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signed and dated in Hindi and signed and dated 'GAITONDE 70' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
60 x 35 7⁄8 in. (152.4 x 91.1 cm.)
Painted in 1970
Private Collection, Mumbai
Osian's Mumbai, 31 January 2007, lot 30
Acquired from the above

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Nishad Avari
Nishad Avari Specialist, Head of Department

Lot Essay

“I am first and foremost an individual. I cannot subscribe to any collective thinking and I will not acknowledge any thought that does not appeal to my reason. Emotions [are] intrinsically individual in their impact and revelation. And what I seek to portray, being true to myself remains personal. I can only hope for a certain understanding by others. That is the reason I don't caption my paintings and why a single colour dominates my compositions" (Artist statement, P. Pundir, 'An Untitled Canvas', The Indian Express, 5 January 2014).

Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde is widely considered to be India’s most significant abstract painter, and his iconic meditative canvases embody the avant-garde spirit of Indian modernism. However, in many ways, Gaitonde trod a different path than his friends and contemporaries of the period. He graduated from the Sir J.J. School of Art in Bombay in 1948, shortly after Indian independence, and associated himself with the seminal modernist collective, the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), shortly after. Gaitonde adopted an entirely different attitude towards painting than most other artists associated with the PAG.

First, he was a far less prolific painter, completing only five or six canvases a year. This was largely because, for Gaitonde, each painting was all-consuming from conception to the final work. The physical act of painting his canvases was meticulous, complex and precise, yet it was the formulation of the concept, the incubation and propagation of the painting as an idea in his own consciousness, that absorbed much of his attention and time. As Gaitonde noted only a few years after completing the present painting, "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" (Artist statement, D. Nadkarni, Gaitonde, New Delhi, 1983, unpaginated). Even at a young age, Gaitonde was as much a philosopher as an artist, and it was this sensibility that made his paintings so unique.

Second, with the exception of a short period in the early 1950s, Gaitonde abandoned figuration, instead committing to the revolutionary path of what he termed ‘non-objective art’. As the critic Holland Cotter described it, “He [Gaitonde] learned to use color as an independent expressive element and to break representational forms down to their abstract core. In doing so, he revealed an important historical truth: Indian painting had always been, fundamentally, about abstraction” (H. Cotter, ‘An Indian Modernist with a Global Gaze’ The New York Times, 1 January 2015). This is one of the reasons that Gaitonde’s paintings do not have titles, as any attempt to attribute or describe them would corrupt the pure abstraction of his art.

The present lot was executed in 1970, five years after Gaitonde returned to India from a stay in New York funded by a J.D. Rockefeller III Fund Travelling Fellowship. This trip marked a fundamental change in his oeuvre, allowing Gaitonde access to see in person the work of the Abstract Expressionists and in particular, the Color Field master Mark Rothko. Hitherto, Gaitonde's experience of such works was limited to reproductions, but in New York, he actually visited Rothko’s studio along with fellow artist and friend, Krishen Khanna. This visit had an immediate and lasting effect on Gaitonde. The methodology, sensibility and experiential impact of Rothko’s paintings were more influential on the young artist than their formal aesthetics. Gaitonde increasingly adopted some of the techniques he learnt about in his own practice, notably the gradual building up of the paint layer with a combination of roller and palette knife. The effects of this sensitivity are clear in works like the present lot, as they create an atmosphere of almost unbearable silence akin to Rothko’s iconic Chapel paintings in Houston. Rothko died in 1970, the year that the present lot was executed, and the meditative stillness that this painting exudes is a fitting tribute to the master.

Using Gaitonde's now iconic portrait-format, the present picture is one of the earliest examples of his fully mature idiom. It is no wonder that the artist's works from the 1970s are heralded as the most coveted of the artist’s oeuvre. His creative process during the period was sophisticated, refined and all-consuming intellectually, spiritually and physically. The critic Roy Craven astutely describes the artist's meticulous process, noting, “'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, 'A Short Report on Contemporary Painting in India', Art Journal, Vol. 24, No. 3, 1965, p. 229). This process illuminates Gaitonde’s deep interest in the methodology of painting itself. The artist's unique combination of control, color and expression imbues this canvas with a vitality and sublimation that transcends any single style or technique in abstract painting.

The subdued, monochromatic palette that the artist uses for this painting is broken up by two exquisite golden-yellow spheres, which, like planets or suns, add syntax to the composition, seemingly breaking through the clouds or rising over Gaitonde’s trademark horizon-like layers of pigment. If silence and reflection is a cornerstone of Gaitonde’s practice, then this canvas is an understated exemplar of this. Much like Rothko’s most renowned works, this painting demands constant viewing and reviewing, underlining that Gaitonde's work is experiential rather than representational. Paintings like this one inspire mindfulness and self-reflection in what feels like a private and unique experience for each viewer. Writing about the experience of viewing Gaitonde's paintings, the critic Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni 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).

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