Executed in 1962, Painting No. 3, is part of a larger series of which two other paintings are currently known, including Painting No. 1 (Sotheby’s London, June 11, 2013, lot 34) and Painting No. 4 in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA acc. no. 1.1963). This series of important paintings—the first known works produced by Gaitonde in a formal series—marks an historic moment in the artist’s career as it illustrates the transition between the figurative and geometric explorations of the 1940s-50s, and the later experimentation with pure abstraction in the 1960s-70s.
During the late 1950s, Gaitonde was painting in a small studio at the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute in Bombay, alongside such luminaries as Ravi Shankar, MF Husain and Nasreen Mohammedi. The figurative, landscape and abstract geometric works by the artist in the 1940s-50s were marked by the use of bold color highly reminiscent of Basohli painting. In a 1985 interview, Gaitonde explains: "Early on, I did both figurative and non-figurative paintings; I was initially influenced by Indian miniatures … [then] I started eliminating the figures and just saw the proportions of colors … “.
The artist continues: “I experimented with this because sometimes figures can bind you, restrict your movements. I just took patterns instead. I think that step really marked the beginning of my interest and preoccupation in [non-objective] painting," (Gaitonde in interview with M. Lahiri, Patriot, September 27, 1985).
In 1957, the seeds of Gaitonde’s preoccupation with non-objectivism became readily apparent at the Young Asian Artists’ Exhibition in Tokyo, where he displayed “The Bird and an Egg”. Starting in the early 1960s, the zeitgeist of Abstract Expressionism—which had earlier ignited Europe and then exploded in New York—dramatically altered the course of Indian modern art. Landscape painting and figuration, which were hallmarks of Progressive-era painting in India, shifted radically by the 1960s. This is apparent during this time period not only for Gaitonde, but also for Progressive-era artists such as Sayed Haider Raza and Ram Kumar in their transitions into abstraction.
In 1964, Gaitonde was awarded a prestigious Rockefeller Fellowship which brought him to New York and into direct contact with the Abstract Expressionist movement. Gaitonde’s techniques evolved in this time period, most notably in his transition to using a roller to create his fields of color.
In Painting No. 3, the muted palette enhances the artist’s meticulous application of paint with a roller and palette knife. Gaitonde used these tools to create lightly textured areas on the canvas, and by applying pigment in careful and controlled layers onto the surface, he gained a deep understanding of the medium and the effects that could be achieved with oil paint. He would apply multiple translucent layers of paint to the surface of his canvases, scraping away areas and then reapplying pigment.
This laborious process resulted in the achievement of radiant luminosity demonstrated in varying degrees of light and color, through which the artist created a personal architecture that emerged along a perceived horizon. While the horizon line in the current work alludes to the possibility of a landscape, the larger composition retreats to the Zen-like minimalism that has become the touchstone of his Gaitonde’s later works. As Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni explains: “The creating of texture in an unconventional way, the use of thick lugubrious pigment, the evocation of light and finally, the subtle balancing of the image on the canvas as if it were undulating on water and gradually surfacing in the light [are all characteristic of his post-1960 work]” (D. Nadkarni, Gaitonde, Lalit Kala Academi, New Delhi, 1983, unpaginated).
Gaitonde was a reclusive personality, and devoted significant periods of time to all of his works. He produced only five or six paintings a year, which resulted in a relatively small artistic output overall. In the artist’s own words: ‘A painting is simply a painting, a play of light and color … Every painting has a seed which germinates in the next painting. A painting is not limited to one canvas; I go on adding elements and that’s how my work evolves … there is a kind of metamorphosis in every canvas, and the metamorphosis never ends.’ (M. Menezes, The Meditative Brushstroke, Art India, vol. 3, issue 3, 1998, Mumbai, p. 69).
In October 2014, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York will open the first retrospective exhibition dedicated to the work of Vasudeo Gaitonde.
The 1962 series from which the current two works derive was, as discussed, a significant and historic departure from Gaitonde’s exploration of figuration and abstract geometric in the previous two decades of his monumental career.
In the 1950s, Gaitonde produced a group of watercolor and brush and ink works on paper marked by linear, geometric abstractions. These abstractions would evolve into a form of unique and personal hieroglyphs for the artist, and by the early 1960s, these hieroglyphs begin to dominate the visual center of Gaitonde’s color field canvases.
Painting no. 3 (above left) and Painting no. 4 (above right) are extraordinary examples of Gaitonde’s use of a central horizon line populated with abstract hieroglyphs, marked with judicious sparks of pigment. The overall palette from this series from 1962 revolves around muted and ethereal earth tones in grey, green and olive. A side-by-side comparison of the horizon lines in these two works reveals the use of a translucent wash in dark grey underneath the solitary rows of hieroglyphs, uniting the works.
The dark grey contrasts with the luminous tones radiating outward in either direction on both of the canvases, creating a controlled incandescence and revealing Gaitonde’s mastery of color and light. This incandescence was partially achieved through Gaitonde’s skillful application of a subtle gamboge wash, which produces a sheer, illuminating saffron color.
Pria Karunakar elaborates: “Texture is structure. How he achieves this texture is the secret of Gaitonde’s style … In the application of the color itself there is an order, the color settles and congeals into a series of approximate horizontals throwing the compositional weight somewhat lower than center and balancing the left and right of the canvas like the arms of a scale. The order is almost deliberately obscured by the distribution of near-random forms across the surface. These topographical or hieroglyphic forms themselves are made to dissolve into the field like enamel in an encaustic,” (P. Karunakar, LKC 19—20, April—September 1975).
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