“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.