Lot 8
  • 8

Bhupen Khakhar (1934 - 2003)

180,000 - 220,000 USD
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  • Bhupen Khakhar
  • American Survey Officer
  • Signed and inscribed 'Bhupen Khakhar/ American Survey Officer' on reverse
  • Oil on canvas
  • 41 1/2 by 34 1/2 in. (105.4 by 86.6 cm)
  • Painted in 1969


Acquired from Gallery Chemould; thence by descent


Good overall condition. This work has recently received a light cleaning and the green area of the sky has been locally consolidated.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Throughout his artistic career, Baroda-based artist Bhupen Khakhar affirmed his interest in simply painting people and places from his surroundings. While many of the subjects he painted were indeed sourced from the communities in which he lived and worked, very often the landscapes and geography he represented were imagined. In American Survey Officer, we see a group of three miniature-scale men standing beside a hilly and densely colorful forest. The composition relates most closely to Khakhar’s Portrait of Shri Shankerbhai V. Patel Near Red Fort (1971), and more generally to Khakhar’s representations of figures in landscape around 1970, as it is specifically in works from that time that figures are proportioned much smaller than the surrounding environment. The man furthest right in American Survey Officer even resembles Khakhar’s depiction of Shankerbhai in the related work.  Khakhar wrote about his representation of landscape in Portrait of Shri Shankerbhai V. Patel Near Red Fort in his 1972 self-published catalogue Truth Is Beauty and Beauty Is God, noting that the trees were from “Henry [sic] Rousseau’s paintings.” In pointing out his quotation of the French Primitive painter’s work, Khakhar is claiming his own naiveté but also slyly showing that this is a ruse. In American Survey Officer, the fanciful landscape assumes even more importance as the American surveyor (the blond man who has flown in on the helicopter labelled “USA”) is presumably onsite to assess the land and speak with the Indian gentlemen. The work is characteristic of Khakhar’s dry wit and subtle humor, and is representative of a critical moment in his career as he developed a local and idiosyncratic language for Pop Art in India.

On the painting Timothy Hyman, close friend of the artist and author of the monograph Bhupen Khakhar, 1998, comments:

“In this striking image, the 35 year-old Bhupen Khakhar has begun to discover his own consciously "hybrid " identity : East and West  both juxtaposed and fused within a seriocomic vision. For several years he'd derived inspiration from  Indian popular art, delighting especially in the "debased" and stereotyped versions of once-high genres; in this case , the heavy greens and gorgeous  leaf- and -flower imagery of Pichwai, paintings on cloth associated with the Krishna-cult of Nathdwara. Although Bhupen would later make several pilgrimages to the Rajasthani  temple-town, and become friendly with its surviving painters, at this point he was content with the modern  generic and commercial pichwais he encountered in local travelling- tent exhibitions.

But the foliage of American Survey Officer owes even more to Bhupen's  passionate identification with  Henri Rousseau, whose jungle images  such as The Hungry Lion (1905) portray each separate leaf  with a loving intensity. Like so many earlier twentieth century painters, including Leger and Beckmann,  Bhupen found in Rousseau a guide to a new kind of figuration, which had no taint of academic naturalism. As a largely self-taught painter, Bhupen found his art unintimidating : " I felt very much at ease with his work. Rousseau was not doing academic drawing. Because of my awkwardness I could relate to him." It was Rousseau above all who would lead Bhupen away from the bravura posturing of his earliest semi-abstract icons, towards a more vulnerable language of representation, side-stepping the oppressive codes of style - of historical and cultural placing,  of class and caste.

Inserting Rousseau's innocent exoticism within his kitsch version of the pichwai paradise, Bhupen creates a parody-sublime.  Sometimes dubbed "The Indian Hockney '" , he is still a child of Pop; a few months later, he will mock himself as a "Jukebox  Rousseau ". The grandeur of the landscape is undermined by the bathos of that incongruous helicopter; the three figures in their Western dress (Bhupen himself on the left, the nearly blind Shankarbhai Patel on the right , flanking their occidental visitor) are made to appear diminished, inconsequential.

With thanks to Timothy Hyman for his assistance in the preparation of the catalogue note.