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.
- Akbar Padamsee
With meticulously worked out tone, texture and form, his grey paintings of 1959-61 possess the paradoxical qualities of intimacy and monumentality.
- Geeta Kapur, 1972
Upon his return to Bombay in 1959 from a second trip to Paris, Akbar Padamsee embarked on what was arguably one of the most ambitious projects of his extensive artistic career. Progressively eliminating color from his work, he began to paint only in shades of gray, on a scale he had not attempted before.
With the purging of color, Padamsee discovered the potential to develop a painterly language distinctly his own. The small number of imposing works he created in this palette over the brief period from 1959-60 included four vast horizontal landscapes and an immense reclining nude, and are among the finest of Padamsee’s oeuvre. In fact, it can be said that everything that came before – the artist’s early portraits and cityscapes – were preludes to his gray paintings, and that everything that has come since – his unique metascapes, mirror images and ‘tertiary’ paintings in sepia tones – are their epilogue. It is noteworthy that he chose one of the paintings from this series, Juhu (1960) as the cover for the major monograph on his artistic career published in 2010.
This limited body of monochromatic works was exhibited at Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay for just a week in March-April 1960. The brief show, which was sponsored by Gallery 59, owned by Padamsee’s friend and fellow artist Bal Chhabda, was a breakthrough event for Padamsee as well as the Indian art community who had never seen anything like it. The sheer scale of the canvases and their unique palette created quite a stir, as seen in reviews and headlines that followed the show, including one in the Times of India on 1 April 1960 that boldly declared ‘The Painter’s Painter: Padamsee Enters Exciting Phase’.
Shamlal, the artist’s first biographer, noted “In the case of an artist less sure of himself such renunciation might have been fatal. With Padamsee the renunciation becomes an act of self-discovery. By restricting himself to grays, like the Chinese masters who confine themselves to the various shades of black, he strikes the richest vein of poetry in his art. In the paintings of 1959 and 1960 there is a lyrical intensity which comes from a passionate love affair. The affair is between the artist and his art, naked and defenceless.” (Shamlal, Padamsee, Mumbai, 1964, p. 7)
Despite these glowing reviews, Padamsee didn’t fnd many takers for these large, monochromatic paintings at the show. It was his artist friends who, understanding the inspired nature and artistic merit of these works, bought most of them. While Bal Chhabda purchased two of the landscapes, including the present lot, Krishen Khanna and Maqbool Fida Husain bought one each. Khanna even noted that they thought Padamsee “[...] had found his metier and he painted with such zest and authority which seemed to confirm our feelings that we were henceforth going to see only black and white paintings from him.” (Work in Language, Mumbai, 2010, p. 182-83) The large gray reclining nude ended up hanging above the doorway of the iconic Chelsea Hotel in New York for several decades until its closure in 2011, bartered to the owner in exchange for Padamsee’s rent when he stayed there in 1965.
Since the 1960 exhibition, many writers and art historians have asked Padamsee to explain the inspiration behind his series of gray paintings. Looking back on the exhibition, Padamsee recalls going to Chhabda for guidance about what to show in Bombay after six years of being away. “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.” (In conversation with the artist, January 2012)
Padamsee expands on the meaning of this ‘schema’ anecdotally, recalling that as a child he used to observe his father playing billiards. He remembers being “fascinated by the way in which the ball bounced of 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 [...Drawing a parallel with his creative process, Padamsee notes,] 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.” (S. Doshi, ‘Shades of Grey’, Work in Language, Mumbai, 2010, pp. 180-81)
Living in Juhu at the time, a seaside suburb of Bombay, Padamsee fondly recollects, “Painting in my Juhu fat, 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.” (In conversation with the artist, January 2012)
The present lot, a monumental landscape from 1959 titled Rooftops, is the first of Padamsee’s scroll-like paintings of his ‘gray period’, significant in its clear illustration of the artist’s transition to a new method of working with paint and a unique way of visualizing color, scale and composition. Speaking about this, he noted, “[...] in order to overcome the practical problem of nearness, I discovered this adventurous, new way of composing a picture. It was not possible to see the entire painting unless I moved far behind. As the angle of our vision is 28°, I would conceal the painting, and open it part by part as I went along. It was as if it were unrolling itself in space. As I started composing in this way, I found that I had discovered a very different kind of composition.” (Artist statement, H. Bhabha, ‘Figure and Shadow: Conversations on the Illusive Art of Akbar Padamsee’, Work in Language, Mumbai, 2010, p. 26)
A panoramic composition with no linear narrative or any definite beginning and end, this dense landscape is almost entirely filled by block-like architectural forms, abutting each other on what looks like a gentle hillside. The perspective Padamsee employs seems to shift from frontal to aerial as the composition progresses up the hill, with edifices of various shapes and sizes jostling for space, including domed Mediterranean towers, red-roofed houses and a few pointed turrets. As with all his works, this landscape has no specific geographic or chronologic location or any clear residents. Inspired by a fleeting glimpse of Bombay’s skyline from Chhabda’s window, this carefully orchestrated vista instead suggests the timeless and the infinite.
Although in its individual architectural forms this painting corresponds with Padamsee’s earlier Horizon series of landscapes (1956-57), it represents a complete departure in their grouping. Here, in “daring and complex compositional arrangements [...] The shapes retain their precision, but the dark enclosing outline has all but disappeared: only occasionally is its vestigial presence encountered. Unlike the earlier landscapes, the buildings in these paintings have doors and windows. All these changes signify a new mood.” (S. Doshi, ‘Shades of Grey’, Work in Language, Mumbai, 2010, pp. 187)
Soon even the hints of color visible in this painting vanished, and in the rest of the paintings from this series, Padamsee used a palette consisting only of “a whole array of greys which correspond to different colors. 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)
Not only does Rooftops represent a momentous point of departure in Padamsee’s oeuvre, but it is also a critical meditation on color, form and movement – an examination of the very act of painting, and one that continues to shape and inform the artist’s work even today.