I became interested in using pure colour and began experimenting with large areas of colour. Normally brush marks suggest areas of directions. I wanted to avoid all this... to bring the elements down to such a minimal level that the image alone would be sufficient to speak for itself.
- Tyeb Mehta, 2005
Following a year-long stay in New York on a Rockefeller III Fund Fellowship in 1968, Tyeb Mehta abandoned the expressionistic style and thickly applied paint that had characterized his work in the preceding years. Instead, he was moved by minimalism, most notably by the works of Barnett Newman that he encountered for the first time in person in the United States. Soon, Mehta began painting pristine planes of saturated color, delineated by smooth, economical lines. Busy canvases were replaced with harmonious decluttered compositions, as his early modernist approach that celebrated the medium of paint itself gave way to the centrality and totality of the image. Characterized by flattened and effortlessly minimalist forms, the most striking element of these new paintings was Mehta's bisection of the surface using a single diagonal line. These entirely new paintings came to be known as Mehta’s iconic 'diagonal series' and dominated his oeuvre in the 1970s.
In the present lot, Mehta’s mulberry purple background is split open by segments of contrasting violet, red and blue color. The two central figures, seemingly spliced together with intertwined limbs, are violently divided by a clinically applied diagonal that partially bisects their torsos. This divide is echoed in the artist's crisp lines and triangles, and appears to extend across the painted surface from the lower left to upper right. The artist's control and restraint are evident here, allowing the viewer's gaze to rest on his figures unimpeded by any extraneous detail. Analyzing Mehta's works from this period, Prayag Shukla wrote, "Without the clutter of excessive detail on the picture-space, Tyeb refers us to an encounter - a relevant encounter - with humanity" (P. Shukla, 'The Question of Social Content: Four Artists, Lalit Kala Contemporary 24-25, New Delhi, 1978, p. 44). The artist's organization of line and color created a harmonious synergy that 'activated' the composition as Shukla noted.
In the present work, the diagonal is elegantly suggested, echoing through the composition. Instead of using a bold diagonal to dominate the composition, Mehta chooses to maintain focus on the interaction of the two central protagonists. Their individual bodies are at once amalgamated and disjointed, both in form and palette. However, there seems to be a cosmic link established between the two figures that transcends physical contact and communicates a certain tension indicative of the larger social context to which they belong. The details in their faces reflect the pain and restlessness of their struggle for survival. In 1974, when this work was painted, Pria Karunakar described the powerful effects of Mehta’s paintings saying, "They induce a feeling of disorientation and yet the lonely gesticulating hands are tender and open, or splayed for support […] The emotional weight he throws into the canvas is expressionist at source, but it will freeze under the static definition of clean lines and angular edge" (P. Karunakar, 'Tyeb Mehta: Abstraction and Image', Lalit Kala Contemporary 17, New Delhi, 1974, p. 31).
Fellow artist Jagdish Swaminathan discussed Mehta's celebrated diagonal series in detail, explaining, “What strikes one immediately in these works, is the strictly formal geometrical arrangement, or invocation of space-colour, and the line embodying the figure pulled apart like a doll and put together again – laid flat, defining, so to speak, the iconographic area […] What appears at first glance as a formal exercise in relating line to colour on a flat plane suddenly becomes very disturbing. While one was immediately moved by the angst portrayed in his former works, one could immediately reach out and share the unfathomable terror, the unrelieved sadness of man alienated, the present works enter the realm of the mystical; terror, pathos and sorrow are objectivised entities, masks, implacable deities, setting up a grotesque tableau. You enter a world of magic and are enthralled by the elemental dance of the emotions, which freeze and cease to speak the moment you seek to identify yourself with them. What Tyeb has achieved is a double transformation. In his former phase, he has isolated and insulated man’s loneliness, protecting it, so to speak, from the profane. Now he has set it up in its own right, impervious to human touch, yet threatening man’s complaisance” (J. Swaminathan in G. and U. Beier, ‘Contemporary Art in India’, Aspect: Art and Literature, Australia, no. 23, January 1982, unpaginated).
The qualities so succinctly elucidated by Swaminathan come to bear in this accomplished painting by Mehta. While the striking composition arrests attention on first glance, it is the deeper sense of anguish and despair on an almost cosmological level that attributes Mehta’s canvas with such relentless potency. "His is a confrontation with human dignity, a true meditation on the murder of the human spirit" (K. Malik, 'As a Critic Looks at it', Lalit Kala Contemporary 37, New Delhi, 1991, p. 40).