V. S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life

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An artist of singular stature, modernist painter Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde (1924–2001) was known to fellow artists and intellectuals, as well as to later generations of students and admirers, as a man of uncompromising integrity of spirit and purpose. 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, he remained independent throughout most of his career. This exhibition draws an arc from Gaitonde’s early, figurative, mixed-medium compositions and watercolors inspired by Paul Klee, through his major bodies of signature canvases from the 1960s and ’70s, to his late works from the 1980s and ’90s. Departing from Klee, Gaitonde’s practice began in the late 1950s in a nonrepresentational mode—or, as he preferred to call it, a nonobjective style. This turn towards abstraction is in accordance with the artistic principles first espoused by Vasily Kandinsky, as is embodied by the Guggenheim’s origins as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, and also dovetails with Gaitonde’s lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism.

Short, stocky, self-critical, and confident, Gaitonde scorned sentimentality in his biography and his artistic practice. As fellow painter Krishen Khanna has stated, “There’s a very strong correlation I see between the way Gaitonde thought, the way he lived, and the way he painted.” Alongside art, he was an avid admirer of Indian and Western poetry, cinema, literature, theater, and classical music. Stressing the importance of the present moment, the completeness and joy of the creative process, and the intimate relationship between painter and painting, “Gai,” as he was popularly known among peers, was an intrepid and influential artist whose career remains unequaled in the history of South Asian modern art. Yet Gaitonde remains sorely understudied in the genealogies of twentieth-century world art.

As current scholarship revisits non-Western traditions of mid-twentieth-century modern art, this seminal retrospective exhibition 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 twentieth century. It comprises forty-five major paintings and works on paper drawn from thirty leading public institutions and private collections, forming the most comprehensive overview of Gaitonde’s work to date. Including many pieces that have never been seen by the public, the exhibition reveals 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.

A transnational set of references and influences provides an art historical context for Gaitonde’s work and defines this exhibition. Gaitonde’s work spans the traditions of nonobjective painting and Zen Buddhism as well as Indian miniatures and East Asian hanging scrolls and ink paintings. When looking at Gaitonde’s oeuvre within the wider related context of international postwar art, one can also draw parallels to artists working within the contemporary School of Paris, as well as movements such as Art Informel, Tachisme, and Abstract Expressionism. Yet Gaitonde’s output continues to be defined by the particular ethos of India, where the artist lived and worked his entire life.

A scholarly catalogue and series of public programs accompanies the exhibition, which is organized by Sandhini Poddar, Adjunct Curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, with Amara Antilla, Curatorial Assistant, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

V. S. Gaitonde, Untitled, 1962. Ink and watercolor on paper, 55.9 x 76.2 cm. Collection of Kiran Nadar, New Delhi. Photo: Anil Rane © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

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