The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum presents the first museum exhibition dedicated to the work of celebrated Indian modern painter Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde (1924–2001) with V. S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life from October 24, 2014, to February 11, 2015. The retrospective will comprise forty-five major paintings and works on paper drawn from thirty leading public institutions and private collections across Asia, Europe, and the United States, forming the most comprehensive overview of Gaitonde’s work to date. As current scholarship revisits traditions of mid-20th-century modern art outside of the Euro-American paradigm, Gaitonde’s work presents an unparalleled opportunity to explore the context of Indian modern art as it played out in the metropolitan centers of Bombay (now Mumbai) and New Delhi from the late 1940s through the end of the 20th century. Featuring many works that have never been seen by the public, the exhibition will reveal Gaitonde’s extraordinary use of color, line, form, and texture, as well as symbolic elements and calligraphy, in works that seem to glow with an inner light.
The exhibition is organized by Sandhini Poddar, Adjunct Curator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, with Amara Antilla, Curatorial Assistant, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. It is presented in conjunction with the Guggenheim’s Asian Art Initiative, committed to the integration of modern and contemporary Asian art into museum programming and collection activities as part of the institutional global mission.
Born in Nagpur, India in 1924, Gaitonde was briefly affiliated with avant-garde collectives such as the Progressive Artists’ Group and the Bombay Group in the early ’50s. Nonetheless, Gaitonde remained independent throughout most of his career, unrelated to any of the modern groups, movements, styles, or academies that developed after 1947 in post-Independence India. He was an artist of singular stature, known to fellow artists and intellectuals, as well as to later generations of students and collectors, as a man of uncompromising artistic integrity of spirit and purpose. A stringent attachment to the codes of painting and the ethics of being a painter distinguished his aesthetic worldview.
The exhibition will draw an arc from Gaitonde’s early, figurative, mixed-medium works and watercolors inspired by Paul Klee (1879–1940), through his major bodies of paintings from the 1960s and ’70s during which time he developed his signature oil works on canvas, to his late works from the 1980s and ’90s. Gaitonde began participating in solo and group exhibitions across India and abroad in the mid-1950s. Departing from Klee’s agile lines, lyrical colors, and fantastical symbolist imagery, the artist began working in the late 1950s in a nonrepresentational mode—or, as he preferred to call it, a nonobjective style. This turn towards abstraction coincides with Gaitonde’s lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism, and is in accordance with the philosophy first espoused by Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944), as is embodied by the Guggenheim Museum’s origins as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. Achieving silence was constitutive in Gaitonde’s creative process. During an interview in 1991, he equated the circle—which appears in several of his canvases—with silence, speech with the splitting of the circle in half, and Zen with a dot: “Everything starts from silence. The silence of the brush. The silence of the canvas. The silence of the painting knife. The painter starts by absorbing all these silences. You are not partial in the sense that no one part of you is working there. Your entire being is. Your entire being is working together with the brush, the painting knife, the canvas to absorb that silence and create.”
Gaitonde employed palette knives and paint rollers and often used torn pieces of newspaper and magazines to create abstract forms through a “lift-off” technique. The resulting paintings have a sense of weightlessness, yet their texture assures physicality and presence. His work spans the traditions of nonobjective painting and Zen Buddhism as well as Indian miniatures and East Asian hanging scrolls and ink paintings. This transnational set of references and influences provides an art historical context for Gaitonde’s work that has not yet been fully developed before this retrospective and its accompanying catalogue. When looking at Gaitonde’s oeuvre within the wider related context of international postwar art, one can draw parallels to artists working within the contemporary School of Paris, and movements such as Art Informel, Tachisme, and Abstract Expressionism, and yet continue to define his output within the particular ethos of living and working in India, as he did throughout his lifetime. The artistic careers of Nicolas de Staël (1914–1955), Adolph Gottlieb (1903–1974), Simon Hantaï (1922–2008), Ad Reinhardt (1913–1967), Mark Rothko (1903–1970), and Anne Ryan (1889–1954) provide some formal resonances to Gaitonde’s work.
V. S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life will reveal Gaitonde as a seminal colorist whose career remains unequaled in the history of South Asian modern art. As Indian critic Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni has stated, Gaitonde’s “independent-mindedness was accompanied by a firm belief in his identity as a painter.” The artist often spent months conceiving a new work but allowed for accident and play to ultimately inform the making of his art. Never prolific, Gaitonde is known to have made only five or six paintings a year, given his lengthy process of conceptualization. An emphasis on process, a masterful handling of color, structure, texture, and light, and an intuitive understanding of how these forces alter perception, are all testaments to Gaitonde’s unwavering commitment to his craft.