The wait outside the iconic coil-shaped landmark seemed interminable as the autumnal weather grew colder, wetter, and windier. I reminded myself that I had been looking forward to this exhibition since it was first announced. When the doors were finally opened to the Saturday “Pay What You Wish” crowd, I dodged through the throng. I steeled myself as I entered the gallery on the fourth floor. Perhaps it was because of the miserable weather outside that I expected to see a bleakness of expression in the man’s art. Indeed, I had let myself be prejudiced by the knowledge that the artist had been distant from his family and a recluse. Instead, face to face with his work for the first time, I realised that nothing had prepared me for the profound simplicity of the art of Goan painter Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde (1924-2001).
Curated by Sandhini Poddar, this first major retrospective of Gaitonde’s oeuvre brings him to world attention, just as one of his pieces sold for the highest amount ever paid for a work of art in India at a Christie’s auction last year. Titled “V. S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life,” the exhibition at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opened in October and will run till February 2015.
Having spent the earlier part of the evening taking in The Metropolitan Museum’s Cubism exhibition and seeing still more abstraction at the Museum of Modern Art, it was easy to see how Gaitonde’s paintings might sit side by side with that of his Western contemporaries, such as Klee and Rothko. In the book of the same name as the exhibition, Poddar quotes art critic Geeta Kapur’s observation “that modernism as it develops in postcolonial cultures has the oddest retroactive trajectories … [which in] crisscrossing the western mainstream and, in their very disalignment from it, … [restructure] the international.” This view is bolstered by critic Hal Foster, whom Poddar refers to as saying of abstraction that it has no “single origin … [A]bstraction was found as much as it was invented.” Surveying earlier Indian, Chinese, and Japanese art – the last mostly because of her subject’s own interest in Zen Buddhism – Poddar successfully demonstrates how Gaitonde, his Indian contemporaries, and Asian art in general, must be accounted for if modern art is to be understood as a comprehensively international phenomenon.
And, yet, despite the retrospective’s desire to posit Gaitonde as a notable exponent of modern abstraction of an international ilk, it can only do so by resolutely claiming the artist as an Indian figure. While little may be known of Gaitonde due to the limited recognition he received in his lifetime and having died in near-obscurity, the exhibition further obfuscates the painter’s origins. A timeline that intersperses events in Gaitonde’s life with South Asian and Indian national history can be seen by those that come to the exhibition. It notes his birthplace as Nagpur, Maharashtra, but it also states that he spent part of his childhood in Goa, where his parents were from. Curiously, even as the timeline records India’s independence from the British in 1947 and, then, the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, nothing is said of the transference of Goa between Portugal and India in 1961.
It is not that one should expect that an exhibition of this nature would necessarily underscore Gaitonde’s ethnic origins even as it mentions them in passing, but it is also noteworthy that itconstantly reiterates his Indianness for specific purposes. The first is to fix Gaitonde as a product of the artistic milieu of the formerly British India, especially because of his time from 1948 on at Bombay’s Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy School of Art, and so, consequently, to highlight how Gaitonde and his peers fit into a schema of art history that proves Indian modern art should be considered as being on par with its international counterparts. That other artist of the post-Independence Progressive movement, F. N. Souza, finds mention in Poddar’s book, but nothing is said of his Goanness or his friendship with Gaitonde. To be clear, it is not the lacunae around Goan identity that I am calling out here, but how the retrospective’s binary of India and the West can only be created by eschewing any consideration of the cosmopolitanness of being Goan.
Certainly, Gaitonde may have spent most of his lifetime outside Goa and a brief stint in New York, but one wonders how Goa may have influenced his art. As I take in the vision of this master of balance as it communicates itself to me through his work, I notice how he plays with depth: it is like looking into a boundless ocean at times. “Gaitonde missed the sea…,” his friend and fellow artist Ram Kumar says in Poddar’s book. And though Goa is disappeared in this presentation of his art, one may speculate how inescapable the trace of it is when Poddar shares the words of Burmese Indian critic Richard Bartholomew, who writes: “The landscape of memory is the subject of painters like … V. S. Gaitonde.”
From The Goan.