It seems almost a cosmic twist of fate that Vasudeo S. (V.S) Gaitonde has become, a little over a decade past his death, the object of such international admiration. A private and intensely self-critical painter, Gaitonde left little record of his life and work; as the Indian art critic Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni, a champion of his career, wrote in 1983, he “isolated himself very early...from everything in his environment which he considered irrelevant to [his] intensity as a painter.” Among those elements irrelevant to Gaitonde: self-promotion, output surpassing five or six paintings per year, and simple labels such as “abstract art”—the painter reportedly preferred the term “non-objective painting” to describe his work.
Yet despite the artist’s reclusive nature and the lack of a full record of his life, Gaitonde has emerged as a luminary figure in Indian postwar art, a regrettably understudied school of painting. Now, he is the subject of a retrospective at the Guggenheim—the first ever museum exhibition dedicated to the artist’s work. Titled “Painting as Process, Painting as Life,” the show traces the artist’s slow and deliberate evolution from his cubism-inflected works of the ’50s to the large-scale, densely meditative abstractions he created throughout the ’80s.
Born in 1924 in Nagpur, India, Gaitonde moved to Mumbai to attend art school; there, in the ’50s, he was briefly affiliated with the Progressive Artists’ Group. Inspired by cubism and the works of Paul Klee, the group sought to foster an Indian avant-garde largely in opposition to the more traditional Bengal School of Art. Though Gaitonde only worked with the group in passing and remained unaffiliated for most of his life, it was with this group and the Bhulabhai Memorial Institute—where the likes of Ravi Shankar also worked—where he created his most figurative, cubist-influenced work.
In the early ’60s, Gaitonde’s fascination with the practice of Zen buddhism led him to abstraction; it was during this period that he began creating his lush, large-scale, monochromatic works. As his palette narrowed, subtle geometric shapes and abstract gestures influenced by traditional calligraphy became the focal point of his paintings. These, like almost all of his works, remained untitled. In the mid-’60s, the painter was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation grant and lived for a time in New York City, where he visited Mark Rothko’s studio and was enormously impressed—the abstract expressionist work, and the time Gaitonde spent in America, were largely influential on the artist’s practice for the rest of his career.
Upon his return to India, Gaitonde continued to develop his particular brand of abstract painting, one that incorporated aspects of Indian miniatures—the jewel tones he most often used, for instance, recall traditional decorative and mural paintings that date back to the 10th century—and ghostly suggestions of the calligraphic alphabet, of which he was a student for much of his life. Employing the use of rollers and palette knives, Gaitonde created wide, unified spectrums of color, which at times recalled vast landscapes or smudged letters. To create his unique, multilayered style, the artist used a cutout method in which newspaper was applied to a canvas, painted over, and removed. Many paintings, marked by an overwhelming sense of symmetry and balance, are hemmed in by stark borders.
Close to the entrance of “Painting as Process, Painting as Life,”a few small paper drawings are hung; in a show curated around large, colorful paintings, the black ink and watercolor works at first appear out of place. They are the products of the year in which Gaitonde could not paint as he was accustomed to; following an accident, the artist found himself unable to continue work on his meditative large-scale projects. Instead, he created what could be considered preliminary sketches, the underlying architecture for his lush, mystifying paintings. Meticulously patterned or comprised of brushstrokes stacked totem-like, the paintings contain the symmetry and focus present in all of Gaitonde’s work.
These, perhaps more than introspective volumes written by or about the artist, reveal his practice—one that was deliberate and meditative and singularly focused on the perfection of visual languages old and new. As the artist once said in a rare interview: “A painting always exists within you, even before you actually start to paint. You just have to make yourself the perfect machine to express what is already there.”
“Painting on Process, Painting as Life” is on view at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, Oct. 24, 2014–Feb. 11, 2015.