Painted at the peak of his career in New Delhi, this work belongs to an important period in Gaitonde’s oeuvre, marked by a notable shift from horizontal canvases to a vertical format. Gaitonde is known to have gone back and forth in the orientation of his works - while verticality was an essential feature of his 1950s paintings, the 1960s were marked by a preference towards the horizontal, only to change back to the upright format again later in that decade. Sandhini Poddar, the curator of the artist’s much acclaimed retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, New York notes, “[a]round 1968, one notices a shift from the … horizontal canvases to the dominating format of the verticals, which the artist continued to utilize until his last works from 1997-1998” (S. Poddar, V. S. Gaitonde, Painting as Process, Painting as Life, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2014, p. 28-29).
In the current painting, it is almost as if the artist found a solution to this dilemma. Here, he assembled endless horizontal layers of colour, resulting in sequences of prismatic hues in calming blues and verdant greens on a vertical field. Noted expert on Commonwealth Art of this time, Donald Bowen once commented, “[h]e paints horizontally, even if the canvas is upright in shape, so there could be references to landscapes but mainly the paintings are about paint and its particular qualities and the relationship of one colour to another” (M. Menezes, Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde: Sonata of Solitude, Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation, Mumbai, p. 155).
Untitled, with its organic palette, seems to deliver an awe-inspiring impression of the vastness of sky and landscape condensed into the scale of human experience. There is an obvious reference to the horizon here, a visceral meeting of the earth and the sky, “an imaginary touching that is entirely illusory, yet no less an embodiment of oneness” (ibid., p. 112). This ageless masterpiece effortlessly summarizes the philosophy behind Gaitonde’s art, “The study of ‘Zen’ has helped me to understand nature, and my paintings are nothing else but the reflection of nature. I want to say things in few words...” (S. Poddar, p. 28).
In the 1950s, Gaitonde came across a classic work on Eastern philosophy, Zen in the Art of Archery. This account of a man spending six years as the student of one of Japan's great Zen masters, and the process by which he overcame his initial inhibitions and began to look toward new ways of seeing and understanding, profoundly impacted Gaitonde and his art. Meera Menezes also stresses upon the early impact of Kandinsky’s seminal book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, on Gaitonde, where Kandinsky deliberates on the psychology of colours, “[b]ut to a more sensitive soul the effect of colours is deeper and intensely moving. And so we come to the … result of looking at colours: their psychic effect. They produce a corresponding spiritual vibration, and it is only a step towards this spiritual vibration that the elementary physical impression is of importance” She further elaborates, “[f]or Gaitonde too, colour would provide a vehicle for attaining a higher plane of consciousness, and he rejoiced in its ability to offer a subliminal experience” (M. Menezes, p. 28).
The emerald green and tranquil blue that lends this work its mesmeric atmosphere, has precedent in some of Gaitonde’s earlier as well as later works, such as Untitled (1953), Painting no.1 (1962), Untitled (1969), Untitled (1974), amongst others, but never has it been so muted yet so profound, offering the viewer both layered depth and intimate meaning. Artist, Krishen Khanna pontificates on Gaitonde’s practice, “…[w]ith Gaitonde…his actual work is the trace of the elements with which he chooses to start a painting. He chooses, say two colours, he makes his ground absolutely perfect, and he doesn’t know what he’s going to paint. It begins with confronting nothingness, and nothingness begins by almost emphasizing nothingness. He applies three or four or five layers of white on the canvas so that the reflective index of colour is enhanced. Then he leaves that to dry, makes it absolutely bone dry, and that takes time. Then he works with mixtures of solid colours, which are opaque colours, and then with translucent and transparent colours, all at the same time” (S. Poddar, p. 28). Indeed, a testament to Gaitonde's painstaking process, Untitled exemplifies his proficiency over his medium, and his mastery over colour, light and form to achieve a refined equilibrium between the real and the ephemeral. Gaitonde’s psychedelic vertical field is digressing into horizontal layers that appear to be gracefully hovering on top of a soft illuminating yellow turf- a sea of colour which progressively shifts in intensity from subdued shades along the top edges to deeper tones as the eye voyages down the picture plane.
Gaitonde travelled to New York on a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1964 where he was exposed to Abstract Expressionism. His works are often associated with Colour field painting, a tendency/style within Abstract Expressionism prominent from the late 1940s to the 1960s, pioneered by artists such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still. Compare Gaitonde’s Untitled (1973) with Rothko’s Untitled (Blue divided by blue) painted in 1966. In both works, the colour fields of green and blue equilibrate; the lure of one is instantly countered by the irresistible pull of the other. Typical of the genre, in both works the space of the picture seems to spread out beyond the edges of the works itself and they resolutely avoid the suggestion of a form or mass, more discernible in Gaitonde’s work than Rothko’s. Krishen Khanna opines that Rothko’s influence on Gaitonde was purely coincidental. “It was not as is Rothko influenced him. I think the two spirits met independently” (M. Menezes, p. 138). This view is endorsed by one of Gaitonde’s earliest collectors, Eleonore Chowdhury, “a certain mind-kinship between Gaitonde’s work and Mark Rothko’s paintings cannot be denied, but then I can say from my early encounters with Gaitonde’s work, which was before he left for the United States, that his monochromatic non-objective style had already matured and had become his trademark before he encountered Rothko” (ibid.).
Untitled is an exceptional manifestation of the expanse and drama of Gaitonde’s universe. What makes the 70s period ground-breaking with respect to his career is that Gaitonde’s abstract or non-representational art (as he liked to call it and what he is best known for) reached its zenith at this time. While the 40s and 50s were dominated by scenes of landscapes and community life where the human figure took centre stage, gradually you see him gleaning away from the form in subsequent decades. The late 50s was marked by a focus on linearity and geometric shapes such as the circle and the bird and deconstruction of the figure into planes. Come the 1960s, and we see what are called his “semi-abstracts” – large masses of chromatic fields with abstract forms floating to disrupt the flatness of the painting. It is the 70s where colour and structure become one and virtually inseparable, making his paintings truly “non-representational.”
The current painting was exhibited in Gaitonde’s seminal solo exhibition held at the Taj Art Gallery in 1974. This time is marked by his move to Delhi, where he lived until the end of his life. It was also when he was awarded the Padma Shri award from the Government of India in 1971. Meera Menezes in her seminal book, records, “[t]he artist held several shows at the Taj Art Gallery in Bombay during the 1970s… It was clear that his paintings were a cut above works being exhibited at the time and perhaps difficult to access, as evident in a review by the Financial Express’s critic. Ruminating on Gaitonde’s ability to distil the essence of things and express them with great restraint, the critic wrote: “[h]is present exhibition at the Taj Art Gallery is a difficult cup of tea to take. It is Gaitonde at his best, and yet it requires from the spectators a very high degree of concentration and perception. The paintings are very ascetic and have a level of purity which is very demanding on the spectator” (ibid., p. 167).