PROPERTY OF AN IMPORTANT MUMBAI COLLECTOR
Oil on canvas
55 x 40 in. (139.4 x 101.7 cm.)
Signed and dated 'V. S. GAITONDE / 77' and further signed and dated in Devanagari on reverse
Bearing a Pundole Art Gallery label on reverse
Pundole Art Gallery, Mumbai.
Gaitonde, Pundole Art Gallery, Mumbai, 14-28 February, 1977.
It has become conventional to speak of V S Gaitonde (1924-2001) in hushed tones, as one would of a sage or mage. The artist was a member of that magic circle of colleagues who came together in the Bombay of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and maintained lifelong friendships across cities and continents; they are usually described as the 'Bombay Progressives' or, more accurately, the Progressive Artists Group and their associates, although this terminology elides the multiple affiliations and points of reference that sustained the identity and the practice of the individual members. Within the historic aura of this company, Gaitonde has come to be revered for quite extra-painterly reasons: for the enigmatic silence that he is said to have maintained on most occasions; his aversion to public appearances; his refusal to illuminate his work with comments or annotations; and for a spartan, indeed almost etiolated style of living, against which his late, chromatically rich work shone forth with a vivid and even unsettling brilliance.
While Gaitonde did indeed tend towards silence and seclusion in the later decades of his life, after he had moved to Delhi, those who had known him in his Bombay days remembered him as a dapper figure, given to periodic bursts of flamboyance, and convivial enough in the company of his close friends. A biographical account of Gaitonde would, naturally, take these shifts of temperament and circumstance into account. My purpose here is to engage with a specific painting - which he executed in oil on canvas in 1977 - and through it, with his artistic preoccupations and how these might be aligned with the larger histories of abstraction. The present painting forms part of the same phase in the artist's trajectory that included the untitled 1973-74 painting shown as lot 11 in the 3-4 September 2020 Pundole's auction. [See Looking West: Works from the Collection of the Glenbarra Art Museum, Japan (auction catalogue, Mumbai: Pundole's, 2020), pp. 40-43]
What fascinates me is not the mystical Gaitonde of silence and retreat - the painter embalmed in a cult of the mauni baba - but the artisanal Gaitonde. The Gaitonde who worked with his hands and his materials, cutting a vigorous, graceful figure in the studio. The Gaitonde for whom the transcendental aspirations of abstraction had to be achieved - as they always have to be achieved - through a passionate struggle with the materiality of tools, pigments, and surfaces. I imagine him going through a sequence of adroitly calibrated moves, which could well have been captured on camera by an enterprising photographer, had Gaitonde, like Jackson Pollock, been featured in the pages of Life magazine. First, picture him applying his paper-cut stencil to the surface of his canvas; then observe as he begins to ply his roller across the surface so created. Later in the process, watch him peel back the stencil to assess the density of the pigment, the intensity of the dialogue between marked mass and untouched blankness. Then attend as he settles down to work his roller over a partly peeled or re-arranged stencil; as he wipes off an excess of pigment with a rag, leaving a clean, trembling edge of colour. Finally, he pulls the stencil away to reveal a palimpsest of tonalities.
Look closely at this untitled painting and you will see, right away - well, perhaps not right away, but once your eye becomes acclimatised to the multiple choreography of pictorial events as it transits across the picture space - that it has been built up in layers. It has not been laid on all at once. There is, at the heart of the painting, a productive tension between symmetry and asymmetry, played out in three horizontal bands, each occupied to varying degrees and in varying dispositions by a set of floating forms suggestive of paper cut-outs or pieces of fabric. The uppermost band is distinguished by a classic Rorschach bilateral near-symmetry: beneath a crest, its halves mirroring each other perfectly, garlands of forms open out on either side of an imaginary vertical line, echoing each other almost but not quite exactly. The broad horizontal band occupying the centre of the painting diffuses the Rorschach principle: a bulb-like shape is located off-centre, like a wandering heart; to its right and left, the cut-outs float in a pneumatic lightness or seem poised to drift away from the picture frame. In the lowermost band, the contrast between the assertive presence of the shapes and the luminosity of the patches of negative space is most apparent. The forms are packed most densely in this section of the painting; even as they appear to coagulate or coalesce into shoals, they retain a quivering quality of momentum.
Gaitonde refused to commit himself to the flatness of his picture surface, an article of faith in the Greenbergian system that had come to define the dominant style of abstraction, Abstract Expressionism or the School of New York, in the post-World War II period. He did not plane down his markings to become consonant with the surface; the generation of a colour field was never his purpose. Rather, he focused on the diffusion and dilution of the retinally verifiable; he hinted at symbols without ever disclosing their significance; he orchestrated an atmosphere such as that produced through the experience of music, which I find myself describing as a resonance field. Like a number of his abstractionist colleagues in India, Gaitonde read, viewed (either in reproduction or in the original), and absorbed the work of the German-Swiss abstractionist and Bauhaus pedagogue Paul Klee, the Catalan master Joan Miro, and the American abstractionists Mark Tobey and Adolph Gottlieb; but his sensibility was perhaps more influenced by the structure, the tempi and textures of Hindustani classical music. The three bands that I have elaborated on, in this 1977 painting, could just as well bear visual correspondence to the three stages of the exposition of a raga: first the aalaap, a slow meditative introduction; then the jod, a movement that gathers rhythmic energy; and finally the jhala, or accelerated and climactic virtuoso performance. But I would not insist on such a strict, one-to-one correlation between musical inspiration and painterly expression.
You could choose to focus on the structure of this painting, as I have just done. Or you could do what I am about to do next, which is to take delight in the chromatic play of its surface, the way in which the colour and the differentials of implied light impart to the painting a mobile, volatile quality. Observe how the light darts in and out, now hiding behind the cut-outs, now leaping out from between them; how it disappears in the face of a well-articulated loop or chain of blue-grey, with hints of moist green, or a scumbled brown; how it appears fully itself, cradled in the grain of the canvas where almost every trace of colour has been removed. Moved by the intuitions and memories that this painted surface provokes to the surface of consciousness, we recall murals painted by flickering torchlight in caves; we summon up, also, those chance marks, made by damp, moss or flaking in walls, in which, as Leonardo da Vinci wrote, lie the beginnings of the image, as fugitive, vestigial shapes begin to assume significance and value to the viewer.
By some inexplicable synchronicity, I open my copy of Empty and Full: The Language of Chinese Painting - a book recommended to me, when I was in my early twenties, by the artist Akbar Padamsee, one of Gaitonde's confreres - to absolutely the right page. Here is the Qing-era landscape painter and calligrapher, T'ang I-fen (c. 1778-1853), speaking of the subtle relationships among ink, paper, light, and mass:
"Among the six types of ink, the white and the black delimit the bright and dark in a landscape, the dry and the wet suggest the nuanced colouring and gracious freshness of a landscape, and the concentrated and the diluted emphasise distance and relief in a landscape. In a landscape painting, the luminous side of the mountains and rocks, the surface of a sloping terrain, stretches of water, cast sky, emptiness where only mists and hazes dwell - all this can be suggested by the original colour of the paper. Moreover, white is used to represent air, water, streamers of mist, bouquets of clouds, roads, the brilliance of the sun, and more. White is at one and the same time a colour and emptiness; its flavour is inexhaustible." [Francois Cheng, Empty and Full: The Language of Chinese Painting (trans. Michael H. Kohn; Boston: Shambhala, 1991), p. 83.)
If we imagine that T'ang I-fen were speaking of an abstract painting instead of a landscape painting, and if we substitute the concrete particulars in this passage with less readily identifiable forms, the Chinese literatus could well have been discussing Gaitonde's paintings. Padamsee would have read Empty and Full in the original French in which its author, the Chinese-born French scholar Fran̤ois Cheng wrote it: Vide et Plein (1979); it was not translated into English until 1991. But the ideas of the classical Chinese literati - at once scholars, poets, artists, and often administrators whether in office or in exile - that Cheng elaborates were in circulation from the early decades of the 20th century. Certainly the key principles of Chinese painting, as well as the lore of Zen Buddhism, was globally available during the 1950s and 1960s, and it is certain that Gaitonde responded with warmth to these impulses.
A heightened awareness of Zen was integral to the counterculture in Europe and North America during these decades, alongside an interest in Eastern religions and philosophies that ranged from trendy curiosity and the embrace of exotica to genuine responsiveness and lifelong engagement. This interest fed into academia as well as the publishing and media industries, catapulting figures like D T Suzuki (1870-1966), Eugen Herrigel (1884-1955), Alan Watts (1915-1973), Paul Reps (1885-1990), and Gary Snyder (born 1930) to the status of pop gurus, alongside the acclaim each had won for his serious scholarly or literary contributions. Gaitonde and Padamsee, like many of their contemporaries on the postcolonial Indian art scene, including Badri Narayan, Mehlli Gobhai, Tyeb Mehta, and Krishen Khanna, followed the work of these authors. Among the cult classics of that period, with which Gaitonde and his generation of practitioners in India and the Indian diaspora were certainly well acquainted, were Herrigel's meditation on mindfulness and the mind-body continuity, Zen in the Art of Archery (1948 in German; 1953 in English), Reps' anthology of Zen parables, poems, drawings, and teaching stories, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (1957), and Watts' slim but compelling and influential collection of essays on Zen and spiritual experience, This Is It (1958). Set against this background, we see how Gaitonde's chosen mode of abstraction articulates the fluid interplay of volition and spontaneity of gesture, design and accident in process.
Not coincidentally, given these Eastern sources of inspiration and their refusal to compartmentalise the painted image from the beautifully handwritten text, calligraphy fascinated Gaitonde - not as a discipline but as a point of reference. Many of his paintings suggest lines of writing that have been obscured by time and decay, eclipsed by ignorance and awaiting decipherment. Throughout his career and especially in a series of drawings made in the 1980s, the artist returned to elements of the cuneiform, Kharosthi, Brahmi, and Devanagari scripts. Even as abstraction resists language and the interpretation that language makes possible, it remains in dialogue and contestation with speech, with script, with the possibility of being understood. Votary of silence though Gaitonde became, he continued to invoke its opposite, communication, in and through his work.
This dynamic interaction between focused communication and replenishing silence was a leitmotif, also, in the practice of the three modern Indian spiritual teachers to whose example and teachings Gaitonde was drawn: Sri Ramana Maharishi (1879-1950), Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), and Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897-1981). Each of these teachers, in his own highly distinctive way, drew on varied sources within India's living heritage of philosophical and religious quest to emphasise those expansions of consciousness that would integrate the isolated individual into a larger framework of being. Not surprisingly, they found eager and committed listeners in the countercultural decades, between the 1950s and 1960s, especially among members of a younger generation that felt alienated from their parents' stable way of life, their utopian aims set in antagonism to the bourgeois pieties expected by family, school, civic community, and State.
Of course, the impulses of agitation and resistance that largely characterised the countercultural revolts were at a considerable remove from the meditative approach favoured by these magisterial Indian teachers. As Sri Ramana put it, silence is "that state which transcends speech and thought... it is meditation without mental activity. Subjugation of the mind is meditation; deep meditation is eternal silence." [See Arthur Osborne ed. The Collected Works of Sri Ramana Maharishi (London: Rider,1959)] Arriving at this conclusion by another route, Jiddu Krishnamurti observed, "It is only that quality of stillness, that absolute silence of the mind that can see that which is eternal, timeless, nameless. This is meditation." [J Krishnamurti, public talk, Saanen, Switzerland: 22 July 1979]
Seen from this perspective, Gaitonde's paintings suggest the edict on the rock face, its script forgotten; the porcelain or metal surface, its markings vanishing into oblivion. Taken together with the effects of weathering that he so superbly evoked, paintings such as the one under review here summon to mind the Japanese aesthetic of shibui, the discovery of beauty in objects and situations that are ordinary, neglected, in shadow. They put us in mind, also, of the related Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, based on an appreciation of beauty in all that is ephemeral, decaying, irregular, unfinished, whether in nature or among human-made objects, reminding us of the world's transience and our own.
The colours of the original are lighter, brighter and more vibrant with far greater tonal variation in the grey, white and beige tones throughout the canvas, when compared to the catalogue illustration. The blue undertones are sharper and more varied in shade than the catalogue illustration. The painting has been recently cleaned. Overall very good condition.
About The Artist:
VASUDEV S. GAITONDE (1924-2001)