The art of Vasudeo S. Gaitonde was recently the focus of a monumental retrospective exhibition at New York’s prestigious Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. A fitting tribute to a visionary artist, the exhibition recognised and celebrated Gaitonde’s inimitable contributions to global modernisms. His art and the trajectory of his career stand unique in the annals of Modernist history. He carved a path of formal, spiritual, and imaginative Modernist expression that swells beyond and between national boundaries.
Gaitonde was born in Maharashtra in 1924, and pursued an education in the arts at the Sir. J.J. School of Art in Bombay. Upon his graduation in 1948, Gaitonde loosely associated with the seminal Modernist collective, the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group. He exhibited alongside its members, but not one to be tethered to a group he turned to a more solitary path of art-making. Known for isolating himself with his art for long periods of time, Gaitonde’s independence of mind found unparalleled expression on the canvas.
Richly contemplative, the works of Gaitonde have been likened to musical compositions. “[...] disembodied visual harmonies […] underline the psychic effect of form and color on the viewer, and the emotional basis of art.” (S. Poddar, V. S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life, New York, 2014, p. 31) Meditative and sparse, the colour palette gently modulates as the eye wanders through the composition. Situated within the post-war milieu, Gaitonde’s ode to the emotive capacity of colour historically resonates with Abstract Expressionism, and the works of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Anne Ryan, and Nicolas de Staël. Echoing de Staël’s marriage of intellection and aestheticism, this chromatic symphony conjures an inner psychic terrain. Gaitonde’s work parallels Mark Rothko’s revolutionary colour-field paintings in its play with the architectonics of colour; this post-war cadre rejected figuration, favouring instead the imaginative and spiritual potentialities of colour. However, pushing against the representative tenets of Post-War expressionism, Gaitonde challenged the location of meaning in the canvas. Rather, he used the canvas as an impetus for more personal explorations. In the artist’s words, “Whether it is a mauve canvas with a streak of turquoise blue…or a moon, it is always pure painting - painting which has detached itself from the world of objects to explore its own endlessly exciting possibilities.” (Artist statement, cited in L. Sihare, 8 Contemporary Painters from India: Interaction of East and West, New York, 1963, p. 10)
Following a Rockefeller fellowship in New York in 1964, the artist began experimenting with methods of applying paint. Using the paint roller and the palette knife, Gaitonde transformed the process of painting into an act of art. Consonant with the philosophies of Conceptual art, which he experienced while in New York, Gaitonde privileged introspection and concept over representation and form. “I work as an individual. I do not have a scientific point of view; it is mostly my total experience of life [and] nature that comes through me, that is manifested on canvas. For me every painting is a miracle…So I cannot really form a philosophy. It is my sincere belief in life, truth, God, whatever it is that prompts me to paint.” (Artist statement, cited in S. Poddar, 2014, pp. 27, 28)
The artist’s intervention, in effect, denies the value given to sense-based enquiry as the ultimate path to knowledge. Intuition, interiority, and psychic exploration define his methods of interrogating, understanding and representing the (inner) world. His path was revolutionary, and his defiance of Modern values exemplary. As such, Gaitonde stands as an artist-philosopher nonpareil.