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Approaching Abstraction: Modernist Art from India

Written by Aksel Ritenis

At the Rubin Museum of Art, New York

Among the most distinctive, smaller museums in New York, the Rubin Museum of Art is recognized as the premier museum of Himalayan art in the Western world. Located at 150 West 17th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, the museum holds a significant collection of the paintings and sculptures of Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia and Bhutan.

One of the Museum’s latest shows Approaching Abstraction is the second in a three part series devoted to the history of modernist art in post-colonial India. While figuration remained the dominant tradition in Indian art, by the mid-1950s leading artists, including M.F. Husain and S.H. Raza, began incorporating non-representational forms into their work signaling the beginning of the Progressive Artists Group in Bombay. Their paintings along with others created a new Indian artistic identity for the new nation.

This is a beautiful exhibition, infused with light and color. One is struck by how while the artists were obviously inspired by the European modernist movement, they created an original visual language for India. The paintings in the show run the complete gamut of abstract expressionism in a country that was better known for figurative art.V.S. Gaitonde’s self-described “non-objective paintings” incorporate a formal purity of line and color influenced by his engagement of Zen Buddhism. Krisha Reddy’s color printmaking represents a pioneering technique that enables multiple colors of different viscosities to be printed on the surface of the work from a single plate.

One of the most accomplished Indian women artists is Nasreen Mohamedi, who trained at the St. Martin School of Art before returning to Bombay. Like other abstractionists, she uses a grid as a template for her linear drawings and watercolors. Avinash Chandra’s work incorporates cubist elements and is reminiscent of Picasso’s “Guernica.”Also of interest is the art of G.R. Santosh and Biren De, leading artists of the 1970s Neo-tantra movement, which integrated modernist principles of abstraction with Tantra, a set of esoteric practices associated with Hinduism and Buddhism that are often represented symbolically by the union of male and female energies.

Included in “Approaching Abstraction are rare experimental films by Husain, Tyeb Mehta and Akbar Padamsee, artists whose paintings remained focused on figural compositions, but who films explored abstract ideas and decontextualized images. Husain’s Through the Eyes of a Painter (1967) won the prestigious Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1968 and Mehta’s Koodal won the Film Fare Award for the best documentary film of 1970s. The films chronicle the artists’ journey from representational art to abstraction.

Approaching Abstraction is the second installment in a series devoted to the history of modernist art in post-colonial India. The show runs through October 15th. The final part of the series Radical Terrain opens on November 9th and highlights the diverse exploration of landscape in Indian art after independence. That exhibit highlights how landscape was a means for artists to come to terms with the vastness and diversity of India as a new nation.

While visiting the Rubin Museum, one should also view Illuminated: The Art of Sacred Books, a stunning exhibition of sacred books across Buddhism, Jain, Hindu, Christian and Muslim cultures. These manuscripts are adorned in silver gold and other precious materials. They are objects of art as well as devotion. In the same vein, Casting the Divine: Sculptures of the Nyingjei Lam Collection another exhibition shows how religion inspired artists to create extraordinary pieces.

The Rubin Museum is open every day expect Tuesday. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for seniors and students and free for children 12 and younger. For additional information visit or call 212-620-5000 Ext. 344.

Contributed by Mary Frances Duffy

Image IDs

Modernist Art from India: Approaching Abstraction

May 4, 2012 – October 16, 2012

Maqbool Fida Husain (1915-2011)

Blue Flowers, 1969

Oil on canvas

Collection of Shelley and Donald Rubin

V.S. Gaitonde (1924-2001)

Painting, 4, 1962

Oil on canvas

Museum of Modern Art, New York

Tyeb Mehta (1925–2009)

The Diagonal, 1974

Oil on canvas

Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts

Sayed Haider Raza (b. 1922)

Aaj, 1970

Oil on canvas

Collection of Shelley and Donald Rubin

About the author

Aksel Ritenis

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