Vasudeo S Gaitonde didn’t quite emerge from the cold to claim top spot as India’s most expensive artist at Christie’s auction last week. His name might not have set the bells ringing among less conversant collectors and viewers, but among the art fraternity he was eminently regarded.
An associate of the Progressive Artists’ Group and an alumnus of the JJ School of Art, the artist did not subscribe to the theory of markets or known genres. Quietly aloof, he began, like them, painting figurative works, but by the early ’60s, he had already moved away to begin painting in abstract. This lack of form barred the less informed from enjoying his works, and the reticent artist who painted parsimoniously — as opposed to his peers M F Husain, FN Souza, SH Raza, Ram Kumar, Krishen Khanna and Akbar Padamsee, who painted prolifically — preferred to retreat into the background.
What Gaitonde could not understand was why artists had to paint under anxiety from markets or popular appreciation. He pointed out to this folly among his fellow artists.
“I don’t work. I relax. I wait and then apply colours,” he said. “To work under pressure is escapism. When you concentrate on yourself alone, something takes place. It happens.” In his case, that came in the form of recognition overseas.
In 1957, he won the Young Asian Artists Exhibition in Tokyo, and in 1964 he was awarded the John D Rockefeller Fund fellowship to spend a year in New York. His inspiration — Paul Klee and Mark Rothko — saw him turn more inward, more zen-like, as he opted for a meditative quality in his canvases.
You cannot “understand” Gaitonde’s art in a hurry. There is a contemplative quietness to it, not different from the Chinese, a quality he deliberately aimed for. An American critic writing about his show in New York’s Willard Gallery referred to his paintings as “non-objective”, a term Gaitonde used thereafter to describe the lack of form in his work.
He made up for it through tonal quality and a luminous depth achieved through a translucent layering of colours, often with the help of a roller.
“My entire outlook changed when I came to know that the Chinese have no epics to boast of,” he explained. “Any abstract feeling, be it love or courage, can be valid only for a given moment. The ecstasy of that moment cannot be stretched over a long period.” For art critic Foy Nissen this was “an emotionally perceived relationship where the colours ‘speak’ without an obtrusive emphasis on their physical properties as paint”.
This creation of “depth and mystery” found a rich resonance among Chinese visitors when Gaitonde’s work was exhibited in Hong Kong as Christie’s build up ahead of its auction in Mumbai. Both works by him — a small, early watercolour and a large work in oil — bested estimates to command Rs 98 lakh and Rs 23.7 crore, respectively.
A Mumbaikar, Gaitonde moved out of that city in the ’70s to come and live in Delhi where the art environment was more raw and his renditions alien. Soon after, he suffered a road accident that slowed his pace further, finally ceasing to work altogether in the mid-’90s, a few years before his death in 2001.
But he had endeared himself to the art community in the meanwhile even while he remained deceptively remote. “I remember him coming by bus to view my first exhibition,” artist Gopi Gajwani recalled recently, “he was already a star then.” His unwillingness to measure success through the prism of the market seems all the more ironic as a result.