Vasudeo S. Gaitonde (1924-2001) Untitled, 1963

Zen and the art

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 52

Vasudeo S. Gaitonde (1924-2001) Untitled, 1961

Zen and the art

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 52

Zen and the art

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 52

The reclusive Indian artist V.S. Gaitonde found his true path when he embraced Buddhism. Beth Citron charts his journey

The American painter Morris Graves, who was interested in mysticism and Asian philosophical traditions, traveled to India in 1963. On the advice of Pupul Jayakar, he visited the Bombay studio of V.S. Gaitonde – and he was astounded by what he saw. As Graves wrote in a letter to Marian Willard Johnson of New York's Willard Gallery:

"Today Mrs. Jayakar took me to the studio of a Bombay painter named GAITONDE – age 32 [he was actually 39] and one of the finest painters I have ever seen. He is very little known. He is as fine – as superb – as Mark Rothko at his best... A fine person and will be a world-known painter one of these days. You should be the one to show him first. I told Mrs. Jayakar so. She agreed. Said she'd help... P.S. He has never been out of India."

As a result of his visit, Graves bought two of Gaitonde's paintings and six drawings, including Blue and Green (1961), a work that is unusual for the simultaneous vertical and horizontal breaks of the canvas, and which marks a transitional moment for Gaitonde in his development of a restrained language that would mark his work for the rest of his career. So struck was Graves by the work that he made every effort to spread the word. He recommended the artist to the curator John Richardson and to Marian Willard Johnson. It paid off: in 1964, Gaitonde was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship and for the first time in his life, the artist left India and came to New York to live in the Chelsea Hotel, then a cultural hub that also housed Bob Dylan, Arthur Miller and Leonard Cohen. It wasn't long before Gaitonde had a breakthrough exhibition at the Willard Gallery in 1965. He was praised by Stuart Preston of The New York Times for being "a very smart performer indeed. Gaitonde offers scrupulously realized paintings with bands of luminous color ornamented by staccato bursts of pigment."

Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde (1924-2001) is now remembered as India's pioneering abstract artist, renowned for his singular vision, the purity and restraint of his visual language, and his uncompromising artistic integrity.

Though his achievement in the history of modernist art from India is exceptional, Gaitonde's development was closely interwoven with the zeitgeist of the nation following its independence from Britain in 1947, and with the spirit of fellow artists emerging in Bombay and Delhi in this period. The Progressive Artists' Group (PAG), the first formal art group or movement of post-colonial India, was founded in Bombay shortly after independence. It included artists such as M.F. Husain, H.A. Gade and F.N. Souza, and its manifesto stated that the PAG was united not by a style, medium, or aesthetic principles, but rather by a radical goal of "absolute freedom". Over the next few years, these artists began to develop a language for an Indian modernism that integrated Western styles – chiefly Expressionism – with imagery drawn from daily life and local historical and religious traditions.

Gaitonde, who had studied at Bombay's J.J. School of Art, came to be loosely associated with the group and its aims in the 1950s. Like the rest of the Progressive Artists, Gaitonde began with the figure, and his early works also show he had studied the colors of Indian miniature painting and the line of the Swiss artist Paul Klee, who was revered by many Indian modernists of this generation after independence. Throughout the 1950s, Gaitonde began to pare down the iconography in his figurative works. His final works that contain representational iconography were painted in the last years of the decade, and included The Bird and An Egg (1957), an untitled collage (1959) composed of cut pieces of paper, and Untitled (1959) depicting a flattened, abstracted airplane. The latter was commissioned by Air India, but never bought, and for many years hung in fellow artist Bal Chhabda's Mumbai home.

By the early 1960s, Gaitonde's work was consistently and obsessively non-figural, though in many cases his canvases continue to look like landscapes, with central horizon lines structuring the compositions – as can be seen in Untitled (1963), one of the works on offer at Bonhams New York. Influenced by Zen Buddhism, Gaitonde focused on process rather than image, and began to work towards a formal purity of line and color in his canvases. Though his paintings are, by most art historical standards, abstract, he preferred the term 'non-objective' to describe them, often claiming – and, perhaps, paraphrasing Picasso – that "there is no such thing as abstract art".

It's clear that Gaitonde's time in New York had inspired and shifted his practice. As a result of his exposure to Abstract Expressionism, for instance, he began creating flattened fields of color with a roller instead of a paintbrush. Furthermore, this period spent among fellow artists and in New York's museums had strengthened Gaitonde's philosophy and aesthetic.

Gaitonde spent the rest of his career refining the ideas that he first defined in the transitional moment in the early 1960s when Graves visited his studio and declared, "He is 100 percent artist."

Beth Citron is Assistant Curator at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York.

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