The exhibition brings together the works of eminent Indian artists and sculptors.

The artists featured in the show at DAG Modern in New York visited the United States in the 1960s and 1970s on grants sponsored by the philanthropic American collector John D. Rockefeller III.

Natvar Bhavsar, Varunaa II, 1989, Dry pigments with acrylic medium on paper, 37.7 x 28 inches. Image courtesy the artist and DAG Modern.

Natvar Bhavsar, ‘Varunaa II’, 1989, dry pigments with acrylic medium on paper, 37.7 x 28 inches. Image courtesy the artist and DAG Modern.

A significant part of the narrative of modern Indian art

John Davison Rockefeller III was a well-known American collector of Asian art and his role in providing an impetus to the fledgling, post-colonial Indian art world has never been fully appreciated or acknowledged. Important milestones in the development of an Indian modernism were the evolution of the Bengal School of Art at the turn of the century, which tried to revive traditional Indian imagery in their search for a new identity for Indian art and the creation of the Progressive Artist’s Group in 1947 that tried to synthesise it with styles prevalent in Europe and America. Widely travelled in Asia, Rockefeller had started collecting Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Sri Lankan and Indian art during the 1950s – a passion that evolved in the ensuing decades under the able tutelage of Sherman Lee, curator of Asian art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. His vast collection was bequeathed to the Asia Society in 1978 following Rockefeller’s death in a car accident and was exhibited for the first time in 1981.

K.G. Subramanyan, Untitled, 2008, Gouache on handmade paper, 46.23 x 38.61 inches. Image courtesy DAG Modern.

K.G. Subramanyan, ‘Untitled’, 2008, gouache on handmade paper, 46.23 x 38.61 inches. Image courtesy DAG Modern.

The John D. Rockefeller III Fund, whose precursor was the Council on Economic and Cultural Affairs (CECA), was set up in 1963. In a press release announcing the setting up of the Fund, John D. Rockefeller observed:

The programme of the Fund will involve the exchange between Asia and our country of persons, ideas, creative work, materials and techniques primarily in the fields of the visual and performing arts. In general, the Fund will work through existing organisations by means of grants.

Porter A. McCray, the Fund’s Director who was an important figure in the councils of the Museum of Modern Art, believed that Western audiences were only exposed to Asian artists of international repute and several others who were unknown, needed to be encouraged and brought to the Untied States, in order to broaden the knowledge and the interests of Americans in Asian culture. The Asian Cultural Programme was initiated under the aegis of the Fund, which, as per a report published in 2014 on its completion of 50 years of functioning, had “[…] made eighty to a hundred grants annually to artists, scholars, and students for research, travel, and study”.

It also made grants to institutions in Asia and in India. These have included the National Museum (1967, 1971), New Delhi, Kalakshetra Academy of Arts (1970), the Indira Gandhi Centre for the Arts, New Delhi (1998), the Indian National trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), New Delhi (2007) and the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble (2015). The Rockefeller grants to Indian artists started in the 1960s and came at a time when the Indian art world was suffering from a sense of lethargy with a visible slowing down in the excitement, commitment and passion that has characterised the industry in the 1940s and the 1950s with the dynamism of the Progressive Artists’ Group.

 Tyeb Mehta, Untitled (Blue Torso), 1973, Oil on canvas, 45 x 35.5 inches. Image courtesy DAG Modern.

Tyeb Mehta, ‘Untitled (Blue Torso)’, 1973, oil on canvas, 45 x 35.5 inches. Image courtesy DAG Modern.

Focusing the international spotlight on Indian art

The first Indian artist to have benefitted directly from the Rockefeller Foundation was K.S. Kulkarni as early as 1950, after which Krishen Khanna and S.H. Raza received grants from the CECA, with the latter extending his stay in the United States to first teach at the University of Berkeley and later spend time absorbing the art scene in New York. During the initial years of the grant, there were a number of Indian artists who followed close on the heels of each other to the United States, enabling them to interact often – creating and building an Indian artists’ community. V.S. Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, Avinash Chandra, Natvar Bhavsar, Jyoti Bhatt, K.G. Subramanyan, Ram Kumar, Paritosh Sen, Adi Davierwala and Tyeb Mehta were amongst these earlier artists.

Paritosh Sen, Untitled (Isabelle series), 1981, Oil on canvas, 49 x 41 inches. Image courtesy DAG Modern.

Paritosh Sen, ‘Untitled (Isabelle series)’, 1981, oil on canvas, 49 x 41 inches. Image courtesy DAG Modern.

From the 1980s onwards, the funding was routed through the newly created Asian Cultural Council (established in 1980), which has supported Indian contemporary artists such as Vinod Dave (1983-84), Bhupen Khakhar (1985), Rekha Rodwittiya (1989) and more recently Minam Apang (2012), Rohini Devasher (2015), Vibha Galhotra (2016) and Utsa Hazarika (2017). The Rockefeller Funds’ interest in the visual arts has been diminishing since the 1980s and there has been a quietening on the grants front in the recent years. However, the role played by the Fund in building the careers of some of India’s more prominent artists is undeniably significant and one that will go down in the annals of 20th century Indian art history. As stated in the 500-page catalogue published by DAG Modern on the occasion of “India’s Rockefeller Artists”, it was V.S. Gaitonde’s observation on the contribution of the Fund that was most astute:

It gave me a reputation in India. I met a number of artists, saw their paintings – and more so, of a great American artist, Mark Rothko. Now I can work on my own without doing a job for sustenance.

“India’s Rockefeller Artists: An Indo-US Cultural Saga”, 6 November 2017 -3 March 2018, Installation view at DAG Modern, Image courtesy DAG Modern.

“India’s Rockefeller Artists: An Indo-US Cultural Saga”, 6 November 2017 – 3 March 2018, installation view at DAG Modern. Image courtesy DAG Modern.

Seminal works of modern and contemporary Indian artists

DAG Modern’s India’s Rockefeller Artists: An Indo-U.S. Cultural Saga” showcases some iconic works of the Indian painters and sculptors who travelled to the United States on the grants enabled by Rockefeller’s philanthropic vision, first through the Fund (1963–1979) and then through the Asian Cultural Council (1980 to date). The show examines why and how these artists were selected, their relationships with each other, their interactions amidst the American art milieu, and the impact of the experience on both their body of work and the creation of a community of Rockefeller artists. These artists were brought to the United States to see and understand American art and also to share their own learning and experiences through a cultural exchange that would enrich communities. Commenting on this, the curator of India’s Rockefeller Artistsand the President of DAG Modern, Kishore Singh says:

It becomes evident on hindsight that this engagement between Indian artists and the US provided them great space and room for thinking and experiencing alternate realities and knowledge. As we can see, in some case a change in perspective, or practice, was immediately discernible; in others, it probably just accentuated their thinking, or liberated their sensibility, freeing them to the possibilities of working in ways, or in styles or on subjects they may have previously not considered. And though, holistically, the Fund did not provide (nor was it its stated objective) a crossroads for Indian and American artists to meet and react, it did prove to be an important pivot for those who benefitted from the grant.

V.S. Gaitonde, Untitled, 1968, Oil on canvas, 34 x 30 inches. Image courtesy DAG Modern.

V.S. Gaitonde, ‘Untitled’, 1968, oil on canvas, 34 x 30 inches. Image courtesy DAG Modern.

Among the Rockefeller artists whose works are on display at the exhibition are the ‘non-objective’ paintings of India’s foremost abstractionist, V.S. Gaitonde (1924-2001), and the minimalistic works of Tyeb Mehta (1925-2009), one of the country’s most widely collected artists who was hugely influenced by American abstract expressionist Barnett Newman during his stay in the United States. The paintings of other members of the Progressive Artists’ Group such S.H. Raza, Akbar Padamsee, Ram Kumar, Bal Chhabda and Krishen Khanna are also a part of the exhibition – as are the works of artists such as Natvar Bhavsar, Jyoti Bhatt, K.G. Subramanyan, A.M. Davierwala, Satish Gujral, Avinash Chandra, Arun Bose, Paritosh Sen, K.S. Kulkarni, Vinod Dave, Bhupen Khakhar and Rekha Rodwittiya. All in all, the artists being represented in “India’s Rockefeller Artists” were some of those whose contribution to Indian art practice in the 20th century has been seminal – clearly indicative of the debt that the country owes to the vision and drive of John Davison Rockefeller III.

 Amita Kini-Singh


India’s Rockefeller Artists: An Indo-U.S. Cultural Saga” is on view from 6 November 2017 until 12 March 2018 at DAG Modern, Fuller Building, Suite 708, 41 East 57th Street, New York, NY 10022, United States.

Related Topics: Indian artists, oil, painting, sculpture, collectors, museum shows, events in New York

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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