There is a joke doing the art circuit, that an art collector once went crazy over an abstract painting. He was willing to pay anything to acquire it but was embarrassed to learn that the painter behind the work he liked was not the artist but his pet chimpanzee! The joke is often used to illustrate the bewilderment that one often experiences when faced with an art work that has no narrative, no figures…nothing but colour and line.
Abstraction is perhaps one of the most intimidating and formidable of the art movements. Yet, if one were to push aside all the ‘isms’ and just go with one’s heart and one’s gut, abstract art is really the most primeval of all the art movements since it reaches into the artist’s subconscious to produce something that is a ‘discovery’ rather than figuration. It should in fact be one of the most relatable of art forms since it expresses pure feeling that most people can relate to.
“The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through”, this was one of the quotes by famed America artists Jackson Pollock. By the mid-1940s, while India was fighting for its Independence, Pollock introduced his famous ‘drip paintings’, which represent one of the most original bodies of work of the century, and forever altered the course of American art. Pollock and artists who followed him, believed that abstraction had a direct relation to the artist’s emotions, expression, and mood, and showcased their feeling behind the pieces they painted. There was a kind of mystery of discovering the art, allowing it to dictate terms rather than pre-decide that the painting was of a horse or a man.
While abstraction had a rather political shade to it in America and Europe, in India it was a search for purity in line and colour by artists of the 1950s and ‘60s. Today the most expensive painting is by an abstract artist, Vasudeo S Gaitonde whose work sold for a whopping 29.3 crore at the Christie’s auction in December 2015. The artist who lived a very simple and reclusive life, shot to the top of the highest grossing works in 2013, when one of his earlier paintings sold for Rs 23.7 crores. Gaitonde is also the only Indian artist with a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. It is a pity that such fame was only posthumous.
What distinguishes Gaitonde from other artists? Why is his work fetching such prices? Is it because it is an abstract art work? To try to answer these questions…Gaitonde was one of the most disciplined and the most reticent artist of his time. His works are technical marvels with a luminosity of their own. Because there are such few works by him, because he is collected by the likes of Solomon Guggenheim and yes, because non-figurative works have an international appeal, he is one of the top selling artists of his time.
Other artists who feature as important abstract artists are, S H Raza, Ram Kumar, Akbar Padamsee, Jagdish Swaminathan, Nasreen Mohamedi, Mona Rai, Biren De, GR Santosh, OP Sharma, Soha Qadri, SG Vasudev, Prabhakar Kolte and V Viswanadhan to name a few. The current artists are taking abstraction beyond the realms of painting by experimenting with various mediums.