The Influence and Legacy of Indian Abstract Painter Vasuedo S. Gaitonde

The Influence and Legacy of Indian Abstract Painter Vasuedo S. Gaitonde

One of the highlights of Sotheby’s Boundless: India sale on 15 November in Mumbai is a 1974 masterwork by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde. The painting was acquired the year after it was painted by actor and society doyenne, Sabira Merchant, and it has hung pride-of-place in her living room ever since.
One of the highlights of Sotheby’s Boundless: India sale on 15 November in Mumbai is a 1974 masterwork by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde. The painting was acquired the year after it was painted by actor and society doyenne, Sabira Merchant, and it has hung pride-of-place in her living room ever since.

B orn in 1924 to Goan parents, Vasudeo S. Gaitonde was brought up in a working-class tenement in Khotachiwadi in Girgaon. In 1945, he joined the esteemed Sir J. J. School of Art in Bombay where he met fellow artists Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, Sayed Haider Raza and Francis Newton Souza. He was greatly influenced by fellow student, Shankar Palsikar, who later became a teacher at J. J., and one of the school’s principals, Jagannath Ahiwasi, through whom Gaitonde inherited an appreciation of Indian miniature painting.

It was also at the Sir J. J. School that Gaitonde was introduced to the work of the European modernists, most significantly, that of Swiss-German Expressionist Paul Klee. Klee’s fluency in line and colour was to greatly shape Gaitonde’s artistic output during the 1950s. His paper works and canvases from this time are marked by their appealing geometrical compositions.

“Rather than saying I was influenced by Paul Klee, it should be said that I was drawn to the wondrous forms, colour combinations, beauty of line drawing in his work.”
Vasuedo S. Gaitonde
Paul Klee, Two Heads, 1932. Norton Simon Museum, The Blue Four Galka Scheyer Collection.

The human figure was still present in Gaitonde’s geometrical works of the early 1950s, and it was not until 1957 that he abandoned figuration altogether, which he considered a distraction from colour. Linked with this shift in the artist’s style was Gaitonde’s discovery of Zen in the late 1950s through philosopher Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery. The artist recalls that there came “a point where I was constantly looking at Zen, the canvas, the colour, the idea. You go on working on the idea, the idea coming into being. And you start painting. That is the central point of my activity… even now.”

In 1964, following his shift to total abstraction, or in Gaitonde’s words ‘non-objectivity’, Gaitonde travelled to New York on a Rockefeller Fellowship. It was here that he came into direct contact with the work of artists from the Abstract Expressionist movement, such as Adolph Gottlieb, and met the proponent of Colour Field painting, Mark Rothko. In a joint letter to the art editor of The New York Times in 1943, Gottlieb and Rothko wrote: ‘We favor the simple expression of the complex thought… We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth…’. In line with this motivation, Gottlieb and Rothko’s compositions were elemental and profound. Their use of fundamental forms allowed the artists to showcase their prodigious command of gesture and colour. This allied compositional simplicity and understanding of colour was likewise a trademark of Gaitonde’s artistic output.

Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, Untitled, Gouache on paper, 1952. Sotheby’s London, 18 October 2016, lot 43.

The connection between Gaitonde and Rothko is much discussed in art history. The affinity between their canvases is undeniable, but as Eleonore Cowdhury has noted, ‘[Gaitonde’s] monochromatic non-objective style had already matured and had become his trademark before he encountered Rothko’. Gaitonde’s fellow artist and close friend, Krishen Khanna, likewise believed that Rothko’s works did not influence Gaitonde: ‘I think the two spirits met independently’.

There was, nonetheless, a decided transition in Gaitonde’s canvases from the late 1960s which could well be attributable to his encounters with the Colour Field painter. Gaitonde, whose previous work had been predominantly horizontal in orientation, firmly shifted to a vertical format. Despite their new verticality, his paintings were, like Rothko’s, still marked by horizontal movement; indeed, former curator of the Commonwealth Institute’s Art Gallery, Donald Bowen, once noted, ‘[Gaitonde] 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’.

It is with this sequence of artistic experiences in mind that Gaitonde’s 1974 masterwork in the upcoming Boundless: India sale should be considered. The painting was acquired the year after it was painted by actor and society doyenne, Sabira Merchant, from the celebrated gallerist, Kali Pundole. The canvas showcases Gaitonde’s enduring preoccupation both with colour and geometry. Layers of ochre and burnt sienna have been meticulously applied to the canvas. This exacting technique has created a luminous, golden paint surface and furnished the work with incredible depth. Khanna details the attention Gaitonde paid to his painting process: ‘He chooses, say, two colors, 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 color is enhanced. Then he leaves that to dry, makes it absolutely bone dry and that takes time. Then he works with mixtures of solid colors, which are opaque colors, and then with translucent and transparent colors, all at the same time… that color which he gets there, it’s impossible for him to repeat, I think that’s his big contribution… In his whole repertoire you won’t see the same colors again, even the same shade of red.’

Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, Untitled, Oil on canvas, 1974.

The painting exhibits the horizontal-vertical harmony Bowen saw in Gaitonde’s canvases. The horizontal swathes of colour are delicately balanced by both the canvas’s verticality and the neat line of circles which runs down the centre of the canvas. These suspended orbs resemble yellow suns and black moons, and they hover on the painting’s surface to create a feeling of eerie calm. The work may be viewed in the context of the world’s increasing exploration of the universe and solar system; indeed, the meditative stillness of Gaitonde’s canvas and its floating suns and moons brings to mind the silence of outer space.

For Gaitonde, silence was indivisible from painting. “Everything starts from silence. The silence of the canvas. The silence of the painting knife. The painter starts by absorbing all these silences… Your entire being is working together with the brush, the painting knife, the canvas to absorb that silence and create.” Silence was similarly inseparable, in fact equal to, one of Gaitonde’s most persistent motifs, the circle. In an interview with journalist Pritish Nandy in 1991, the artist described this notion: the circle was silence, the bisected circle was speech and the dot was Zen.

Gaitonde’s explanation of the state of meditative conscience: Silence is a circle and speech is a bisected circle. Excerpted from interview of Gaitonde by Pritish Nandy in The Illustrated Weekly of India, 7-13 September, 1991. Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation.

Gaitonde’s preoccupation with the circle, something he shared with his former artistic inspiration Klee, was longstanding. Whilst this fascination can be traced from his early-1950s works, it was not until the early 1970s that the circle took absolute centre stage. Indeed, in the current work, the suns and moons are the central focus. These circles form a balanced axis: the outward glow of the yellow spheres is counterpoised by the black orbs which draw the viewer within the canvas.

The circle continued to be fundamental subject in Gaitonde’s artistic output up until his final works of the late 1990s. However, in these late canvases, his multiple spheres have been replaced by one essential form. Discussing this final transition in Gaitonde’s work, Sandhini Poddar notes, ‘The paintings from his last years sustained the great inventiveness that characterized his entire career. But here, rather than an overall effect produced by scattered forms, the artist chose instead to focus attention onto a central circle, a magnet, a centripetal point – the place of Zen.’

The present work marks a pivotal moment in Gaitonde’s career. Through the work one sees not only an accumulation of past influences – the rich colour of Indian miniature painting, the geometry of Klee, the harmonious balance of Rothko – but the beginnings of a more complete artistic understanding of the circle, silence and, more widely, the universe. This radiant canvas is testament both to the genius of Vasudeo S. Gaitonde’s painting style and the genius of Sabira Merchant’s eye for collecting.

Indian & South Asian Modern & Contemporary Art

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