DAG Modern brings the New York-based artist’s vivid artworks to India for the first time.
Curated by Kishore Singh, the exhibition is on display at the Mumbai-based gallery DAG Modern until 25 January 2018 and is the first retrospective of the artist’s six-decade career in his native India.
Exploring the myriad influences of colour
Natvar Bhavsar (b. 1934) left India for the United States in 1962 and chose to remain there for the artistic opportunities and the future that the country offered. The art scene in New York gave him the freedom to evolve both creatively as well as intellectually, while staying true to the Indianness of his roots. In his practice, he explores the sensual, emotional and intellectual resonance of colour by conflating the vivid influences of his childhood in India with his experiences in the art and cultural capital of New York. Bhavsar points out that he has been served by two cultures, both of which he is grateful for:
I am a product in every sense of the excitement of Indian culture. But I see no separation in it from the culture I have inherited. At the same time, I do not accept the cultural supremacy of one over another in art practice.
Bhavsar spent the early years of his life in Gujarat, India and completed his studies at the Sheth C.N. College of Fine Arts in the city of Ahmedabad, where he also started practicing as an artist. In the early 1960s he travelled to Philadelphia to study further and then to New York on a John D. Rockefeller III Fund grant, choosing to make the city his home for its vibrant art scene. He achieved success fairly early in his career there and has been richly feted by the art community in the United States, by artists, critics and historians alike. Robert C. Morgan, the American art critic, author, poet, curator and the author of Natvar Bhavsar – The Sound of Color says:
Bhavsar’s paintings offer us peace in a troubled world, a world momentarily bent on chaos, confusion, and apparent destruction. The sense of feeling at home with these paintings is, after all, a sense of being at peace in the world. Bhavsar’s indulgence of colour within the full range of the spectrum invigorates us and challenges us to look deeper, and to rediscover the satisfaction of a paradoxical and refreshing tranquility.
In early 1960s New York, Bhavsar was drawn to the work of the city’s abstract expressionists and colour-field artists, and he soon became an influential member of the New York School of Colourists. He developed a distinctive form of abstraction that uses his own native state of Gujarat in India as inspiration, and has been credited with easternising the Colour Field language through his use of thrown and sifted pigments.
Bhavsar sifts dry, powdered pigments onto huge canvasses allowing air, his breath and his body movements to control where they fall creating monumental works of voluminous, pulsating colours. The innumerable and painstakingly applied layers of pigments are transformed into compositions that give the onlooker an almost transcendental experience. The curator of “Homecoming” and the President of DAG Modern, Kishore Singh says:
There can be no denying a spirituality in his work. Not in any ritual sense, nor even in any obvious formulation of a context, the sacred in these paintings comes from a sense of integrity of intent, in terms of abstract art led by the use of colours, and by the physical exertion that Natvar puts into the creation of each one of these.
A pulsating impact on the senses
It is evident to every visitor to the exhibition at DAG Modern that the colours that are at the heart of all Bhavsar’s paintings are reminiscent of the vibrant hues of India – from the shades of gulal, the dry pigments used in Holi to those used in the intricate rangoli designs that decorate floors at the entrance of Indian homes during festivals like Diwali. “Art requires a sense of colour […]. Just like music is about sound – its presence or absence – so art is about colour, its absence or presence,” says the artist.
However, it was not just the memory of the country of his birth that was the driving force behind his life-long fascination with colour. It was the unique marriage of pigments and application technique in the abstractions of Mark Rothko, the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock and the action paintings of William de Kooning that were immensely appealing. The work of abstract expressionists like Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman, who taught at the University of Pennsylvania during the 1960s, significantly influenced Bhavsar’s understanding of art and helped define his practice during its early years.
An important guide, teacher and confidante during this time was his professor of painting, Italian artist Piero Dorazio who introduced him to the changing styles of the period. “He was a renowned painter and intellectual,” Bhavsar says of Dorazio in an interview with Kishore Singh, “and a friend of many of the established American and European artists such as Rothko, Newman, Gottlieb, Motherwell, Matisse, and others.” It was Dorazio who was responsible for the artist getting the John D. Rockefeller III Fund grant that allowed him to shift to New York and it was Dorazio’s introduction to the art society in New York that enabled Bhavsar to merge seamlessly into the fraternity.
Painting the poetics of colour
The process of painting has always been of most significance in his work, and as he developed his specific method of using dry granules of pigment, his work began to gain a following with Bhavsar standing apart from the other Colour Field painters due to his unique quality of texture. The free-flowing, organic shapes that won him great acclaim in the United States are evident in the entire collection of works on display in “Homecoming”, from the orange streaks of Jeth (1983), the fiery brilliance of both Veeroo (1993-95) and Vesaka (1997) to the large-scale Gomatee (1990), which has a visual semblance to the fluidity and sense of movement of the Milky Way. “Homecoming” comes almost fifty years after Bhavsar’s solo exhibition at the prestigious Max Hutchison Gallery and another at the prominent Jewish Museum where, one of the seven paintings he displayed was the iconic Theer-a Theer-a (1969).
Bhavsar has also shown his work at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery in New York, the ACP Viviane Ehrli Gallery in Zurich, Switzerland and DAG Modern in New York and Mumbai. Since 1970 he has been exhibiting his works in several one-man shows and in 2007, the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University sponsored an exhibition of about 50 of Bhavsar’s works. It was the first United States university to hold a one-man show of a South Asian artist. In addition to being a John D. Rockefeller III Fund Fellow (1965 –1966), Bhavsar was also a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow (1975 – 1976) and an Instructor of Art at the University of Rhode Island (1967 – 1969). In 1980 and 1983, he participated in Executive Seminars at the Aspen Institute and also participated as a Cultural Leader at the World Economic Forums in Davos, Switzerland (2000) and New York (2002).
He has also been included in the Asian American Arts Centre’s artasiamerica digital archive. In 2011, a documentary on his life and works, The Poetics of Color: Natvar Bhavsar, a Painter’s Journey was made by Sundaram Tagore while Natvar Bhavsar: Poetics of Colour (2009) and The Sound of Colour (2002) are books that have been written on the artist by leading art critics – the former by Marius Kwint and Irving Sandler, and the latter by Robert C. Morgan. Bhavsar’s paintings are in more than 800 public and private collections, including those of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
A labour of love
There is therefore no argument that Bhavsar has had an illustrious career and has created an indelible niche for himself in the art world in New York, with his name closely associated with acclaimed artists like Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman. It is unfortunate that the works of one of India’s leading names has hardly been shown in exhibitions in his country of birth and it is the reason why “Homecoming” attains greater significance – as the first-ever retrospective that gives Indian art lovers a never-before-seen overview of nearly five decades of his practice.
DAG Modern has worked towards creating a legacy for Bhavsar in India similar to the one his international acclaim has earned for him, and this exhibition has been a labour of love for its curator, Kishore Singh, who says:
Natvar had expressed his keenness about being exhibited in India in a manner in which it did his body of work credit, and it took us this long to rally our forces and make it happen. We at DAG Modern are extremely enthused about his work. That he pursued his career in the West while retaining the purity of his vision as an artist with a strongly Indian sensibility is evidence of his conviction in his roots.
“Homecoming” has achieved for its stakeholders what was intended from its conception: Natvar Bhavsar has indeed come home.
“Natvar Bhavsar: Homecoming” is on view from 20 November 2017 to 25 January 2018 at DAG Modern, 58 Dr. V.B. Gandhi Marg, Kala Ghoda, Fort, Mumbai 400023.
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