“Bhupen Khakhar (1934–2003) played a central role in modern Indian art and was a recognised international figure in twentieth century painting. Active from the 1960s, Khakhar was part of a lively new wave of narrative painting and figuration by artists in India that became known as the Baroda School. His practice evolved from the careful study of art from South Asian and European sources, even while he continued to work as an accountant part-time. After early experiments with Pop art, Khakhar developed a style of painting that combined both high and low, popular and painterly aesthetics, cleverly subverting popular iconography. He confronted complex and provocative themes with candour: class difference; desire and homosexuality; and his personal battle with cancer. Also a writer, his critical observations and literary sensibility were evident in his sharp, often ironic depictions of difficult subjects.” (Statement from the Tate Modern, London, 2016)
Khakhar’s work is inextricably linked to his own cultural background and sexuality. A pivotal moment in Khakhar’s artistic career followed a trip to Howard Hodgkin’s vacation house in Bath, England, in 1979. For the first time he saw first-hand the work of British Pop artists David Hockney and R.B. Kitaj, who he had long admired. Perhaps more significant was that the openly gay Hockney introduced Khakhar to a new public attitude towards homosexuality that was increasingly tolerant and accepting. This experience, coupled with the traumatic but liberating death of his mother and a growing intimacy with his friend Vallavbhai, provided the necessary circumstances to begin the difficult process of publicly admitting his homosexuality.
From the 1980s onwards, Khakhar’s works became increasingly open in their exploration of gay themes and the naked male form. He also began to include his own self-portraits within his narratives, lending authenticity and an extraordinary amount of empathy to his paintings. The three works on offer here are excellent examples of this time period. At New Jersey (lot 72), darkness allows for the freedom to emerge uninhibited. Behind the self-referential figure of a single man wearing a bright blue shirt, several ostensibly clandestine encounters take place in shadowy doorways and beside parked vehicles. Similar to the untitled painting on acrylic sheets (lot 71), Khakhar liberates these figures from judgment, social taboos and conventions. Punky (lot 70) is a whimsical and fun portrait in watercolour. All three works are executed in different mediums showcasing Khakhar’s versatility and adeptness, which is exceptional for an untrained artist.
Khakhar was a revolutionary figure. His whimsical yet deeply moving portrayals of everyday life, unabashed love of kitsch, and performance, as seen in the famous image of him dressed as James Bond from Kalbadevi, makes him a true avant-garde. Khakhar was also one of the most beloved artists of his generation, inspiring several post-modern and contemporary artists including Francesco Clemente, Anju Dodiya and Atul Dodiya.
Throughout his lifetime, Khakhar exhibited frequently in India and abroad and was the subject of two documentary films. His work has shown at the Hirschhorn Museum, Washington D.C. (1982), Tokyo Biennale (1984), Pompidou Centre, Paris (1986), Documenta IX, Kassel (1992), the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Renia Sofa, Spain (2002), and the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Mumbai (2003). He has also been included in several group exhibitions at Tate Modern, London, alongside Howard Hodgkin, David Hockney and R. B. Kitaj. In collaboration with the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, the first posthumous survey of his work will open at the Tate Modern in June 2016. This show will bring together works spanning his five decade career and will include some of his most famous paintings alongside rarely seen experimental works.