The Artsy Vanguard 2021: Tanya Goel
During the long months of lockdown that followed the global spread of COVID-19 last year, millions of people channeled their homebound energies into caring for plants, with sales of gardening-related goods surging $8.5 billion in the U.S. alone. Halfway across the globe, in her hometown of New Delhi, the artist Tanya Goel became fixated on flowers. But her fascination took a very distinct form.
“During the lockdown, being limited to Delhi—specifically between my home and studio—I started looking at and noticing the chromatic shifts and changes of flowers,” Goel said. “I would observe a flower through the course of the day and see how the light affected and changed it, from its budding stage to it withering away and dying.”
The resulting series of works on paper, “Botanical Studies,” had its public debut in October at Frieze London in the booth of Goel’s gallery, Nature Morte. With saturated tones applied in concentric and sometimes overlapping circles, the works appear abstract but are rooted in real-life observation, incorporating colors based on petals’ shifting hues and patterns informed by the flowers’ pistils. The floral studies evidently struck a chord: By the end of Frieze’s first day, all the works on view had sold.
For Goel, the series is a continuation of her practice of visually and materially processing the physical world. “For a decade, I was specifically referencing architecture at large,” she said. “Now I’m looking at the plants and the flowers within the cities.”
These floral studies encapsulate the quintessential traits of Goel’s rigorous yet adaptable process, even though they differ in scale and shape from her best-known works: sprawling, quasi-abstract grid compositions that represent the failures of Western utopian urban designs implemented in Delhi. And, like her large-scale grid canvases such as Mechanisms 1 (2019), there is still an implicit postcolonial critique at work in her new studies. Here, it’s within her choice of flowers: artificial or hybrid blooms introduced by the British to instill different standards of beauty and park design. These foreign florals broke with longstanding local traditions dating back to the elaborate gardens built during the Mughal era. Goel encountered these bright flowers throughout Delhi during the worst days of the pandemic and sees them as ideologically charged subjects due for closer examination.
“It’s essentially an archive of making colors from these different flowers, which are not natural,” she said. “But at the same time, they are also about our understanding of what’s natural within a city.” When the artist returned to India after a decade in the U.S.—Goel earned her MFA from the Yale School of Art in 2010—her assumptions about what seemed “natural” in her home city were thrown into sharp relief. Back in Delhi, she became keenly aware that the so-called utopian urban grid she’d navigated for years was crumbling; it had been transformed by cycles of demolition and construction largely driven by private wealth. Eager to capture the effects of these transformations not only from the zoomed-out perspective of the grid, but also their material traces at ground level, she turned the remnants of demolition and construction sites into pigments that she then deployed in her compositions.
“When I came back to Delhi, I knew I was interested in color, but I was also interested in trying to understand color through materials,” she said. “It started with collecting a lot of material to make the work a material archive of a place. A lot of the material that I was working with came from construction sites.”
The resulting pieces have an infographic-like, even scientific quality of collecting samples and visualizing observable phenomena in abstract forms. Goel pairs the rigidity of the rectilinear grid, which she renders by tracing a lattice over her canvases (or, for site-specific projects, gallery walls) with curvilinear bursts of color rendered in pigments often sourced from the streets of Delhi. The compositions evoke traditions of abstraction dating back more than a century, combined with a contemporary approach to mapping that doesn’t just render the grid, but also how people navigate it through their everyday activities and reshape it through construction projects. Her largest canvases can resemble an encounter between the minimalist markmaking of Agnes Martin and the choreographed chaos of Julie Mehretu, while her palette at times features flashes of Josef Albers.
“It starts with charting a very rigid grid, kind of like laying roads,” Goel explained of her compositions. “And then you’re also seeing how Delhi has evolved over the years, how layers keep getting added to the grid, but also continuously eroded. The addition and subtraction over the years, that’s how the formula and my thinking also evolve.”
As Goel’s practice evolved into a kind of abstracted archaeology of modernity, her work began to draw the attention of an increasingly international coterie of curators, gallerists, and collectors. Her first solo exhibition with Nature Morte, “This, the Sublime and its Double,” opened in late 2017, and considered the function of the screen from Egyptian antiquity to contemporary media. It included some of her most saturated, Albersian paintings, as well as works made with pigments crafted from materials including charcoal, aluminum, concrete, glass, and soil.
The following year, her work was included in both the Biennale of Sydney and the Gwangju Biennale. In 2020, she created an architectural intervention for the Dhaka Art Summit and was included in “Fault Lines: Contemporary Abstraction by Artists from South Asia” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her largest contribution to “Fault Lines,” the site-specific wall drawing Index V (2015/2020), abstractly rendered sea level changes over centuries in pigments made from ultramarine and natural brick, and applied using a snapline, a common tool on construction sites.
“Goel’s works map and uncover her surrounding urban landscape in a way that makes the textures, disruptions, and fissures of the physical world both visible and tangible,” wrote Amanda Sroka, an assistant curator of contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For Goel, that process of recording changes to the physical world—whether it’s a flower blooming and then wilting, or a neighborhood being demolished and rebuilt—also has a quality of nostalgia, of wanting to hold onto something fleeting and imperfect.
“There’s this idea [in my work] of home that has been dissolved in the last 10 to 11 years—Delhi has completely changed,” she said. And yet, she added, “There is that impulse of holding onto it.”
The Artsy Vanguard 2021
The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. This fourth edition of The Artsy Vanguard is a triumphant new chapter, as we present an in-person exhibition in Miami featuring the 20 artists’ works, including many available to collect on Artsy. Curated by Erin Jenoa Gilbert, sponsored by MNTN, and generously supported by Mana Public Arts, the show is located at 555 NW 24th Street, Miami, and is open to the public from December 2nd through 5th, 12–6 p.m.
Header and thumbnail image: Portrait of Tanya Goel. Courtesy of Tanya Goel and Nature Morte, New Delhi.