A Meditative Master

‘Painting No. 4’ (1962) by V.S. Gaitonde. THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART/ART RESOURCE

‘Painting No. 4’ (1962) by V.S. Gaitonde. THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART/ART RESOURCE

V.S. Gaitonde’s art shows that the West didn’t hold a monopoly on abstraction.

The Wall Street Journal
By MICHAEL FITZGERALD
Dec. 16, 2014 6:44 p.m. ET

After several decades as one of India’s most respected artists, Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde humbly summarized his approach to making art: “I don’t work, I relax and wait, and then I apply some paint on the canvas. The most important aspect of painting is waiting, waiting, waiting.” What a difference from the market-driven mass production of today’s art world and the macho swagger of some Abstract Expressionist artists who were Gaitonde’s contemporaries.

This apparent opposition between Gaitonde (1924-2001) and Western artists misses a fascinating intersection of East and West in the 1950s and ’60s. In these decades, Western artists ranging from Ad Reinhardt to Mark Tobey were seeking to imbue the formal principles of abstraction with spiritual meanings they believed had been lost in the race to claim stylistic innovations. Many turned to Eastern philosophies to escape what they perceived as the narrow rationalism of Western traditions and the restrictive political oppositions of the Cold War. This radical turn produced a “Zen boom” as American artists sought inspiration from the tradition of Zen Buddhism. The exchange was a subject of a landmark exhibition at the Guggenheim in 2009, “The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989,” an exhibition that enriched understanding of Abstract Expressionism as far more than a merely American art.

“V.S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life,” at the Guggenheim Museum through Feb. 11, 2015, addresses the flip side of this issue by exploring the remarkably beautiful and probing paintings and drawings of Gaitonde. Exquisitely selected by the curator, Sandhini Poddar, the exhibition presents the range of Gaitonde’s work across the media of oil on canvas and ink on paper as well as the chronology of his career from 1952 to 1998. The 45 paintings and drawings on view amply demonstrate the achievements of an artist who was known for completing only a few works each year.

Gaitonde belonged to the first generation of Indian artists to seriously engage Western modernism—such as Tyeb Mehta and M.F. Husain and the assembly called the Progressive Artists Group, which gained recognition in the years after Indian’s independence from Britain in 1947. They adopted the figural distortions of Picasso, in particular, and combined them with the vivid coloring of Mughal miniatures to create narratives of the new nation that were internationally acclaimed. After initially following this trend, Gaitonde took the unusual step in the Indian art world of the 1950s to put aside nationalistic subject matter and become an abstract artist. In the late ’50s, he began to produce abstract drawings and paintings following the slow, deliberate method he later described.

A deceptively plain, untitled painting of 1961 exemplifies his process. At 28 by 24 inches, it is much smaller than most paintings by Abstract Expressionists, yet its composition of gesturally rendered, geometric elements in black against a white ground initially resembles the paintings of Franz Kline. Up close it reveals an extremely complex composition that combines a spontaneity related to Abstract Expressionism with the long periods of contemplation that characterized Gaitonde’s method. Far from a basic layering of black on white, the image is built from repeated applications of both colors. The final rectangular black forms are the result of scraping into the paint surface with a straight-edged palette knife. Rather than conflict, the final composition evokes resolution.

Gaitonde’s art was primarily inspired by Zen Buddhism, a Japanese variation of the philosophy founded in India during the fifth century B.C. but practiced by only a small minority of Indians by the 20th century. For Gaitonde, Zen’s discipline of meditation and its guiding concept of sudden enlightenment defined his artistic process. He progressed from the silence of contemplation to a revelation of wholeness: “Your entire being is working together with the brush, the painting knife, the canvas to absorb that silence and create.” While opposed to the egocentrism of Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning, Gaitonde shared the Abstract Expressionists’ goal of total immersion in the act of painting.

Despite Gaitonde’s quiet existence in India, many in the New York art world admired his work. In 1959, he had a one-person show at the respected Graham Gallery, and in 1965 another solo exhibition at Willard, a gallery dedicated to Tobey and other American artists who drew on Eastern philosophies. In between, Gaitonde participated in several group shows in New York and, in 1962, the Venice Biennale. Most intriguing for his interaction with American art, he spent part of 1964 in New York as the recipient of a grant from a Rockefeller fund. That year, the Museum of Modern Art acquired his “Painting No. 4” (1962) and included it in the museum’s exhibition of recent acquisitions.

As Gaitonde explained, that painting “was done on wet white with a roller and painting knife.” By using a roller to apply paint in horizontal bands of varying density and the palette knife to thin or excavate patches of painted surfaces, Gaitonde constructed layers of deep, transparent colors sparked by a few touches or sweeps of thick pigment applied with the blade. The final image displays a complementary process of creation and destruction that coalesces into a shifting, luminous field of great subtlety. Gaitonde told MoMA, “I aim at directness and simplicity.”

Gaitonde’s comments to MoMA are among his rare statements unearthed by Poddar and her team of researchers. The dearth of documentation leaves unanswered the question of Gaitonde’s relationships with New York artists in the early ’60s, although his friends recollect visits to Mark Rothko and others associated with Abstract Expressionism, and the painter Morris Graves acquired a group of his drawings.

As Pop and Minimalism swept the New York scene, Gaitonde, in India, explored a remarkable range of approaches to his steady path. In 1972, he found a new way to integrate the balance of chance and control he had long sought. Working with a “lift-off” process, he tore pieces of newspapers and magazines into irregular shapes and then coated them with pigment that was transferred by pressing the paper to the canvas before reworking the surface with palette knives. Built of layers of intense yellows and reds that ebb and overflow to create rich passages of blazing burnt orange in counterpoint to the angular outlines of the paper lift-offs, “Untitled” (1977) is a masterpiece of Gaitonde’s later work.

Gaitonde’s last decades were limited by injuries he suffered in an auto accident in Delhi in 1984. He died in 2001, just as Western interest in contemporary Asian art was reviving. The paintings and drawings in this retrospective not only confirm his achievements but also demonstrate the importance of Asian artists to modernism, a movement that for too long has been considered exclusively Western.

Mr. FitzGerald teaches the history of modern and contemporary art at Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.

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