Indian modern artist and painter from Maharashtra, Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde was renowned for his unique style of Abstract art and extensive body of work, which included textured landscapes and abstract forms, drawing on themes and motifs from Zen Buddhist traditions, Indian miniature painting, Chinese calligraphy, Japanese sumi-e ink wash techniques and hanging scroll paintings. He worked in a variety of media, including watercolours, acrylics, oils and inks on canvas and paper. Influenced by Western Modern Art, especially post-World War II artistic movements such as the School of Paris, Art Informel and Tachisme, Gaitonde shifted from early figurative compositions to non-figurative, abstract compositions, which he called the “non-objective” style, characterised in his later works by the application of gestural brushstrokes on his canvases. This form of non-representational art was inspired by the trend of Lyrical Abstraction that was prevalent in the United States and Western Europe and focused on personal expression and non-traditional art techniques.
Although Gaitonde was born in Nagpur, he grew up between Goa and Mumbai (formerly Bombay). In 1945, Gaitonde enrolled at the Sir JJ School of Art, Mumbai, where he studied art and mural decoration alongside artists such as FN Souza, MF Husain, Akbar Padamsee and Tyeb Mehta, and also where he continued working as a teaching fellow till 1950. In the same year, he was invited by Husain and Souza to join the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), of which he remained an active member until the group’s dissolution in 1956. Gaitonde’s work during this period reflects the influence of the watercolour techniques of Basohli miniature paintings, especially the frontality of the figures as well as the use of colours – predominantly ochre, green and yellow – in works such as the oil-on-canvas Untitled (1955). Works from this period demonstrate an interplay of colours on the plane surface of the canvas, with the layers of paint evoking a sense of depth. Gaitonde also experimented with mixed-medium works such as the collage-on-paper Untitled (1956), where the central abstract figure was created using cut newspaper and magazine paper assembled on a light background.
Whereas Gaitonde’s early work was marked by linear and geometric figures, by the 1960s, he began moving towards abstraction and a portrayal of the non-figurative. This shift was accompanied by a switch from using brushes to paint rollers, palette knives and oil paints. His works from this period – including Untitled (1958, 1962, 1983) – demonstrate textured forms achieved through colour composition, with the figures of previous paintings giving way to uninhibited flows of light, texture and colour. In 1964, Gaitonde was awarded the JD Rockefeller III Fellowship, which allowed him to travel to New York. While there, he came into contact with the works of Abstract Expressionists such as Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman, whose work influenced him to develop his style further along non-representational and non-figurative compositions. In the oil-on-canvas Untitled works from 1966-67, Gaitonde created abstract textured forms by using layers of colour to simulate a landscape. With these works, his repertoire steadily moved towards enabling expression through the use of colour to create meaning through texture on the canvas.
In 1968, he made a shift from his previously dominant format of horizontal canvases to a vertical format, which he retained for the remainder of his career. Gaitonde continued to experiment with colour, tone and texture to develop his style of non-objective and non-representational painting throughout the 1970s and 80s. His paintings from this period, including the Untitled series (1971-75), show a consistent experimentation with the application of paint on canvas. In 1984, an accident that gave him spinal injuries also rendered him unable to work on larger canvases. As a result, he temporarily shifted to working on smaller formats such as paper and began using an ink medium, creating works such as the Untitled series from 1985-87, which demonstrate a precise, figural construction and calligraphic markings on a largely monochrome palette. Upon resuming work on large oil-on-canvas works in the late 1980s, he began examining Zen Buddhist traditions of non-representational painting while incorporating colour application techniques from Indian miniature traditions.
Gaitonde’s works are largely considered to have opened up international interest in Abstract art in India. He held numerous solo and group shows over the course of his career, including at the Indian room of the Venice Biennale (1954); the Indian Pavilion of the São Paulo Biennial, Brazil (1959); a solo exhibition at Gallery 59, Mumbai (1959); the inaugural exhibition of the Pundole’s Art Gallery, Mumbai (1963); Gallery One, London; and Gallery 63 in New York (1963). The Guggenheim Museum, New York, held a major retrospective of his work in 2014-15. He was also the recipient of several awards, including the Fleischmann Prize at the First Young Asian Artist Exhibition in Tokyo, Japan, in 1957, where two of his works were also exhibited; the Padma Shri in 1971; and the Kalidas Samman Art Award in 1988. His works are part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi; and the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.
In a 2013 Christie’s auction in Mumbai, Gaitonde’s Untitled (1979) sold for USD 3.8 million, setting a world record for modern Indian art. This was followed by another Christie’s auction at New York in 2017, where his Untitled (1996) sold for USD 4 million. Subsequently, at an auction held at Pundole’s, Mumbai, in September 2020, Gaitonde’s Untitled (1974) sold for USD 4.35 million, setting the record for the most expensive painting by an Indian artist sold at auction. His Untitled (1969) broke this own record at a Pundole’s auction in February 2022, selling for INR 42 crore.
Gaitonde lived and worked in New Delhi until his death in 2001 at the age of 77.
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