‘Everything starts from silence,’ the Indian artist Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde (1924-2001) once said. ‘The silence of the brush, the silence of the canvas, the silence of the painting knife. The painter starts by absorbing all these silences... No one part of you is working there. Your entire being is.’
An advocate of Zen Buddhism, Gaitonde saw painting as a spiritual endeavour and not something to be rushed, either in conception or execution. He painted, on average, just five or six canvases a year.
In the past decade, however, the Indian artist’s reputation has witnessed a sharp rise, including the retrospective exhibition, Painting as Process, Painting as Life, at the Guggenheim in New York, in 2014-15. Commercial success has matched institutional recognition. At the inaugural Christie’s auction in India, held in Mumbai in 2013, Gaitonde’s Untitled (1979) sold for INR 237,025,000 / $3.8 million, making it the most expensive painting ever by an Indian artist. Two years later, that record fell to another Gaitonde canvas, Untitled, from 1995, which fetched INR 293,025,000 / $4.4 million.
It may be, though, that the artist's best work has yet to appear at auction. According to Nishad Avari, Indian art specialist at Christie’s in New York, ‘Untitled (1996) marks the apogee of Gaitonde’s career. Everything that went before is, in a sense, leading up to this.’ The painting is being offered in the South Asian Modern & Contemporary Art sale in New York on 13 September.
Gaitonde was brought up in Goa and then Mumbai, where, in the years after Indian independence in 1947, he joined the likes of Tyeb Mehta as associates of the seminal Progressive Artists Group. Where his peers stuck to figuration, however, by the late 1950s Gaitonde had taken the bold step of turning to abstraction — at first partially, then completely. It was a move influenced in part by a Rockefeller Foundation grant that took him to New York, where he visited the studio of Mark Rothko, among others.
‘He was by nature a solitary person,’ says Avari. ‘He never felt comfortable as part of a group and avoided distractions to the rigours of an artist’s life.’ Gaitonde, who never married and cut ties with his family after falling out with his father, moved to Delhi in the early Seventies and lived out his life alone in a dusty, one-room apartment.
‘By the time of 1996’s Untitled, we see a painter of great experience,’ says Avari. ‘There are elements here influenced by Indian miniature painting, for instance, such as the borders he paints down the left- and right-hand sides; the bright primary colours, too. The red is almost incandescent, and is combined with what looks like an enigmatic, new language of yellow-gold hieroglyphs.
‘This is a canvas that provokes new discoveries with every viewing, showing the balance of light, texture, colour and space that Gaitonde perfected over his career. It’s attention-grabbing and yet also incredibly subtle.’
The date of the painting is also important. In 1984, Gaitonde had had a car crash that left him physically impaired for the rest of his life and inclined towards making small ink drawings on paper. Untitled of 1996 marked a short period of return to the large canvases of old.
‘I'm still learning about painting, because I believe that process is constant,’ Gaitonde said in 1998, three years before his death. His posthumous reputation is that of an artist of serious purpose and craft, who saw his career as one long investigation.
It has also benefited from the rise in stature of Indian art as a whole. ‘In recent years, there has been a more globalised understanding of the definition of Modernism,’ says Avari, ‘an appreciation that its leading artists weren’t necessarily all Anglo-Saxon or Western. And among the Indians, Gaitonde is right at the top of the list.’