Sunday, January 25th, 2015

“Everything Starts From Silence”: Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde at the Guggenheim

V.S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

October 24, 2014 to February 11, 2015
1071 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street
New York City, 212 423 3500

Installation view of exhibition under review. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Installation view of exhibition under review. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde (1924-2001) was a contemporary of second-generation American abstract expressionists like Sam Francis (1923-1994) and Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011). Like them, he was an abstractionist. Beyond that, the most mature paintings in this Indian painter’s mini-retrospective at the Guggenheim (which travels to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice next Fall) look like nothing I have seen that originated in New York or even Paris.

These subtle works are radiant yet passionately restrained. Paint has been scraped away until the surface hue remaining is as thin as air, while the small, vague shapes patterned upon them suggest no writing or imagery of any kind.  Their vertical format suggests Chinese or Japanese scroll paintings, as well as Indian tapestries, murals and miniatures. When the dominant colors are grays and smoky yellows, the association with East Asian art is enhanced—but when brilliant reds, orangey-yellows or clear blues predominate, the Indian subcontinent looks more like their home.

Not least, this difference from American and European abstract painting is due to the fact that Gaitonde was born and raised in India. He spent almost all of his adult life there, assimilating his nation’s cultural heritage and other Asian art besides the Western art that came his way. More importantly, what he made of all these influences is more than their sum total. His style is personal as well as multicultural.

V. S.Gaitonde, Untitled, 1977. Oil on canvas, 70 x 40 inches, Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. Photo: Anil Rane
V. S.Gaitonde, Untitled, 1977. Oil on canvas, 70 x 40 inches, Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai
© Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. Photo: Anil Rane

This show was largely organized by Sandhini Poddar, an adjunct curator at the Guggenheim. In her engrossing catalog essay, she describes the artist as “short, stocky, self-centered and confident,” a man who “tended toward solitude.” Never married, he lived for his later decades in a single-room rental apartment-cum-studio in New Delhi–though he’d long since become one of India’s best-known painters. He’d represented his country in two Venice Biennales, and shown elsewhere dozens of times, in solo and group exhibitions, at galleries and museums, mostly in India, but also in the U.S., Japan, the UK, Switzerland, Eastern Europe and Singapore.

Still, that single-room rental in New Delhi may well have carried with it reminiscences of Gaitonde’s childhood home in a working-class tenement in Bombay (now Mumbai). This childhood was in the days of the British Raj, and the Bombay art school that he entered around 1945 was patterned on the Royal Academy in London.

Known for short as the “Sir J. J. School of Art,” it was named for Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, a Parsi merchant who underwrote its founding in 1857. When Gaitonde entered, it still required students to draw from plaster casts of antiquities, paint portraits in the academic manner, and do studies from the nude model. The winds of change were blowing, however, and in 1947, India became independent. India’s cultural heritage achieved new relevance, while “modernity” and internationalism appeared other ways to declare the country’s freedom from colonialism.

Gaitonde graduated from the Sir J.J. School of Art in 1948, and stayed for two more years as a fellow. By the time he left, he’d studied Indian techniques and aesthetics there, as well as being exposed to Kandinsky, Picasso, Matisse and Braque. The contemporary art scene in Bombay, meanwhile, was in its infancy. The first commercial art gallery was not to open until 1959, so Gaitonde joined the Progressive Artists Group. It staged exhibitions of Indian artists pursuing non-academic styles, but such styles were more likely to be expressionist than abstract.

Gaitonde experimented with figuration in a traditional Indian mode, in a European style influenced by Georges Rouault, the French expressionist, finally modeling himself on Klee. The Guggenheim show commences with one 1953 Indian-style drawing, followed by five Klee-like works on paper. Then, around 1957, Gaitonde begins to evolve into pure abstraction.

In the mid-‘60s, he spent a year and a half in New York on a Rockefeller-financed grant. He visited Rothko, watched American movies and explored the city’s streets. His paintings were shown in Manhattan gallery exhibitions, and the Museum of Modern Art acquired one, but the 1960s paintings in the current exhibition are overly familiar. With dark, shiny surfaces, horizontal formats and careful paintbrush squiggles imitative of calligraphy, they look too much like what ‘60s New York expected of Asian painting. Only after Gaitonde had returned to India, immersed himself anew in the Zen Buddhism that had long been his solace, and settled in New Delhi in 1972, does the work begin to go beyond anything done before.

He abandoned paintbrushes, laid his canvas on the floor, and, according to Poddar, “began utilizing a ‘lift-off’ process: tearing pieces from newspapers and magazines, he transferred color from these cut-outs by applying rollers onto the verso of their wet, painted surfaces and subsequently erased aspects of the transfers with palette knives.”

The fruit of this technique, which owes as much to Rauschenberg as to Rothko or Indian tradition, can be seen in the largest gallery of this show. The dozen carefully-spaced paintings that surround the viewer, all done between the mid-‘70s and the ‘90s, create a serenity conducive to contemplation and meditation in the grand tradition of Zen.

“Everything starts from silence “ Gaitonde once said. “The silence of the brush. The silence of the canvas. The silence of the painting knife. The painter starts by absorbing all these silences.” In this exhibition, he bequeaths that silence to the noise-harassed Manhattan viewer.

V. S. Gaitonde, Untitled, 1975. Oil on canvas, 70 x 42 inches. Mr. and Mrs. Rajiv Chaudhri Collection, New York © Christie’s Images Limited 2014
click to enlarge