Thursday, August 16, 2012

Figuring abstraction in Indian art

‘Approaching Abstraction’, a new major group show of Indian art at the Rubin Museum, puts a peculiar Eastern phenomenon in a Western mold. It doesn’t work always, but there’s still much to be learnt from this effort. It will help to let go of the Euro-American thought that abstraction is a sheer formal phenomenon; in fact, it can also act as a rupture in narrative in Indian modernism.

The show is the 2nd in a series of three consecutive exhibits on the stream of Indian modernism, especially of the postcolonial period. One among them, ‘The Body Unbound’ closed in April 2012. It focused primarily on the years after India’s independence, in 1947. The show included mainly figurative art. 

However, the current exhibit takes us into the 1960s and ’70s. It finds Indian painters selectively albeit gradually moving away from the defining figure, on canvas and, at times, in experiments with the medium of film, through strings of some loosely connected images - not exactly nonrepresentational but, perhaps having been severed from their seemingly original contexts. One can state, this certainly break with more traditional Indian art.

Quite a few of the artists on view started their careers primarily as figurative painters; For instance, V. S. Gaitonde gradually cut down on the human presence in his artworks to just a set of black stick figures peeping on a horizon (as can be seen in a loan from the MOMA) and then entirely did away with it, ultimately. The overall transition to abstraction from figuration though, is not presented as a mere linear progression, something we’re more familiar with from Western art.

Outwardly, the installation, organized by a curator for the Rubin Museum, Beth Citron, can feel choppy. There are works that hang in 13 clusters of one or two artists each, on walls that are painted in a bevy of curiously contrasting colors. They are featured under subtitles, such as ‘Formalist Abstraction’, ‘Abstracting the Everyday’, and Lyrical Abstraction’.

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