By Michele Leight
The stunning abstract by V.S. Gaitonde (1924-2001), illustrated above, Lot 315, "Untitled," set the tone for a beautiful selection of paintings and works of art offered at Christie's New York Asia Week in September. Formerly from the Collection of Dr. Bernard Peters, a cosmic ray physicist who was invited by Homi Bhabha to join the newly formed Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Bombay, "Untitled," was painted in 1969. Dr. Peters was extremely influential in the early years of TIFR and the only Indian to receive the Padma Bhushan in 1985. A photograph shows Peters receiving the award from Giani Zail Singh, President of India. Another photograph shows M.G.K. Menon in Peters residence in Copenhagen in 1981, with this beautiful painting in the background. Peters writes in a letter to his wife in 1977 after visiting Gaitonde in his studio that, "he has only 3 canvases at home, sells all he makes:"
"Many art historians attribute Gaitonde's study of Chinese and Zen Buddhist philosophy as the main driving force behind his minimalist landscape paintings. But this is often overstated. Echoing Rochko's sentiment, all of art is the 'portrait of an idea', Gaitonde's drew upon art historical influences combined with his own philosophical inquiry. During the 1060s in New York, Gaitonde also experienced the rise of Conceptual Art, of which Sol Lewitt and Joseph Kossuth were proponents. This was a philosophy which, counter to Abstract Expressionism, championed the metaphysical concept in the artist's own mind as art. The physical art produced became the final manifestation of a realized innate idea from within the artist's consciousness." (Christie's catalogue for this sale).
Lot 315 has an estimate of $450,000 to $600,000. It sold for $962,500 including the buyer's premium as do all results mentioned in this article.
Christie's sale achieved $7,060,625. Hugo Weihe, International Director of Asian Art and International Specialist Head, South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art Department, New York, said: “The successful sale can be attributed to works of exceptional quality, extraordinary history, and accessible estimates, which led to an enthusiastic response from clients throughout the entire sale. The modern art section reflected the continued strength and breadth of this collecting field and was led by Vasuedo S. Gaitonde’s extremely rare "Untitled," 1969, from the collection of Dr. Bernard Peters, which achieved $962,500.” Deepanjana Klein, Head of Sale, Specialist, South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art, added: “The market also recognized Contemporary Indian artists, mostly with current museum exhibitions, especially Alwar Balasubramaniam’s Untitled, which realized $92,500, a world auction record for an instillation for the artist.”
Christies New York Fall Asian Art Week achieved $44.7 million following four days of sales.
Jonathan Stone, Chairman and International Head, Asian Art, said: “An 18th century Joseon dynasty blue and white dragon jar, selling for $3.2 million, led a dynamic and diverse series of sales. This week’s auctions, exhibitions, and events demonstrated again Christie’s commitment to all cultures and epochs of Asian art. Other highlights included Hasegawa Tonin’s screens, "Egrets and ducks in a winter landscape" ($626,500), Vasudeo S. Gaitonde’s painting, "Untitled," ($962,500), a thangka of the "Green Tara", a world auction record for a Tibetan painting ($1,762,500), and the 12th-10th century B.C. archaic bronze, zun ($1,426,500). There was global participation, reflecting a world-wide demand for the greatest objects of Asian art.”
The era that Gaitonde's "Untitled" represents was an iconic one for India, captured in photographs in Christie's catalogue for this sale that feature the towering figures of his day that the artist - and the scientist who purchased this painting - associated with, while he himself remained reclusive, devoted entirely to his art. Dr. Peters escaped Nazi Germany in 1934, and arrived in New York in 1938:
"...encouraged by J. Robert Oppenheimer, Peters enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, completed his Ph.D. in 1942, and from 1942-1945 worked on teh Manhattan Project. Meeting Bhabha at a conference in New York for the first time in 1949 was a stroke of good luck for both men. Peters, under persecution for his liberal politics, needed a new University and laboratory to call home and Bhabha, dedicated to the advancement of science and technology in India, sought to invite some of the best minds to conduct research, train and mentor Indian scientists. Peters left Bombay for Copenhagen in 1959 but his association with TIFR and India did not end there. On one of his many trips back to Bombay in 1969 or in the early 1970s, Peters attended an exhibition of contemporary art at TIFR where the painting on offer was likely to have been exhibited. Having always admired the 'Bhabha Gaitonde', Peters was immediately struck by the painting and acquired it sometime between 1969 and 1977. Peters met Gaitonde for the first time in December 1977 at a dinner hosted bt G.K. Menon in Peters honor. Gaitonde and Peters spent the very next day together."
Another superb painting with a fascinating history is Lot 333, "Untitled (Falling Figure)," by Tyeb Mehta (1925-2009), painted in 1992, that was used as a backdrop for the Artists Against Communalism (AAC) cultural sit-in organized by SAHMAT at Shivaji Park in New Delhi on March 14, 1992:
"Tyeb Mehta got up from a very sick-bed, against his doctors orders, and painted the outsranding blow-up of his leitmotif 'falling figure' for the extensive backdrop of the stage erected for the 12 hour cultural sit-in at Shivaji Park". (V. Monterio, The Economic Times, 1 April, 1992, included in Christie's catalogue for this sale).
The image of the falling figure had lifelong traumatic associations for the artist after he saw the violent death of a man in his childhood during the tragic Partition riots of 1947. Christies catalogue for this sale notes that "The current work was created as a didactic icon, one which impremented an aesthetic that is not only profoundly personal and spiritual but used for a uniquely socio-political purpose. Against the backdrop of violence and unrest of 1992, a year that would see thousands lose their lives in the communal violence of the Bombay Riots, Tyeb imbued this work with a directness and potency which set it apart from any other in his falling figure series."
Lot 333 has an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. It sold for $722,500.
Three works by Syed Haider Raza (born 1922) are illustrated here, and as their titles suggest, Lot 314, "Ardeche," and Lot 336, "Mont-Agel," were inspired by the French countryside, a subject close to the artists heart after traveling extensively in France, but it is landscape "experienced" rather than literal depictions of nature. The more Abstract Expressionist inspired earlier work, Lot 366, "Red Sun and Black Clouds," (illustrated below), was painted in 1960, and is a forerunner of the Bindu paintings that made Raza famous:
"'Red Sun and Black Clouds' was painted in 1960 and one cannot help but be reminded of 'Cool Blast' painted in the same year, a stellar work by Adolph Gottleib, one of the most influential members of the New York School, a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism. Gottleib's painting with its flaming red circle on top and black mass of clouds under it generates an elemental tension similar to Raza'. Both the artists shared the necessity to explore hte range of expressive effects out of the duality of form through theeir powerful brushwork and manipulation of color." (Christie's catalogue for this sale)
Lot 314 has an estimate of $120,000 to $180,000. It sold for $242,500; Lot 336 has an estimate of $50,000 to $80,000. It sold for $122,500; Lot 366 has an estimate of $280,000 to $350,000. It sold for $314,500.
Illustrated above is Lot 380, "Mirror Image," by Akbar Padamsee, a monumental work measureing 45 1/2 inches by 119 3/4 inches overall that dominated an entire wall in Christie's gallery. Like all mirror images, it is disorienting, as if the viewer is staring down at a river in a ravine from a mountaintop. It is probably none of those things, and the artist offers no further clues. Lot 380 has an estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. It sold for $242,500.
Even the toughest critics of contemporary art get a kick out of A. Balasubramaniam's fiberglass limbs - modeled from his own - that pop out from walls, the "arm" in the photograph illustrated above holding the other end of a rope that vanishes into a "tug" in a neighboring wall. Widely known and exhibited, this installation was exhibited in New York in 2002:
"This work has its origins in a site specific installation, 'Again(st) Gravity,' created during the Kunstlerdorf Fellowship, Schoppingen, Germany, in 2001. This body of work culminated in 'Rest and Resistance, 2009, which was exhhibted alongside works by Alexander Calder, Lucio Fontana, Sol Lewitt, Agnes Martin and Nasreen Mohamedi, among others, at The Museum of Modern Art, New York for the show 'onLine: Drawing Through the twentieth Century,' November 2010-February 2011." (Christie's catalogue for this sale).
Deepanjana Klein spoke about Lot 373, "I K.G. WAR" by Subodh Gupta, that quantifies the cost of war wittily - but in no uncertain terms - referencing the realities of arms dealing and the expense of warfare that often becomes blurred by the human bloodshed and destruction: "...this is a unique example where the medium of gold is in itself the art work..." (Christie's catalogue for this sale). "I K.G. WAR" was executed in 2007 and created from I kg 24 carat gold measuring 3 x 3 x 1/1/2 inches.
Lot 373 has an estimate of $15,000 to $20,000. It sold for $80,500, far exceeding its high estimate.
Illustrated below is a beautiful painting by Manjit Bawa, (1941-2008), Lot 422, "Untitled (Man With Bird)," painted in 1988. It has an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000. It sold for $80,500.
The fantastic Lot 410 "Shanti Bindu" by Raza illustrated above evokes deserts and deep red earth, a quiet version of the artists more famous bindus that explode like the colors at an Indian festival or wedding, symbolizing the beginning and the end of all forms of life in the universe. It was exhibited at "Raza Anthology," at Gallery Chemold, Mumbai, in 1991 and acquired from the same gallery that year. Lot 410 has an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000. It sold for $182,500, far exceeding its high estimate.
Prices for paintings by MF Husain (1915-2011) were extremely strong across the board in this sale, including for Lot 398, "Untitled," which is an unusual oil on canvas laid down on board, executed in 1954. The artist describes this phase of his work in Christie's catalogue for this sale:
"My paintings, drawings and the recent paper work have been directly influenced by my experience of traditional Indian dolls, paper toys, shapes galore. The experience of being with them,and the inspiration to create them, are inseparable. A painter is a chld in his purity of feeling - for only then he creates with authenticity of his being." (Artist Statement, Ajit mookerjee, Modern Art in India, Oxford Book, Calcutta, 1956, p. 61). Lot 398 has an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It sold for $50,000.
Lot 362, "Untitled (Horses)," by Husain, oil on canvas, 31 1/4 by 71 1/2 inches, circa early 1980s
Lot 363, "Untitled (Horses)" is a very strong oil on canvas by Husain that was executed in the early 1980s and measures 31 1/4 by 71 1/2 inches. It has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. It sold for $542,500.
The top sellers by MF Husain include Lot 362, "Untitled (Horses)," painted in the early 1980s, with an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000, that sold for $542,500; Lot 331, "Pamosh," an oil on canvas laid on board, formerly in the Collection of Amir C. Jairazbhoy, circa 1953, with an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000 that sold for $374,500; Lot 337, "Untitled," Oil on canvas, inspired by Indian classical painting, circa 1960’s with an estimate of $300,000 to $500,000 that sold for $302,500; Lot 334, "Woman in Red," Oil on canvas, circa 1964, with an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000 that sold for $266,500; and Lot 385, "Untitled," an oil on canvas depicting a Maharashtran woman and her sister from Kerala, circa 1960’s, with an estimate of $120,000 to $180,000 that sold for $266,500.
Illustrated above are works by present generation artists, including two installations by Zarina. Lot 301, "Journey to the Edge of the Land," and Lot 409, "House With Four Walls," circa 1991.
Lot 409, "House With Four Walls," references a recurring theme in this artists work: home, displacement, memory and loss. Christie's catalogue for this sale includes a moving reminisence by the artist:
"I lived in Aligarh with my siblings and my parents a long time back. Through my prints, I have revisited my childhood [...] In 2000, when I was in Delhi, I decided to go to Aligarh for a day to visit this place about which I had created a whole narrative, which is only 81 miles away from Delhi but which is 3,438 miles away from New York! I wet to see the house from which I have derived so much inspiration - The House With Four Walls. It was very strange - I felt very close yet very distant. My parents were no longer there, my brothers were scattered all over the world. I didn't know how to connect with my own feelings. In a way it was like closing a book shut." (G. Sen, Interview: Zarina Hashmi, Art India, Mumbai, Volume XI, Issue I, Quarter I, 2006, p. 49)
Christie's catalogue for this sale notes that Zarina is an inspiration among her contemporaries, and that a retrospective exhibition of Zarina's work will open in September 2012 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, then travel to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Zarina' work is in the permanent collections of the MoMA, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York,;the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Bibliotheque Nationale Paris, and the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.
Lot 301 has an estimate of $6,000 to $8,000. It sold for $7,500. Lot 301 has an estimate of $10,000 to $15,000. It sold for $16,250.
Lot 317, "Steps" by Zarina, cast paper, 21 1/2 inches square, 1 of 10, 1981
Lot 317 is an excellent cast paper work entitled "Steps" by Zarina (b. 1937). It is numbered 1 of 10 and was executed in 1861 and measures 21 1/2 inches square. It has an estimate of $15,000 to $20,000. It sold for $8,750.
Lot 304, "Wondering Angel Insects," by Rina Bannerjee is an exquisite work in mixed media fuses a fantastical world and the fine execution of Indian Miniatures, and this year she is participating in the exhibition "India: Art Now," at the Arken Museum in Copenhagen (August 2012 to January 2013. Lot 304 has an estimate of $10,000 to $15,000. It sold for $12,500.
Lot 320, "Between Memory and Music," by Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, was formerly from the Collection of the Times of India Group, India Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, and this work belongs to a series of six commissioned for the Times of India Group Headquarters in New Delhi:
"In art, painting came in the company of poetry, overlapping and yet independent of each other. Images came from many times, each flowing into the other. Some came from life lived, others from a feeling of belonging to a world of other times, sometimes from painting, sometimes from literature, and often from nowhere, emerging simultaneously through jottings, drawings, and writings. The multiplicity and simultaneity of these define the experience in singular terms have left me with a feeling of unease and restlessness. Absence of rejected worlds has haunted me throughout." (Artists Statement, N. Tuli, The Flamed Mosaic: Contemporary Indian Painting, Ahmedabad, 1997, p.67, included in Christie's catalogue for this sale).
Lot 320 has an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It sold for $50,000.
Illustrated below is a wonderful painting by Jamini Roy that captures the energy and power of its subjects. Lot 357, "Untitled (Drummers)," is painted in gouache on card. Drummers emerge in so many situations in India as proclaimers of a happy event like the birth of a child, at weddings, religious festivals and fairs. They also announce sad events like funerals. Indespensible to to the spirit and ife of of India, it is hard to imagine the country without them. Jamini Roy captures their importance in his signature folklore inspired style. One can almost hear the drums.
Lot 357 has an estimate of $10,000 to $15,000. It sold for $30,000, a strong price that reflects the importance of the subject.
Gaitonde's "Untitled" lingers long after it is seen, a reminder that art and science are not incompatible, and that great minds think alike, while inhabiting very different worlds. One of Gaitonde's important influences was an artist who was no stranger to science and music:
"The works of German Expressionist artists, especially Paul Klee, whose whimsical forms and use of line also captured Gaitonde's imagination. 'Early in life I was greatly influenced by the works of Paul Klee. I had no space to paint in my parent's house - I had only a small corner to work in - and there was no room to paint anything big so I was encouraged by Klee's small canvases, and water colours.' (M.Menezes, 'The Meditative Brushstroke', Art India, Vol III, Issue III, p.67) Commenting on Klee's influence, the artist further adds, 'Something in his use of line excited me. I gradually came to identify myself in his work. I liked Klee's imagination and fantasy.' (F. Nissen, V.S. Gaitonde - Contemporary Indian Artists 8', Design, February 1958, unpaginated)'" (Christie's catalogue for this sale).
It is interesting to see "contemporary" used in the context of an interview conducted over half a century ago. Gaitonde was so far ahead of his time, this reviewer often mistakes his paintings for works of art created by young artists today. There is a freshness about "Untitled" that encourages a closer look at the times in which it was created, when brilliant minds were forging a new identity for India:
"This painting connects two great scientists to a monumental time in India's history. In the early years of post-Independence India artists and scientists shared a common belief that for India to advance and join the ranks of the greatest nations new discoveries and new ways of understanding the universe were necessary. Modernity rests in the equal development and acknowledgement of the limitless potential of art and science." ("Art Like Science Knows No Frontiers, Christie's catalogue for this sale).