"It's far more exciting for me as a painter, to work in grey or sepia. The brush can move freely from figure to ground, and this interaction offers me immense formal possibilities." (Artist quote, H. Bhabha, 'Figure and Shadow: Conversations on the Illusive Art of Akbar Padamsee', Work in Language, Mumbai, 2010, p. 52)
With the color gray, Akbar Padamsee discovered in 1959, the potential for breathtaking beauty and a painterly language distinctly his own. On his return from Paris, Padamsee executed four paintings specifically for his first solo exhibition back in Bombay. The exhibition was a breakthrough event for the Indian art scene. Their sheer scale and monochromatic palette created quite a stir as seen in this newspaper headline from the Times of India, 1 April 1960: 'The Painter's Painter: Akbar Enters Exciting Phase'.
The four paintings of his Gray Period; Greek Landscape, Reclining Nude, Juhu and Cityscape are arguably among the finest of Padamsee's oeuvre. It can be said that everything that came before - the figurative works and the early cityscapes were preludes to the gray paintings and everything that has come since - the mirror images and the metascapes are the epilogue.
"For the [1960 solo] exhibition, Akbar decided he would not paint indoors, but out in the open and only at night. Spreading a huge canvas on the floor of the lighted court, he would start to work, confining himself to the use of two colors: black and white." (S. Doshi, 'Shades of Grey', Work in Language, Mumbai, 2010, p. 180) In a recent conversation with the artist, he fondly recollects, "Painting in my Juhu flat I started working on it for three or four nights, because the sunlight was too much in my open courtyard, I had to work at night. And a dog used to come and sit next to me. He was so wonderful and really became a friend of mine. He didn't budge he would just sit in his own place looking at me. Not barking or anything, all night as I worked."
Many art historians have asked Padamsee to explain the inspiration or logic behind the gray paintings. Looking back on the exhibition, Padamsee recalls going to Bal Chhabda for guidance, "I went to Bal Chhabda's place, from Bal's window on the seventh floor I looked out at the view and could see such wonderful buildings. Bal said 'Why don't you paint that?' To which I replied 'I will do that'. So then back home I started painting and without looking at the landscape, I reconstructed the schema."
Padamsee further explains that as a child he observed his father playing billiards. He [...] "was fascinated by the way in which the ball bounced off the four boundaries of the table, the force and angle at which it hit the edge, as well as the momentum that carried it on the trajectory. He remarks that if the paths taken by the different balls are plotted, the result would be a mesh of superimposed lines." (S. Doshi, 'Shades of Grey', Work in Language, Mumbai, 2010, p. 180)
"I don't paint forms, forms emerge from the dynamism of movement. As the brush strokes move across the canvas, as they hit the boundary of the picture space and bounce back, an energy field is created and it is this energy field which is the matrix of the image. When I did the Grey series, I was preoccupied with using similar brush strokes across the canvas without any interruptions. This was possible because I was using only grey and did not need to stop. There was no distinction of hue between the background and figure except that at one point it would emerge." (Artist Quote, S. Doshi, 'Shades of Grey', Work in Language, Mumbai, 2010, pp. 180-181)
Cityscape is a meditation on the color gray, on line, form and movement. Painted from left to right it is also a meditation on the very act of painting. In Padamsee's earlier cityscapes, we see only a few buildings at close range but in this Cityscape from 1959, we see across a horizon, clusters of geometric shapes under a full moon and against a radiant sky. The shades of gray convey a restfulness and have a depth and richness that is immediately striking. "He built a whole array of greys which correspond to different colours. His grey palette now ranged from the soft, pale, lustrous greys of silks and satins to the deep, dark, ominous greys of the monsoon skies." (S. Doshi, 'Shades of Grey', Work in Language, Mumbai, 2010, p. 180)
"How Does one use gray? [...] I tried to match gray with a color. First I took cadmium red and started mixing the correct, corresponding gray for it. Then I filled a bottle with the gray but wrote on the top cadmium red. To my surprise instead of producing a dark color it made a very light color. Then I took cadmium yellow instead of being bright, it was darker. Two years later, I used the same colors, mixing cadmium red and yellow again to add another layer of forms and depth to the painting. I realised, gray was not an urbane tonality, this was very good. I had six or seven bottles of different gray paints, each marked with a corresponding color. I had a whole set. I started painting and it worked marvelously." (In conversation with the artist, January 2012)
The exhibition organized by Gallery 59 was held at Jehangir Art Gallery and lasted for only seven days. But the artistic revelation delivered to the artist through the Grey Period can be felt in all his works since, as exquisitely depicted in his short film Syzygy, 1969 and in Mirror Image, 1996 (lot 549). The decade that followed was a tremendous time for growth and recognition.