by Gautam BhatiaApr 08, 2020
The other day I was completely awestruck by a work at the preview of the New York auction of Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art by Sotheby’s, held in New Delhi. A non-representational painting, with a minimal palette, monochromatic background of grey tones, with hues of blue and green towards the central area of the canvas. The strokes seemed rather confident and sure. Yet, there was a heightened grace and subtlety about the work. The stretched and framed canvas had the image blead to the edges, creating a sense of infinity. In my mind I was trying hard to guess the artist, but was just not able to put a finger on one name. I kept referring to VS Gaitonde’s structure and style, but that was not in this work.
This painting was placed on the left among the three works on the head-wall at the exhibit. The placement itself spoke volumes of the importance given to the artist. The work next to this, at the centre of the wall, was somewhat similar in style and format, though felt a more obvious Gaitonde work. On closer inspection of the work and details on a label neatly pasted next to the painting revealed that it was indeed a 1963 Untitled painting of VS Gaitonde.
I was now even more convinced that the work on the left ought to be another Gaitonde, but may be an early work, I wondered? I like to play quiz, with my own self. So, while I could take five steps to the left and see who the artist of that painting was, I chose not to. Now, the rightmost work was a relatively smaller canvas. It was an MF Husain 1962 painting titled Mehndi; its strokes and tonality gave it away. The plot thickens! Though there is no reason why two Gaitonde works cannot be placed next to a Husain, I was inclined to believe that the leftmost one had to be an altogether different, third artist. But it was most unlike the landscape works of modernists (Francis Newton) Souza or (S.H.) Raza. It could not have been a Ram Kumar either. I gave up. I examined the canvas up close. Carefully combed all corners, looking for the signature. But there was none. Finally, I referred to the caption-label, and lo and behold, I could have never imagined this to be a work of the pioneer minimal-abstractionist, Nasreen Mohamedi. It turns out that the 1963 painting was from Peggy and Robert Matthews collection. The Matthews were busy pursuing their respective careers, until in early 1960s Robert said to Peggy, “Life is for living, let’s quit our jobs and travel the world,” as mentioned in the auction-catalogue essay.
They travelled to exotic destinations through the Middle East and arrived in India in 1963. It is here that they met gallerist Kekoo Gandhy and acquired this work. I was then intrigued about the whole idea of artists not signing works, and furthermore, for such works if there would be an obvious ‘right-side-up’? As odd as the question was, I approached Manjari Sihare-Sutin of Sotheby’s who was present at the show. She is a specialist for modern and contemporary Indian art, and as against my fear of amusing her, she found my enquiry to be apt and had an anecdote to share. “We have access to a letter that Nasreen wrote to Peggy Matthews. It is here that she explained why she does not like to sign her works – she says that it hinders the work, the form of it,” explained Sihare-Sutin.
What was interesting is that there are several works where Mohamedi has not even signed the work at the back! And this was one such work, where there were no signatures, arrow to tell which way up, or even hooks for hanging on the original frame to give any hint. “Such are rare cases and while we can study the work and make a guess, for this we were able to research and find an image of the room where this painting hung at the residence of the collectors,” she added. Sihare-Sutin further clarified that Mohamedi made very few canvases in her lifetime. Gaitonde’s influence on Mohamedi was also natural from the close association they had while working at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute in Bombay. Both would read about philosophies of zen, mysticism, and non-Platonic thought. Gaitonde at the time was developing his forms, that he later termed ‘non-objective abstraction’.
Well, that’s how my quiz to myself ended. I lost the game but ended up a lot more enriched. And yes, an artist’s work is meant to be their signature was a philosophy that was reinstated.