II. Gaitonde’s Breakthrough
Untitled, 1960 is both a departure and a major turning point in Gaitonde's stylistic evolution marking a historic moment in the artist’s career as it illustrates his transition between the figurative and geometric explorations of the 1940s-50s, towards the later experimentation with pure abstraction from 1960s-70s and onwards. His early 1940s-50s works were marked by the use of bold color highly reminiscent of Basholi painting but also influenced by artists such as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. In a 1985 interview, Gaitonde explains: "Early on, I did both figurative and non-figurative paintings; I was initially influenced by Indian miniature …[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. At this time, Gaitonde began to experiment with a paint roller and palette knife. His practice involved the application of multiple translucent layers of paint to the surface of his canvases, followed by the removal and then re-application of pigment. This laborious process resulted in the achievement of radiant luminosity through varying depths of light and color, creating subtle textural structures and forms that emerged along perceived horizons.
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 period not only for Gaitonde, but also for Progressive-era artists such as Sayed Haider Raza and Ram Kumar in their transitions into abstraction and Maqbool Fida Husain and Krishen Khanna for their experimentation in the genre. As for Gaitonde, he began to receive wider recognition with his works showcased at the 1962 Venice Biennale and entering prominent Western collections including The Museum of Modern Art, New York. He was patronized by the Graham Gallery and collected by the Gund and Rockefeller families and their friends. The latter bestowed upon him a Fellowship for a one –year stay in New York in 1964.
III. The Artist-Collector-Patron: Bal Chhabda
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, Husain, Tyeb Mehta and Nasreen Mohamedi, whom he mentored. The Institute served as a meeting ground for artists and provided rooms that could be used as studios. Here Gaitonde met and befriended Chhabda to a level of intimacy that when Chhabda married his wife Jeet, Gaitonde served as his witness. Chhabda was from a wealthy family whose money was made in film production and distribution. He opened Bombay’s first private art gallery, Gallery 59, in 1959 featuring the works of his friends MF Husain, Sayed Haider Raza, Akbar Padamsee and Krishen Khanna. He organised Gaitonde’s solo at the Jehangir Art Gallery in 1961-62. Frequently he would buy the works of his friends to keep them financially supported. In turn, he acquired many of their most significant works. For instance, Raza’s oft published 1983 opus, Maa, was at one time in the Chhabda collection as was many other Progressive Art Group masterpieces which passed through his hands. After the Air India purchase fell through, Bal Chhabda noted that “Gaitonde had spent 150 rupees to buy a Japanese canvas especially for the assignment. Alas, the work did not gain the buyer’s approval and this put Gaitonde in a quandary. To help him out, Chhabda offered to buy it off from him for 200 rupees!” (J. Thacker (ed.) and M. Menezes, Reticent Recluse, Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde: Sonata of Solitude, to be published 2016) However, unlike other works that Chhabda bought and sold through the years, Untitled, 1960, maintained a special place in his heart and home, which became renowned in Bombay as a salon and gathering spot for members of India’s artistic community.
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