Vasudeo S. Gaitonde was not a prolific painter, completing only five or six deeply considered canvases a year. For the artist, the physical act of painting his canvases was meticulous and precise, but it was the formulation of the concept and the incubation of the painting as an idea in his own consciousness that absorbed most of his attention and time.
An uncompromising artist of great integrity, Gaitonde distanced himself from anything he deemed superfluous to the contemplative rigour he believed his art required. In Delhi in the 1970s, he was “very much the artist in a garret. The few writers who visited him spoke about its dusty interiors, and the immensely reticent resident of the place. Goan artist Theodore Mesquita, who met him in Delhi in 1991, described him as a ‘hermit’, impassive to the mundane world around him.” (P. Pundir, ‘An Untitled Canvas’, Indian Express, 5 January 2014) As early as the 1950s, Richard Bartholomew also described him as “a quiet man and a painter of the quiet reaches of the imagination.” (D. Nadkarni, Gaitonde, New Delhi, 1983, unpaginated)
Following a 1964 trip to New York on a Rockefeller Fund Fellowship, where Gaitonde experienced the works of several Abstract Expressionist and Conceptual artists first hand, his style began to evolve. Over the next decade, his paintings explored the relationships between form, light and colour in a diligent, yet sophisticated manner. By the mid-1970s, when this canvas was painted, “The planes of paint spread over the canvas, a reminder of nothing other than themselves [...] shafts of light which seem to emerge from the depths. An almost spiritual sublimation gets created from within paint rather than by reference to any school of thought.” (Y. Dalmia, Indian Contemporary Art Post Independence, New Delhi, 1997, p. 18)
In harmony with Eastern traditions as well, Gaitonde’s painting bears strong affinity with the works of the Chinese modernist painter, Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013). Both artists evoke a sense of landscape in their works and the kind of nature that appears in their paintings stems from their subconscious. Through careful use of light and shadow, form and space, movement and rest, both Gaitonde and Zao rediscover the Zen notion that the energy of life is expressed by suggesting, rather than merely reproducing a subject.
This painting from 1975 showcases Gaitonde as painter and philosopher at the zenith of this exploration. Completed shortly after his move to Delhi, this work represents a mature, confident and resolved vocabulary and is testament to the artist’s technical mastery of form, light and colour. Scrupulously manipulating pigments, the artist coordinated their convergences and reactions on the canvas with precision, leaving nothing to chance. The multi-layered result of this process illuminates Gaitonde’s deep interest in the methodology of painting itself.
Here, Gaitonde draws viewers in with rolling crests and troughs of burnt sienna and ochre flecked with gold, recalling perhaps an autumnal scene or stretches of scorched land. Both dense and weightless, this painting radiates with an almost imperceptible tension between the translucent surface and darker, primordial forms that seem to lurk beneath it. Layering pigments with different opacities, Gaitonde creates a sense of depth that adds to the hypnotic magnetism of the painting, challenging his viewers to form their own relationship with it and interpret it based on that intense, personal communion.
Writing about Gaitonde’s work in 1975, the year of this painting, Pria Karunakar noted that on his surfaces, “The colour glows; it becomes transparent; it clots. It is this play of pigment, as it is absorbed physically into the canvas that directs the eye. Texture is structure. How he achieves this texture is the secret of Gaitonde’s style [...] The order is almost deliberately obscured by the distribution of near-random forms across the surface. These topographical or hieroglyphic forms themselves are made to dissolve into the field like enamel in an encaustic [...] The continual work of laying on pigment, dissolving it, stripping it off, and overlaying (like a process of nature) comes to a natural close as the pigmentation comes to a natural conclusion. The painter is at the controls, he decides when the painting has arrived at its capacity to articulate [...]” (P. Karunakar, ‘V.S. Gaitonde’, Lalit Kala Contemporary 19-20, New Delhi, 1975, pp. 15-16)