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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

ONTOGENY AT THE GUGGENHEIM

V. S. Gaitonde, Untitled, 1977. Oil on canvas, 70 x 40 inches (177.8 x 101.6 cm). Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. Photo: Anil Rane.
Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, runs the old recapitulation theory – meaning that the history of the individual recapitulates the history of the genus or species. While no longer favored in discussions of biology, it continues to find applications in other fields ranging from anthropology to music criticism.

It’s remarkably applicable to the life story of Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde (1924-2001), the Indian abstractionist whose serenely lovely mini-retrospective (of 45 paintings and works on paper) is currently on view in one level of the carefully delineated space of the annex at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (through February 14).

Gaitonde’s modestly-scaled abstractions are quite unlike any of the works that I normally recommend, not least because the paint in the best of them is spread almost as thinly as air. But I like to think that my readers are not so narrow-minded that they automatically tune out when confronted by art that doesn't resemble what they already know.

With their soft, well-disciplined colors and muted, cloud-like designs, Gaitonde's best paintings evoke a world very different from the one we live in.

It’s equally different from the world of the pretentiously avant-gardist, Germany-based Zero group whose bustling & often kinetic fashions from the 60s were on display in the Guggenheim’s ramp when I saw the Gaitonde show.

It was interesting to watch the young folk charging in to the Gaitonde show from the Zero group, look around them amidst the unearthly calm that these paintings somehow project, and settle down a bit themselves.

A DIGRESSION

How much of it stayed with them, I wonder. This isn’t the easiest sort of art to appreciate – any more than are Leonard Lauder’s marvelous cubists at the Met.

Cubism and Giatonde are graduate-level art, and the mobs of visitors thronging through the museums over the holidays this year looked to me mostly like the sort of elementary-level museum-goers who prefer fun & games—like kinetic art.

For myself, I well remember the kinetic fad of the 60s. It swept across the Manhattan art scene around 1965, the year after op.

The writer who preceded me in Time’s art section had done a “take-out” on it, and when I took over his job in early 1967, I was still modeling myself on him—to such a degree that I even ordered up a “take-out” of my own on very similar art (though I called it, instead of kinetic, “light art”).

Still, kinetic or “light” art was rapidly giving way to minimalism, the new craze that had begun to invade the galleries and the media in the wake of the Jewish Museum’s exhibition of “Primary Structures” of 1966.

By the time I quit, in the autumn of 1969, kinetic art had been almost entirely consigned to storage (while minimalism was already giving way to conceptual art and earthworks).

MoMA took its kinetic samples out of storage for one of the series of shows it did around the millennium, preparatory to closing down its older building, and oh my, didn’t all that wiggling and twitching stuff look dated! But only, I suppose, to people like myself with a memory of past decades. To the younger folk, this sort of novelty art must look new.

EXCELLENT CATALOG

Officially titled “V. S Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life,” the show I really want to talk about was organized by Sandhini Poddar with the aid of Amara Antilla, curatorial assistant.

Although Poddar is listed as only an “adjunct” curator with the Guggenheim, being currently based in London, in the past she has been an associate curator with them, with special responsibility for expanding their Asian coverage.

The NY Times ran a big feature story by Arthur Lubow in its Sunday Arts & Leisure section for October 19. Theoretically, it was about Gaitonde, but he turned out to be a man of mystery who had left no family, so most of the story dealt with Poddar instead, and how she had to interview all his artist-friends to find out something about him.

Lubow created the impression that Poddar is something of a mystery woman herself. He did record that she was 38, came from a prominent Indian business family, had visited the Louvre as a child, and received a master’s degree in South East Asian aesthetics and antiquities at Bombay University – to say nothing of a second master’s in Visual Arts Administration at NYU.

The article also said that in London, she was engaged to marry a movie executive named William Sargent -- but it didn’t say where she was born, or where she took her undergraduate degree. These omissions led me to speculate that her earlier background might not be as authentically Indian as some of our more multiculturally-oriented critics might desire.

Turns out I was all wrong. Born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), she was raised in Bombay (now Mumbai) and took her undergraduate degree from St. Xavier's College there.

All of this by way of saying she has been well prepared to organize this show and write the best catalog essay I’ve read in a long, long time.

Not only is it very carefully and exhaustively researched, but it's enormously ambitious: it combines an appreciation of Gaitonde’s art with a broadly-based effort to place him in the context of how the Indian art scene as a whole developed in India during his lifetime.

This enables us to see how he developed along with it, both artist and his surroundings recapitulating the development of Western modernism over the past century or two.

Most of the info about Gaitonde & the Indian art scene that I shall share in this review comes from this excellent essay.

If any of the bits that I’ve added from further research of my own don’t stand up to scrutiny, that’s my fault & not Poddar’s.

BASIC BIO: THE ARTIST’S SCHOOLING

The essay begins with a vivid word-portrait of the artist in his old age, living the life of a cocky but reclusive ascetic in a one-room, rented apartment-cum-studio in New Delhi.

Later on, it takes us back to his beginnings, when he was raised by Goan parents in a working-class tenement in and/or around Bombay.

Evidently he showed a fondness for drawing, for around 1944 or 1945, he was sent to a Bombay art school. This was still the tail end of the British Raj, and the school that he entered was patterned on the venerable Royal Academy in London.

Known for short as the “Sir J. J. School of Art,” it was named for Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, a Parsi-Indian merchant who had helped to pay for its founding in 1857.

When Gaitonde entered, it was still hip-deep in the 19th century--requiring students to draw from plaster casts of antiquities, paint portraits in the academic manner, and do studies from the nude model.

Students were occasionally taken on field trips, where they were encouraged to paint sentimental genre pictures showing fisher-women or similar subjects.

Still, more recent Western art – or at any rate, the discussion of it – was not unknown, even before independence. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a trickle of German and Austrian refugees from Hitler had begun to arrive.

One of these refugees, Rudolf von Leyden, became an art critic for The Times of India. Another, Walter Langhammer, set up a salon where artists could gather and talk amongst themselves about new developments, while a third, Emmanuel Schlesinger, became a collector of note.

On the whole, these refugees favored the modernism of their origins: German and Austrian expressionism, not the more advanced modernism of Paris.

To be sure, books on “German” expressionism normally include such radical figures living in Germany as the Swiss-born Klee and the Russian Kandinsky. Still, the more conservative approach of other, more truly German or Austrian artists, like Kirchner, Beckmann, Kokoschka & Schiele appear to have been as least as much, if not more, admired by these fugitives from Hitler.

Indian art taste was moving on, but was still not up to the most avant-garde art.

In 1947, India became an independent nation (though still within the British Commonwealth). This shook up artists along with the rest of the country.

All of a sudden, India’s own cultural heritage began to seem much more important. So did the desire to shake off academic British shackles, embrace “modernity” and enter the international arena of art as an independent force.

Gaitonde graduated from the Sir J.J. School of Art in 1948, and stayed on for two more years as a fellow.

By the time he left, in 1950, the school had instituted an elective course offering students the opportunity to study miniature painting and other traditional Indian techniques.

Gaitonde seems to have taken this course, which was taught by a professor Jagannath M. Ahivasi (1901-1973).

He also may have benefited from the insights of Shankar B. Palsikar (1917-1984), another teaching fellow and much nearer his own age.

Palsikar was familiar with traditional Indian esthetic theory, and also introduced colleagues and students to more daring Western artists, such as Picasso, Matisse & Braque.

All of this education is nothing that Holland Cotter wanted his readers to know about, in his impassioned defense of this show in the NY Times for January 1.

True, he does mention that Gaitonde went to art school, but only in a passing phrase, with no detail on how old-fashioned or English the school was at first, or how it evolved—most specifically into teaching traditional Indian techniques.

Evidently Gaitonde conforms more to the mythology of Pomonia if he taught himself everything about Indian art by studying it in monk-like solitude.

Nor does Cotter wish to deal with the fact that Gaitonde could have learned about Western modernism in art school, too.

Instead, he implies that Gaitonde didn’t learn about Western modernism until after he’d left art school and was mingling with his contemporaries.

I’m sure that Giatonde continued to educate himself, about both Asian and Western art, after he left school. But to suggest he learned nothing in art school is to suggest that he belonged more to the Romantic stereotype of Noble Savage than in the more prosaic but likelier world of professional artistic practice.

Cotter focuses on the one drawing in the Guggenheim show -- the earliest, made in 1953 – that is done in the manner of an Indian miniature (it depicts a woman in traditional Indian costume).

Then he ignores six more recent images done very much in the manner of Klee, in order to flagellate the Guggenheim for not devoting more space to the representational work that Gaitonde was doing in the 1950s.

Was Cotter aware that during this period, Gaitonde very often wasn’t working in a traditional Indian mode?

According to Poddar, his work during this period – in addition to those Klee-inspired pictures--was influenced by Georges Rouault (1871-1958), a figurative French expressionist who must also have been greatly admired by those German and Austrian refugees.

THE BOMBAY ART SCENE IN THE 1950s

During the 1950s, it would seem, the contemporary art “scene” in Bombay was yet in its infancy. The first commercial art gallery wouldn’t open until 1959 (another example of the useful information that Poddar shares with us).

The few art societies and/or academies staging group shows in the 1940s and 1950s were likely to be more academic in their tastes. Gaitonde therefore briefly joined the Progressive Artist Group, and later another artists' group called the Bombay Group.

Both Lubow and Cotter create the impression that such groups were of artists banding together to issue manifestos or engage in dada gestes promulgating their ideas – like the Zero group, say, or Fluxus, both of the 1950s and 1960s.

Nor would I dispute that shared ambitions were part of the picture in India (as well as with the later European groups) – but so (in India) was the practical desire to exhibit (and sell) these artists' more radical work.

This was in the 19th century tradition of the impressionists of Paris, who banded together to exhibit their work because they were dissatisfied with the treatment that it was receiving at the Salons, or the Society of American Artists, who broke away from New York’s National Academy of Design for the same reasons, and at about the same time.

The Progressive Artist Group (and possibly also the Bombay Group) staged exhibitions of Indian artists pursuing non-academic styles.

Thus we see the artistic developments surrounding Gaitonde moving on from early 19th century European educational models on to later 19th century European exhibition ones—and we can surmise that the art being exhibited was in even more recent Western styles.

However, again according to Poddar, such styles were still more likely to be expressionist than abstract, blends of Western & Eastern figure studies.

I say this not only upon the basis of what she writes, but also because of the images I find when I google “Indian Progressive Artist Group.”

They remind me very much of the work of the figurative expressionists in New York during the 1940s, painters like Abraham Rattner, Max Weber, Jack Levine & Hyman Bloom.

These artits were attracting at least as much, and maybe even more, attention in the 1940s than were the young abstract expressionists, so I dealt with them at length in my own dissertation.

However, when I showed photographs of their work to Betsy Baker of Art in America around 1982 as possible subjects for an article, she remarked that they were “funny-looking,” or words to that effect (though she did eventually publish the article).

Funny-looking or not, the figurative expressionism of the Bombay Progressive Group from the 1950s dramatizes the fact that, although chronologically Gaitonde was a contemporary of American second-generation abstract expressionists like Frankenthaler & Noland, in terms of India’s progress into abstraction he would become a first-generation figure, their equivalent to Pollock or Rothko.

Holland Cotter probably doesn’t like the idea of “progress,” and, in this review anyway, would have you believe that abstraction was always part of the Indian artistic experience. This may be very true, in terms of architectural motifs, decorated margins of images, carpet designs and the like, but I have never heard that easel-painting (and its descendants) which (to the untutored or super-committed eye, anyway) depicts precisely nothing is native to any other culture than the much-maligned Western European one.

To me, Cotter’s position is a further part of the mythology of Pomonia, which holds that there is no such thing as a mainstream of any sort, or any evidence that Western Europe and America have led the way into the artistic present.

ANOTHER DIGRESSION

The most recent attempt to document this myth was “Other Primary Structures,” a two-part show of non-Western minimalism at the Jewish Museum in 2014-2015.

The first part of the show was devoted to “minimalism” outside of the U.S. and the UK prior to 1967—in other words, before the Jewish Museum’s “Primary Structures” show of 1966.

“Primary Structures,” as I've already remarked, was when minimalism emerged from New York studios and entered the arena of gallery shows and media attention--but New York artists like Robert Morris & Donald Judd had already been making it for years.

I didn’t see “Other Primary Structures” myself, but the review of it by Roberta Smith of April 11, 2014 in the NY Times of makes it pretty clear to me that minimalism didn’t sprout outside of North America and U.K. until after 1967—in other words, it spread to those quarters of the world, as opposed to originating there.

The only example Smith cited of work by a non-Western artist in that show was one who had been working in London.

As for the rest, she characterized the work as “excellent….but rooted in prewar Europe, in de Stijl, Russian constructivism, and the more abstract of Alberto Giacometti’s early works:”

GAITONDE’S WORK OF THE 1950s

Nevertheless, Bombay’s version of figurative expressionism seems to have been popular on the international front in the 1950s, very possibly because it was still representational, thereby allowing viewers to think they were looking at something exotic when they were not.

During this period, Gaitonde’s presumably still figurative works were featured at the 1954 Venice Biennale. He was also included in a group show of Indian art that traveled throughout Eastern Europe.

Eastern Europe was still part of the Soviet bloc, and the Soviets frowned upon abstraction, so all this representational Indian art must have been welcomed. Then again, Holland Cotter is no friend to abstraction either.

Not only has he badmouthed first-generation American abstract expressionism, but even among those contemporary multicultural artists whom he is so fond of writing about, I can think of several excellent abstract ones he’s never reviewed.

He complains that the Guggenheim show of Gaitonde’s work has been “edited” to “fit smoothly into a streamlined picture of Modernism that the Guggenheim likes to project.”

He would like it have included more of the artist’s earlier “sweat work.” But how much of Gaitonde’s work from the 1950s had he seen elsewhere, I wonder?

I haven’t seen more than a smidgen of it myself, but my guess would be that quite a lot of it might strike 21st century eyes as “funny-looking,” and that Poddar therefore selected for this show some few works from the 50s which would at least stand up respectably with the passage of time.

EMERGENCE INTO ABSTRACTION

Around 1957, Gaitonde began to evolve into pure abstraction, though it was apparently a couple of years before this became widely known.

Not too long after he had committed himself to this mode, he received a Rockefeller-financed grant to come to New York in 1964 and spend a year or so here.

The grant was from the JDR 3rd Fund – appropriately, since John D. Rockefeller, III, and his wife, Blanchette, were not only generous patrons of MoMA (his mother’s museum) but also collectors of Asian art (he had founded the Asia Society in 1956).

According to Poddar, Gaitonde, through a friend of his, was able to visit Rothko in his studio. He must have gotten to a number of New York galleries and museums as well, but she also suggests that he spent a lot of his time just seeing movies and exploring the streets of New York.

Between 1959 and 1963, his work was included in a handful of U.S. group shows of Indian art, and in 1959 and 1963 he also had solo exhibitions in New York.

The first was at Graham, and the second was at Willard—whose proprietor, Marian Willard, had already shown Mark Tobey & Morris Graves, two semi-abstract U.S. artists associated with Asian philosophy and art.

From this period onward, Gaitonde had dozens of shows in India, mostly at galleries in New Delhi or Bombay; his work was also seen all the way from London and Basel to Singapore and Yokohama.

He was, in other words, world-famous, yet the samples of his abstract paintings in the Guggenheim show from the 1960s and early 1970s seemed to me a bit too pat.

I felt that they look too much like what Americans and Western Europeans expected abstract Indian painting to look like—smallish horizontal paintings in murky or pallid colors with faintly glossy surfaces and “artistic” little vaguely calligraphic squiggles down their middles.

ARTISTIC MATURITY

On the other hand, the larger gallery space displaying a select group of larger Gaitonde pictures from the later 70s on through the early 90s is truly inspiring.

All made after the artist relocated to New Delhi in 1972, these paintings display the magical effects he was able to achieve by the sophisticated technique he’d developed.

Already in the later 60s, he’d started laying his canvases on the floor, and dispensing with brushes in favor of other implements.

These approaches don’t sound too different from those used by Pollock and color-field painters working out of Pollock in the later 50s and early 60s.

In other words, in his artistic maturity, Gaitonde had finally come abreast of the most advanced painting by his contemporaries in Western art.

Though his paintings don’t even remotely resemble those of Morris Louis or Jules Olitski, his ontogeny was complete.

He didn’t stop there.

In 1972, according to Poddar’s catalog, he “began utilizing a ‘lift-off’ process: tearing pieces from newspapers and magazines, he transferred color from these cut-outs by applying rollers onto the verso of their wet, painted surfaces and subsequently erased aspects of the transfers with palette knives…..”

He had also abandoned the horizontal format in favor of a vertical one—creating far more evocative images that suggest either Chinese scroll paintings or Indian murals—depending on their color schemes.

When combining subdued greenish yellows with blackish grays, the effect is more coolly Chinese; when employing vivid reds and orangey yellows, the heat of India is conveyed.

Both such cases, and the other paintings in this gallery, also manifest the subtlety and restraint so evocative of the Zen Buddhism that Gaitonde steeped himself in, especially during his later years.

Still, there are millions of Zen Buddhists, and I daresay hundreds or maybe even thousands of other painters espousing that philosophy, yet none of them make paintings like these.

All of which is another way of saying that, beyond reflecting the myriad influences and environments which Gaitonde had to assimilate and/or absorb, the work ultimately speaks more of what he himself was. His style is personal as well as multicultural.
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