Tyeb Mehta took numerous cues from Western artists and while his pre-1970s works owe a stylistic debt to Francis Bacon, his work underwent several epiphanies following a year-long stay in New York on a Rockefeller Grant in 1968. His harshly textured Impressionistic brushstrokes were transformed into a new painting mode with structured expanses of color and a conscious two-dimensionality focused more on line than contour. The effect of New York on Mehta's psyche was inspirational as he spent the next forty years re-working the minimalism that has become his hallmark style by an emphasis on the diagonal and its fragmentation of the subject through these conceits of line and color. His methods of painting also changed from a heavy impasto to a pure and lighter application of color.
"My encounter with minimalist art was a revelation. I had seen minimalist reproductions previously but I hadn't seen the works in the original. Had I not seen the original, I might have dismissed many of them as gimmicks just another tricky idea. But when I saw my first original [Barnett Newman] for example, I had such an incredible emotional response to it. The canvas had no image but the way the paint had been applied, the way the scale had been worked out the whole area proportioned. There was something about it which is inexpressible. Let's say there must have been a point of saturation in my work before I went to New York, which my confrontation with the contemporary art scene brought to the surface. I was open to new ideas. About the same time, I became interested in using pure color. Normally brush marks suggest areas of directions. I wanted to avoid all this to bring elements down to such a minimal level that the image alone would be sufficient to speak for itself."
(Interview by Nikki Ty-Tomkins Seth, R. Hoskote, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, p. 342)
Following a series of illnesses, Tyeb Mehta spent 1984-85 as an artist-in-residence at Visva-Bharati University founded by Rabindranath Tagore in Santiniketan. His time there with its idyllic surroundings rejuvenated him and reignited an optimism that he had lost over the years. Bengal reminded him of childhood visits to his maternal grandparents who lived in Calcutta and his stay at Santiniketan culminated in one of his largest and most significant works to date, Santiniketan Triptych. The triptych depicts tribal priestesses enacting an ancient purification ritual and introduces the tropes of celebration as redemption in Tyeb's work. Following this transformative period at Santiniketan, "Through the 1980s and the 1990s, Tyeb guided his implements away from his customary sombre meditations, and towards the figures of inspired drummers and dancing bacchantes: ecstatic celebrants who seemed to have liberated themselves from the bondage of guilt and trauma." (R. Hoskote, "Images of Transcendence", Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, 2005, p. 29) In the present work there is a strong sense of liberation as the figure on the left, with her arm outstretched and a distorted expression across her face, separates herself from the other. This painting serves as a wonderful transition between Tyeb's diagonal works and his later variations on the theme of the Mother Goddess. Painted in 1994, Two Figures also presages Tyeb's second triptych, Celebration which was commissioned for the Times of India Group in 1995. (See note for lot 533) Using a similar palette and compositional style of figures arrested in a dancing moment, this work strongly bears a relation to the themes from the later Celebration, which like the predecessor triptych, draws inspiration from the Charak festival, the Spring festival of the Santhals.