V.S. Gaitonde at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection

It is an undeniable pleasure to go to an exhibition of an artist one is familiar with: it’s reassuring and makes you feel knowledgeable. But I find it also stimulating to go to exhibitions of artists I haven’t come across before, approaching their art as if I were a ‘black canvas’ myself. The exhibition ‘V.S. Gaitonde‘ at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Venice) belongs to this latter kind. Curated by Sanddhini Poddar, the exhibition showcases some 40 paintings by Indian artist Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde (1924–2001).

Modernist, independent, of admirable integrity of spirit, Gaitonde (and the retrospective with him) goes through a journey encompassing different styles and techniques, as the title ‘Painting as Process, Painting as Life’ suggests. The first few paintings are reminiscent of Paul Klee’s geometry and Miro’s approach to line, as one sees from ‘Untitled’ (1957).

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The painting, sombre and yet lively, has a rhythm of its own, inviting us to ‘read’ from right to left. I have to confess the temptation to get closer to appreciate the harmony of colours of this painting was irresistible. It is a beautiful piece of fragmented reality, sharp and broken down into its most essential constituents.

Gaitonde works predominantly on an abstract (or, as he called it, a ‘nonobjective’) level, but the exhibition includes a handful of figurative works. Among these, ‘Untitled’ (1955) grabbed my attention.

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Here, geometrical shapes are combined to create a meaningful whole: two people embracing and kissing each other. I loved the way you can’t really tell where one person ends and where the other begins – which is what happens when people are deeply in love.

In most of his other works, Gaitonde explores different techniques (oil on canvas, ink, watercolour) and puts them to abstract utility. Recurrent traits are symmetry and balance, and a consistent neatness. In his practice he used the most subtle and limited gestures, and we can imagine his life to have been as simple and minimal as his paintings.

Starting off with lively colours, his works get more and more gloomy, drifting towards dark green, grey,  burgundy, and blue, as in ‘Untitled’ (1965).

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As Morris Graves wrote in a letter to Marian Willard and Dan Johnson in 1963, Gaitonde ‘is an abstract painter with something unspeakably beautiful and clean added’. I was impressed also by one of his latest works, in the last room of the exhibition. The room displayed Gaitonde’s experiments with ink on small pieces of paper. The canvas I was attracted to was of larger dimensions: ‘Untitled’ (1985).

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It depicts a series of sinuous bands all around a central circle, and the whole conveys an harmonious balance. In its circular rhythm, it reminded me of the popular depictions of the gods from the Hindu pantheon, with the deity sitting in the middle and bearing his attributes in his (numerous) hands. The abstract painting by Gaitonde struck me as as symmetrical as those representations, and somehow bearing the same spiritual power. Which in a way runs through the whole exhibition, showing how for the Indian artist ‘painting, life and the creative process were all one and the same’.

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