It’s the start of the art season in the capital, and like every year Peter Nagy’s Nature Morte gallery marked the occasion with an exhibition by young talent. “Collective Metamorphosis”, as the show was called, presented the works of five artists fresh out of college, priced reasonably between Rs 75,000 and Rs 3.5 lakh. Curated by Kapil Chopra, a collector, the show was an initiative of Bestcollegeart, a venture that Chopra started around 10 months ago with Nagy’s support, that seeks to encourage young artists by giving them access to collectors via the Internet. “It’s primarily Kapil’s initiative,” says Nagy, denying any preeminent role in Bestcollegeart. “My contribution,” he continues, ”was limited to curating the show ‘The Present is Now’ last year. This time we’re hosting the show at the gallery.”
But limited as it is, for Chopra, Bestcollegeart’s endorsement by Nagy — the “poster boy of Indian contemporary art”, as he calls him — is important. “He is, after all, the man who represents Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Jitish Kallat and all the artists who now command crores in auctions. When he curates a show or hosts one at his gallery, it is endorsement that reasonably-priced art by young artists need not be bad art.”
“Take Paribartana Mohanty,” says Chopra, marshalling evidence of the difference Nagy has made. “Mohanty was part of the show Peter curated last year, at which a 5’ X 3’ canvas by him was priced at Rs 95,000. Sometime later, he won the ‘emerging artist award’ of the Foundation of Indian Contemporary Art. In May this year, Nature Morte included him at its booth at the prestigious Art Hong Kong fair. Next year, he will have a solo show at Vadehra Gallery. Naturally, at the ‘Collective Metamorphosis’ show, his works were priced higher at Rs 3.5 lakh.” Mohanty, a 28-year-old artist from Orissa, who says the artworks he sold at the Bestcollegeart show curated by Nagy were the first he’d sold after five years of struggle in Delhi, is today being hailed as the next star in the Indian art world.
An American national who came to India in 1992 “to discover and learn about the culture”, he’s stayed back here now for nearly 20 years. “That’s the longest I’ve stayed anywhere. I lived in Connecticut, where I was born, for 17 years, and then in New York for another 15 years.”
Nature Morte opened in south Delhi in 1997 as a gallery specialising in the new expressions in contemporary art. Among those Nature Morte represents (other than the ones Chopra mentions) are top-of-the-heap names such as Anita Dube, Dayanita Singh, Thukral and Tagra, Raqs Media Collective, Mona Rai, Jagannath Panda, Mithu Sen and Hema Upadhyay. With most of these artists, Nagy has a professional and personal relationship going back to his early years in India.
Many like Subodh Gupta consider him an old friend. “He has fresh eyes and has provided a platform for contemporary artists,” says Gupta who had his first exhibition with Nagy in 2000.
In a way, Nagy has helped these artists build and cement their reputations abroad, showing them at important art fairs such as Art Basel (starting 2006, Nature Morte was the first Indian gallery to show there), Art Basel Miami Beach, FIAC Paris, ArCO Madrid and so on to familiarise collectors abroad with their work. In the process, he has helped create a market for Indian “contemporary” art, an art that is experimental, concept-driven and uses a variety of non-traditional mediums.
Perhaps, Nagy’s discerning eye for talent comes from being an artist himself. Back in the US, Nagy was a successful artist, having exhibited in galleries in the US and Europe, with his works bought by public collections such as the Brooklyn Museum and the Portland Art Museum. In 1982, he started Nature Morte gallery in New York’s culturally vibrant East Village art district, but it didn’t do well and closed down in 1987. The Delhi gallery is a revival of its New York predecessor.
“But these days I don’t get to paint a lot,” rues the 52-year-old Nagy who studied at New York’s prestigious Parsons School of Design. In India, the last time he had a solo show was in 2004 at the Chemould Gallery in Mumbai. “There was a also a large exhibition of my works from the 1980s early this year in New York put together by a friend,” Nagy informs.
So what made him stay back in India? “I remember seeing Jitish Kallat’s first show at Chemould gallery,” Nagy reminisces. “For me, it was not the shock of the new but the shock of the familiar. It was very exciting to see a young artist doing what I had come of age with in the East Village — punky painting that was informed with graffiti and street art, reproductive technology and media art — but using these on his own terms. The artists too were excited to meet someone who spoke their language.”
It’s been a steady climb up the charts since. In 2008, Nature Morte opened a gallery in Berlin, and this September Nagy will open another 1,000 sqft space at the new Oberoi hotel in Gurgaon. (There was also a branch in Kolkata, opened in 2006, in alliance with New York’s Bose Pacia gallery, but that closed down last year after a massive fire in the building where it was located.)
These days, says Nagy, all his time is taken up with managing paperwork for the artists he represents, shipping art-works to museums abroad where so many of them have shows coming up, handling customs and so on. “I’m sending Gauri Gill photographs to California, for example, and Bharat Sikka to Warsaw. Our hands are full.”
That’s also the reason, Nagy says, he takes on very few young artists such as those coming out of Bestcollegeart. “I am not a gallery for young and upcoming artists any more,” he says. Indeed, he’s helped to transform them into successful and famous ones.