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Sotheby's Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art
New York March 19, 2014
Sale No: 9119

Painting No. 3 by Gaitonde

Lot 219, "Painting No. 3," by Vasudeio S. Gaitonde, oil on canvas
Text copyright Michele Leight; Photos copright Michele Leight courtesy of Sothebys

By Michele Leight

The Gaitonde offered at Sotheby's Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art sale in New York this spring was far more stunning in person than any reproduction of "Painting No. 3," shown above, could ever be. The amorphous shapes set in a habitual haze could mean many different things to many different people. If the artist had his way, we would see nothing at all in his paintings. Vasudeio Gaitonde called them "non-objective," instead of "abstract."

He was a loner, some even called him a hermit. The last thing he wanted to do  was discuss what his paintings were "about,"and he often spent time with fellow artists in complete silence. They accepted this to be able to have access to him. Gaitonde loved quietude, which permeates his work. This beautiful painting was one of the treasures of New Yorks' Asian Art sales

Gaitonde will be the subject of a major retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in the Fall of 2014, making him one of the first Modern Indian artists to be honored with a retrospective.

Detail of Gaitonde painting

Detail of "Painting No. 3" by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, 1962, oil on canvas

There were many other works of art of quality, such as - a personal favourite - Jitish Kallat's "Sweatopia 1," Subodh Gupta's "Idol Thief III," several by MF Husain, an unusual Bhupen Khakhar - "Buffalo Among the Flower Beds," and an atmospheric "roofscape" by Francis Newton Souza. It is always good to see Manjit Bawa's distinctive paintings, and this sales "Untitled" depicted a bull against a striking yellow background (illustrated below).

The top lot of the sale was Lot 219, "Painting No. 3" which fetched $2,517,000.

For those that might not know, Gaitonde is now India's top selling artist, after a painting by him sold at Christie's (December 2013) in Mumbai for $23.7 crores. An artist  who kept the world at arms length, Gaitonde never made much money from his work during his lifetime, and he refused to make deals for his work that he considered unfair. Back then, he asked for thousands, not crores, for his work.  He even abandoned his family when they refused to support his chosen profession as an artist, preferring that he become a doctor. Although he was a member of the Progressive Artists Movement of the 1950s Gaitonde moved away from it to find his own visual language. This excerpt is from "An Untitled Canvas," in "Eye Magazine" (The Sunday Express, India, January 5-11, 2014, by Sunanda Mehta with Dipanita Nath, Pallavi Pundir and Kevin Lobo):

"That suspicion of wordiness, of anything that could dilute the intensity of his mind and beliefs, extended to his work. 'It's not that I have nothing to say through my paintings. I may not be making a statement - I don't want to...I am not wedded to any dogma or belief of narrow loyalty...I am first and foremost an individual. I cannot subscribe to any collective thinking and I will not acknowledge any thought that does not appeal to my reason. Emotions are intrinsically individual in their impact and revelation. And what I seek to portray, being true to myself, remains personal. (So) I can only hope for a certain understanding by others. That is the reason why I don't caption my paintings and why a single color dominates my compositions,' he said in the interview with The Illustrated Weekly."

Sotheby's catalogue for this sale includes further highlights about this painting:

"Included in one of Gaitonde's earliest New York exhibitions, Painting No.3 is an ethereal and complex painting, and is an oustanding example of Vasudeo S. Gaitonde's early work. Painted in 1962 before the full extent of his 'non-objective' search was brought to bear upon his compositions, this series of paintings served as a bridge between his geometric patterns of the 1950s and his later move towards pure abstraction. This work is essentially his negotiation during the transition between the figurative and abstract realms. Here, a few specks of darker pigment punctuate the light background, hinting at a horizon and other identifiable forms or structures. Some semblance of figurative elements remain, disturbing and resolving the image simultaneously. Through a sensitive and thoughtful exploration of color, Gaitonde has created a calm and serene space that invites contemplation..."

 Lot 205, Bhupen Khakar's "Buffalo among Flower Bed," (not illustrated), came in second selling for $293,000, well above its estimate of $150,000 to $200,000.

Sweatopia I by Kallat

Lot 295, "Sweatopia I," by Jitish Kallat, 2008, acrylic on canvas

The distinction between "modern" and "contemporary is clear in Indian and South Asian art perhaps because the origins of the civilizations they represent are so ancient. A select group of contemporary works of art offered in this sale are from an important international collection that were created between 2006 and 2008, including pieces by Ravinder Reddy, Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Jaganath Panda and Sudharshan Shetty.

I love Jitish Kallat's work, perhaps because it takes me right into the thick of India, a country I love. I can feel the swarming masses, the traffic jams rife with motor scooters, cars, lorries and bicycles, the vibrant colors, the thronging bazaars.  Just by looking at "Sweatopia I" (Lot 295, illustrated above), I can hear the sounds and imagine the sights of this amazing nation. It is refreshing to see an artist who holds firmly to his depiction of people and possessions most would overlook. In "Sweatopia I," the protagonists are portrayed as cogs in the giant machine that is India's labor and work force, not the most likely subjects of "high art." Here, Kallat - like Gupta elevating his everyday utensils - has glorified the ordinary person in a beautiful and meaningful way. Cleverly invading his subjects hair, Kallat embellishes it in comic-book style:

"Kallat takes advantage of his artistic liberty in the composition of the hair, which narrates Bombay's stream of consciousness. Outlined in black paint are animals, people, vehicles and buildings compressed and piled above each other, concentrated in the space of the hair..." and "...A feeling of claustrophobia prevails until the viewer notices the refreshing sky, patterned with what looks like rain droplets on a window...The painting captures the urban lifestyle and the dialogue between individual and collective experiences in Bombay's expansive metropolis..." (Sotheby's catalogue for this sale)

Despite the over-crowding, there is an "apartness" among the protagonists. They are disconnected from each other and from the viewer, as many of us are that live in crowded cities, rarely making eye-contact with each other.

Lot 295 has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. It sold for $221,000.

Idol Thief III by Gupta, left, and Victor by Dodiya, right

Left: Lot 294, "Idol Thief III," by Subodh Gupta, 2007, oil on canvas; Right: Lot 299, "Victor," by Anju Dodiya, 2007, watercolor, charcoal and pastel on paper; embroidery on mattress

"'Like 80 percent of the population in India, I grew up carrying my lunch in these tiffin pots,' said Subodh Gupta ('Trendsetters: Cow Dung, Curry Pots and a Hungry God'. ARTNews, September 2007, p.108, cited in Christie's catalogue for this sale). While the Western style coffee bars have proliferated across India, selling Indian snacks, Western pastries and designer coffees to people of all ages but especially the young, the homely tiffin carrier - with its multiple compartments - can still be seen carried to school by students, or delivered to workers at lunchtime in bustling cities. It is a uniquely Indian phenomenon. As young people grow more accustomed to the convenience of picking up snacks during their work day, they may not want to be weighted down with a heavy midday meal - or carry such a heavy lunchbox in the years ahead. Perhaps the artist senses that these iconic food carriers will soon remain in the kitchen, like the sculptures he portrays them to be:

"Yet these continue to be objects of desire for the underclasses, a shiny symbol of ample food and wealth, a fact which Gupta was well aware of, having been raised in Bihar, one of India's most impoverished states. By using objects that typically occupy an innocuous position in Indian households and elevating them to cult status, Gupta is following in Marcel Duchamp and Jeff Koon's footsteps but also commenting on both India's growth and shortfalls..." (Sotheby's catalogue for this sale)

Lot 294 has an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000. It sold for $185,000.

Anju Dodiya's fascinating "Victor," (Lot 299), is part embroidery, mixed with charcoal, pastel and watercolor on paper, a delicate repertoire that has yielded a unique style of painting. In the catalogue it is shown displayed in the beautiful Durbar Hall of the Laxmi Vilas Palace, in the exhibition "Throne of Frost:"

"Throne of Frost was a meditation on transcendence - the passage of time, the brevity of grandeur and the certainty of our mortality within the glitter of the palace. I tried to explore historic images of the royals, medieval weapons, symbols of power and heraldry - with the fragile vulnerability of charcoal and watercolor..." (Anju Dodiya, cited in Sotheby's catalogue for this sale)

Lot 299 has an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. It sold for $31,250.

Bawa and Raza

Left: Lot 236, "Untitled," by Manjit Bawa, 2003, oil on canvas; Right: Lot 216, "Untitled," by Syed Haider Raza, 1982, oil on canvas

Illustrated on the left is a meditative, stylized cow set against a pulsating yellow background by Manjit Bawa, whose paintings are unmistakable:

"Bawa fondly reminisces about his artistic choices and aptly says. 'Being a turbaned Sikh from an ordinary middle-class family
was daunting enough but to strike out against the prevalent forces of Cubism and the iconic Klee was to really ask for big trouble and I was hauled up time and again  with strict instructions to toe the line. But I remained true to my calling, naturally annoying authorities. Even then in those formative years I was haunted by the spectre of mediocrity. I was willing to accept any challenge, but on my own terms. I was obsessed with one driving need - to create my own painterly language.'" (M. Bawa, 'I Cannot Live By Your Memories. Manjt Bawa in Conversation with Ina Puri' Let's Paint the Sky Red: Manjit Bawa, Vadhera Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2011. p.47)

Lot 236 has an estimate of $120,000 to $180,000. It sold for $209,000.

Syed Haider Raza's Franco-Indian depictions of the countryside have become part of the DNA of Modern Indian art, beginning with his important  membership as one of the Progressive Artist's Group after India gained independence. This painting is arguably more "Indian" than French, with its saturated, warm oranges banishing the cooler, European colors of his earlier work. Christie's catalogue for this sale describes this painting as being from that transitional period, and his progression towards total abstraction.

Lot 216 has an estimate of  $120,000 to $180,000. It sold for $221,000.

Three works by Paramhit Singh
Left to right, by Paramjit Singh: Lot 201, "Untitled," 1969, oil on canvas; Lot 202,"Untitled (Painting in Green)," 1969, oil on canvas; Lot 203, "Untitled (Still Life)," 1969, oil on canvas

The three paintings illustrated above by Paramjit Singh were once in the Collection of Dr. Johanna Nestor, Austrian ambassador to India and Ceylon, 1966-1970, (among other postings as ambassador), at a time when such things were the preserve of men. Reading Sotheby's catalogue for this sale reveals a woman whose life was so eventful it is worthy of a book and a film. What caught my eye was an unusually open-minded father "who gave her the education and advantages that in the 1920s and 30s were normally reserved for boys. Dr. Nestor was actrive in many sports, studied the classics (Greek and Latin), and was one of the first women to attend the Vienna Consular Academy (1935-1937). In 1938, her life changed when the Nazi's annexed Austria, and she was forced to abandon her law studies because her father was Jewish. "In 1941 she married Walter Nestor, an Austrian lawyer who, in 1934, had joined in the suppression of an uprising by Austrian Nazis. For this he was later imprisoned for nearly a year (1938-1939) in the concentration camp of Dachau on the outskirts of Munich and, upon his release, was forbidden to practice law. The couple was wed in a ceremony that was kept secret because it was illegal under Nazi racial laws. In 1945, in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Vienna by the Russians, Dr. Nestor lost both her father and her husband, leaving her alone and responsible for her infant son and elderly mother, in  a city still smoking from street fighting between Russian soldiers and storm troopers." (Sotheby's catalogue for this sale)

Dr. Nestor persevered, finding a job as a typist for the British occupation and continuing her law studies. She became one of the first women to enter the Austrian diplomatic corps, and years later when she was in India she began collecting Indian art, including these three paintings by Paramjit Singh, that are among his earliest landscapes, of which he made only five. They were exhibited in his first sold exhibition in Delhi in 1969. They are eerily beautiful and reminiscent of Georgio de Chirico. The paintings did very well, all exceeding their high estimates.

Lot 201, "Untitled," by Paramjit Singh has an estimate of $12,000 to $18,000. It sold for $25,000.

Lot 202, "Untitled (Painting in Green)," by Paramjit Singh has an estimate of $12,000 to $18,000. It sold for $20,000.
Lot 203, "Untitled (Still Life)," by Paramjit Singh has an estimate of $15,000 to $20,000. It sold for $35,000.

Untitled by Souza
Lot 227, "Untitled (Landscape)," by Francis Newton Souza, 1963, oil on board

Francis Newton Souza was a prolific artist and his paintings have been doing very well at auction in the past few years. Illustrated above, the atmospheric town, Lot 227, "Untitled (Landscape)," painted in 1963 gives some idea of his painterly technique. This beautiful work is an intriguing mix of Italian and Spanish architecture fused with India's baked earthen colors. The heavily impastoed sky is worthy of Robert Ryman. Souza was offered a scholarship in England that allowed him to travel to European cities with rich architectural and cultural histories like Amsterdam, Madrid and Rome, that clearly influenced his work.
Lot 227 has an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000. It sold for $221,000.

Lot 204, "Untitled (Anant Yatra)," by Jagdish Swaminathan, oil on canvas
The beautiful gem of a painting by Jagdish Swaminathan, Lot 204, "Untitled (Anant Yatra)," is also from the Collection of  Dr. Joanna Nestor. "In stark contrast to the PAG (Progressive Artist's Group), Swaminathan's paintings of the 1960s were imbued with symbols drawn from Indian tribal and folk art, resisting any influence from movements in the West." (Sotheby's catalogue for this sale)

Lot 204 has an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. It sold for $161,000.

Left by Souza and two by Husain
Left: Lot 212, "Head on an Orange Background," by Francis Newton Souza, 1957, oil on board; Center: Lot 286, "Untitled (Abhisarika)," by Maqbool Fida Husain, 1965, oil on canvas; Right: Lot 210, "Untitled (Three Horses)," by Maqbool Fida Husain, oil on canvas

Lot 212 has an estimate of $120,000 to 180,000. It sold for $149,000.

Lot 286 has an estimate of $120,000 to $180,000. It passed.

Lot 210 has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. It sold for $161,000.
Ganesh Pyne

Lot 250, ""Untitled (The Dancer)," by Ganesh Pyne, 1968, tempera on canvas laid on board

Ganesh Pyne's magical use of paint harks back to medieval miniature paintings, when artists glazed their works with natural dye and used egg-whites as a fixitif over each layer of colour, allowing the painting surface to harden. Sotheby's catalogue for this sale  notes that the artist also paints transparent layers with natural pigments he mixes using vegetable gums from acacia trees, and that his early experiments with indigenous powder pigments and a variety of binding agents allowed him to develop a unique way of building up texture on a surface that appears incandescent, a painstaking process, sometimes taking months to complete. The coat rack appears in many of Pyne's works.

Lot 250 has an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. It sold for $125,000.

Untited by Kumar

Lot 214, "Untitled," by Ram Kumar, 1964, oil on canvas

Ram Kumar is a sophisticated artist, and studied under Andre Lhote and Fernand Leger. This gorgeous painting is from the artist's Varanasi series, the most sacred cities of Hindus: "Hindus believe that death or cremation in this holy city leads to liberation rather than rebirth in another form and in some ways these sentiments are reflected in the transition of Ram Kumar's work from figuration to abstraction. In the words of the artist, 'sitting on the steps of the Manikarnika Ghat, watching the dead bodies some brought from distant villages in boats, waiting for their turn for liberation, I almost felt the disappearing boundary line between life and death.' (G. Gill ed., Ram Kumar: a Journey Within, Vadhra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 1996.p.89), cited in Sotheby's catalogue for this sale."

Lot 214 has an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. It sold for $87,500.

Lot 279, "Untitled," by Maqbool Fida Husain is from the artist's series based on Mother Teresa, subject matter that he revisited throughout his working life. "Husain viewed his depictions of Mother Theresa as akin to Madonna in the Pieta and her saree is a symbol of her protection and the unfolding of humanity. As with the Pieta, there is a baby in the arms of Mother Theresa...Husain's mother passed away when he was only three months old leaving him no visual image of her, not even a photograph. It is for this reason that the paintings in his series show the Holy Mother without a face, as seen in the present example." (Sotheby's catalogue for this sale)

Lot 279 has an estimate of $80,000 to $100,000. It sold for $137,000.

Husain Jungle

Lot 228, "Kerala," by Maqbool Fida Husain, 1968, oil on canvas
Lot 228, "Kerala," by MF Husain, is a magnificently luscious painting that reflects the verdant state and warm people in South India of its title - Kerala. Every Indian art auction includes works by this artist that always find buyers, because they are so appealing. Husain was prolific, creating many paintings of great quality and beauty during his lifetime. Lot 228 has an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. It sold for $100,000.

Tapestry by Barwe

Lot 223, "Untitled," by Prabhakar Barwe, 1969, embroidered tapestry

Lot 223, "Untitled," a superb tapestry by Prabhkar Barwe, bears the influence of Paul Klee and Ben Nicholson, who the artists sites an inspration. Barwe was an innovative artist/weaver, joining the Weavers Design Service Center in the early 60s.

Lot 223 has an estimate of $15,000 to $20,000. It sold for $22,500.

 Jagannath Panda

Lot 297, "An Ancestor II," by Jagannath Panda, 2007, glue, fabric, acrylic on canvas

Lot 297, the painting by Jagannath Panda, entitled "An Ancestor II - illustrated above - is as beautiful as it is fascinating, a breath of fresh air, allowing nature to dominate the urban buildings in the background:

"Jaganath Panda grew up in Orissa. Coming from a family of Brahmin priests, religion played an important role in his upbringing. He was greatly influenced by the ornate textile designs and patterns native to his home state. His move to the outskirts of Delhi opened his eyes to a dysfunctional and ever-changing society. Panda often includes insects, birds and animals in his work and their adapted behavioural patterns due to human intervention. His corpus makes the viewer acutely aware of the relationship between the natural and the urban world and how they must co-exist. The insects in Panda's paintings seem to be temporarily stepping into the picture frame and crawling out, migrating from one place to the next. This is evocative of the displacement that Panda and others have felt in moving from their rural origins to a metropolis. " (Christie's catalogue for this sale)

The tree is covered in fabric that is found in the region of Orissa that Panda grew up in, offering a tangible link to his roots.

Lot 297 has an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000. It sold for $75,000.

Lot 298, "Untitled (Gilded Head)," is Ravinder Reddy's contemporary interpretation of traditional goddesses with their stylized hairdos, kohl-lined eyes, nose-rings and voluptuous lips, that have become prized collectibles with enormous presence: "These sculptures are moulded from the features of the Dalits and labouring classes. The monumental size of the head serves to elevate the status of the subject and confront the prejudices of modern South Asian society - the archaic systems and the desirability of pure bloods lines and Aryan features. In a larger sense this may perhaps be interpreted as the artist's comment on the transformation of Indian culture into humorous and fetishized objects. His works are mosly depictions of women and by virtue of their prominence and imposing stature he is essentially celebrating these people." (Sotheby's catalogue for this sale).

Lot 298 has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. It sold for $137,000.

The week of spring sales of Indian art totaled over $12 million, with Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art fetching $6.7  million.

The sale of Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Works of Art was very successful, far exceeding its pre-sale estimates, reaching $5,794,000 (estimate $2.3/$3.4 million). The Auction was led by works from the important and historic Tamashige Tibet Collection, which included examples of rare and important thangkas, sculptures and ritual objects from the collection of Mr. Yoshitomo Tamashige, one of the pioneering Japanese collectors of Tibetan art. (see reviews on this site)