“V.S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life,” at the Guggenheim Museum, until February 11, 2015
REVIEW OF THE SHOW BY Poonam Srivastava
“I work as an individual. I do not have a scientific point of view. It is mostly my total experience of life [and] nature that comes through me, that is manifested on canvas. For me, every painting I do is a miracle … It is my sincere belief in life, truth, God, whatever it is, that prompts me to paint.”1 Quoted in Polyphonic Modernisms and Gaitonde’s Interiorized Worldview by Sandhini Poddar. In: VS Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life, exhibition catalogue, published by Solomon R Guggenheim Museum and Prestel Verlag, New York, 2014, pages 27-28.
I was fortunate to witness the Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde, VSG, show, “V.S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life,” at the Guggenheim Museum, October 24, 2014–February 11, 2015. The 45 paintings and drawings in oil on canvas and ink on paper, span the years 1952 to 1998. The show of VSG’s works, left me centered and moved. His is the rare talent that opens hearts, minds, and souls simultaneously. The show touched me both as a person with great interest in art, but also as person with great interest and affinity for Zen Buhddism. I was moved as a South Asian woman, and also on a deeply personal non-nationalistic/historic level. VSG’s work reflected his life, 1924 to 2001 and brought to focus the recently discarded twentieth century with all its twists and contradictions; being modern and global while embodying ancient truths; the East - West / North - South dichotomy that was brought to light by the works of such scholars as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Edward Said. I am grateful that the Guggenheim for bringing his works to the attention of a greater public, and to my attention. Quite frankly the exhibit left me wanting more. I not only wanted to see more of V. S. Gaitonde's work, I wanted to know the man.
I agree with the New York Times in their January 1, 2015 article about VSG's work: " It is by a 20th-century Indian modernist who looked westward, eastward, homeward and inward to create an intensely personalized version of transculturalism, one that has given him mythic stature in his own country and pushed him to the top of the auction charts." Charts and
auction prices aside, the work I saw is the work of a true artist, one who transcends not only his geography but his historic moment to express the personal that is also the universal truth of life. His large canvases are monochromatic. There is a simplicity to them yet also a complexity. At first glance they are monochromatic studies of color. This draws you in and then you realize the world of detail that you have dropped into. The paintings are landscapes and portraits. For me they were uniquely Indian as well. The red one for example was an immediate connect to the myths of Kali and Durga and the female principle of the divine. There was another large oil on canvas that had me literally tasting curry and smelling cardamon. Yet as a western viewer I saw clearly Rothko, Klee and others, even as I realized VSG was simply Gaitonde.
In the earlier work, before 1970 or so, one sees more clearly the classical Western approach to modernism. Even a cursory google search of VSG's life and art reveals him as a hard working, spot light shunning, man who painted in a one room apartment in Delhi that also functioned as his studio. He never married and never had children. He worked in the community of artists and can be seen with his fellow painter chums, yet still worked outside of them. He reminds me of Henri Michaux that way -- with the Surrealists but not of them. VSG was a singular, rather solitary painter, well known as a member of the Bombay school of painting, not reflecting them but from within that bathwater marking his own strokes of genius. This then is what he offers.
Within the forty five pieces I recalled Moghul minatures, hindu temple art, flashed back to my visit to the cave murals of Ajanta, north of the city of Aurangabad, recalled Jain painting, and also the artists Klee, Rothko and many more. His oils include calligraphy from the written Indus Valley and Harrapan languages as well as compositions influenced by the Hill Korwa Tribe now extant as well .
Here is an artist who cast a wide net and then spoke in his own breath creating technique and producing works that put the words such as derivative, global, Western, Eastern, even modern to a special light. During a 1962 show at MOMA he said: my painting “was done on wet white with a roller and painting knife.” VSG used a roller and a knife, pasting on rolled up paper that was painted several times, to give layers that showed the arguably Indian notion of simultaneous creation and destruction translated to fields of light, color and form. As he told MoMA, “I aim at directness and simplicity.”
Do not miss a chance to see this show at the Guggenheim. It ends the eleventh of February. Hurry. You may see me there again. I hope we will be seeing more of Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde’s works here.