“’Gai’ [Gaitonde] knows what he wants and works with determination to achieve it. His paintings reflect this confidence in that their structure and coloration look just right [...] The mark of a true artist is control, the ability to state concisely that which he wishes, but in doing so, not lose the spark of life which brought about the work’s creation. Gai’s works have that spark as well as the control, but they also live a life of their own which reaches out and involves the spectator.” (R. Craven Jr., ‘A Short Report on Contemporary Painting in India’, Art Journal, Vol. 24, No. 3, 1965, p. 229)
This incandescent painting from 1996 is one of the last the artist completed before his death in 2001, and headlined the major exhibition Colours of Independence at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, celebrating fifty years of Indian independence in 1997. While immediately striking, this work maintains the skilful balance of light, texture, color, and space that the artist perfected over the course of his career. At the heart of this painting is the ‘spark’ of life that Craven astutely identified in his work three decades earlier. As Craven noted, however, this spark is masterfully offset by ‘control’, rendering the painting simultaneously rich and discreet, sensuous and subtle.
Imbued with a distinctive lyricism and luminosity, this painting can been likened to a musical composition, both in its emotive capacity and in its visual structure, which recalls a placement of notes on the horizontal bars of musical notations. Sandhini Poddar describes Gaitonde’s paintings as “disembodied visual harmonies”, adding that they “underline the psychic effect of form and color on the viewer, and the emotional basis of art.” (S. Poddar, V.S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life, New York, 2014, p. 31)
“Gaitonde’s profound understanding of the properties and capacities of his chosen medium – painting – which constituted the sole vehicle of experience for the artist and the viewer, sets his works apart not only as deeply contemplative and refined objects, but as containers of an avid, voracious worldview, spanning the traditions of nonobjective painting and Indian miniatures, Zen Buddhism and East Asian hanging scrolls and ink paintings.” (S. Poddar, 2014, pp. 30-31)
Against a ground methodically layered in tones of vermillion, orange and yellow, here Gaitonde inscribes a series of enigmatic hieroglyphic forms that seem almost like embers scorched into the translucent surface, pulsating with a unique meaning for each viewer. An ode to the power and complexity of color, this painting resonates with several art historic traditions from the miniature paintings of the Himalayan foothills to Abstract Expressionism and the works of artists like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. In its play with the architectonics of color, Gaitonde’s work parallels Mark Rothko’s revolutionary color-field paintings favoring the imaginative and spiritual potentialities of pigment and the artist’s “preference for establishing an uninterrupted, osmotic connection between the painting, the overall environment, and the body of the viewer.” (S. Poddar, 2014, p. 35)
From early in his career, traditional Indian painting also held a special importance for the artist, particularly in his understanding of color, space and perspective. This is particularly evident in Gaitonde’s use of colors like yellow to evoke an ‘intensity of feeling’. “Several of Gaitonde’s works include a vivid yellow either as the main compositional color or as an ocular accent. This is the yellow of the “Tantric Devi” series from ca. 1660-70, attributed to the artist Kripal of Nurpur, one of the Pahari schools of miniature painting [...] Gaitonde’s own understanding of the “iconicity” of an image, especially as witnessed in his oils from the early 1970s onward, resonates deeply here.” (S. Poddar, 2014, p. 20)
Pria Karunakar describes the artist’s work as ‘sensuous’. “Each [painting] is unified by a single colour. The colour glows; it becomes transparent; it clots. It is this play of pigment, as it is absorbed physically into the canvas that directs the eye. Texture is structure. How he achieves this texture is the secret of Gaitonde’s style [...] The order is almost deliberately obscured by the distribution of near-random forms across the surface. These topographical or hieroglyphic forms themselves are made to dissolve into the field like enamel in an encaustic [...] The continual work of laying on pigment, dissolving it, stripping it off, and overlaying (like a process of nature) comes to a natural close as the pigmentation comes to a natural conclusion. The painter is at the controls, he decides when the painting has arrived at its capacity to articulate, yet he registers things intuitively [Gaitonde states]: ‘Like music, I know when it is at an end’. So far his visual sensibility has been absorbed in the action of painting. Now it takes over and finalises. He takes his time about this. He lives with the painting; views it continually.” (P. Karunakar, ‘V.S. Gaitonde’, Lalit Kala Contemporary 19-20, New Delhi, 1975, pp. 15-16)
As one contemplates this painting, the experience of viewing it is beautifully described by Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni, who states, “there is a sense of atmosphere, there is an approximation of music and, what is most important, there is a throbbing mystery about the very process of viewing and responding as if one is sucked into some still centre of hitherto unknown experience.” (D. Nadkarni, Gaitonde, New Delhi, 1983, unpaginated)