of several cultures, there is no question of a single origin or a first abstraction: in this sense, abstraction was found as much as it was invented.” You can discover it being found, and invented, with slow, quiet splendor, at the Guggenheim these days.
“V. S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life” continues through Feb. 11 at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, at 89th Street; 212-423-3500; guggenheim.org.
A version of this review appears in print on January 2, 2015, on page C23 of the New York edition with the headline: An Indian Modernist With a Global Gaze. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|SubscribeSLIDE SHOW|7 Photos ‘Painting as Process, Painting as Life’