Vasudeo S Gaitonde sets a new record in art auction, yet again

Topics Art auction

Gaitonde's Untitled painting drew ~35.5 crore at the Saffronart auction on September 17
However much a cliché the tale of a garreted artist, his penurious lifestyle and posthumous success may appear, people lap it up when it comes with caveats such as record-breaking prices. Validation for Vasudeo S Gaitonde, whose work has constantly bettered its own benchmarks at auctions two decades after he died of ill-health and poverty in New Delhi, has put his practice in the spotlight. Just two weeks after he fetched Rs 32 crore (hammer price) at Pundole’s, his Untitled painting drew Rs 35.5 crore (inclusive of buyer’s premium) at the Saffronart auction on September 17 — setting two records, back to back, for Indian art.

Despite being coveted and vied for by the most discerning collectors of Indian modern art, his name does not evoke instant recognition among the lay public. He may command higher values than his peers, F N Souza, S H Raza or M F Husain, yet he remains unknown beyond a small coterie of art lovers. That is set to change.

A student of Sir JJ School of Art whose studio at Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute in Mumbai was an adaa for intellectuals, Gaitonde was an inspiration for other artists, and well regarded for his non-representational work, but the market was unsparing of anyone who departed from the familiar figurative style that was en-vogue in the 1950s and ’60s. It was New York that gave him the confidence to regard his non-objective work as a viable alternative when he was selected for the 1964 John D Rockefeller III Fund fellowship on the recommendation of his fellow painter Krishen Khanna — its first recipient.

“It gave me a reputation in India,” Gaitonde remarked of the grant. “I met a number of artists, saw their paintings and more so of a great American artist Mark Rothko.” For the first time he felt liberated and confident enough about his future: “Now I can work on my own without doing any job for sustenance.” Optimistic though he might have been about his hopes of success, Bombay’s (as the city was called) high rents and l’affaire with the Progressive artists led to his shift to New Delhi.

The capital was no cakewalk for the artist. An accident in the 1980s left Gaitonde incapacitated and unable to work on his canvases. He shifted to working on paper, never recovering sufficiently to hone his reputation or his funds. When he died in 2001, he was ill, penniless and unable to paint for some time. Friends had helped him along. Fellow artist Ram Kumar sent him occasional tiffins of food.

Thirteen years after his death and five decades after his tryst with New York as a Rockefeller grantee, the grandees of the art world gathered at the Guggenheim to celebrate his work with a career retrospective in 2014. Loans from collectors around the world had made the exhibition possible. By then, Gaitonde’s paintings had begun to appear at auctions. Ever since, he has commanded the heights of Indian modernism.

Appreciating Gaitonde’s work does not come easily. Abstract art is, at best, ambiguous. Gaitonde made it tougher than most by refraining from providing his work with any discernible form or a story to hinge it on. Instead, his paintings were described by their colour. Explained by critics as having a zen-like quality of sparseness, the paintings were process driven: he would use a roller to paint over canvas before stripping it, a task he repeated several times over as many layers to imbue each work with a “depth” that emulated the course of nature. It had a purity that very few artists have managed to achieve.

Whether because he was obsessively exacting, or on account of his failing health, or both, Gaitonde left behind only a small body of work. Because of their high value, his secondary market has boomed, with museums, institutional collectors and the well-heeled wanting at least a token Gaitonde for their collection. Early observers of this trend who managed to pick up his work before prices hardened, now hold considerable leverage over his market.

Unfortunately, with few works in the public domain — the National Gallery of Modern Art has at least one outstanding painting and several smaller ones — the public might have to wait a while before they can whet their curiosity about what makes the artist’s work tick. Till then, they will have to get used to seeing his name in the newspapers — associated with increasingly higher prices.

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