Colour and will

Print edition : August 01, 1998

Velu Vishwanadhan's abstract painting, which builds upon Indian modernist sources, traces the painter's passage, as a particular sort of person, through the world as he finds it.

AT the close of the century, assessing abstraction is a hazardous business. Faced with one of Gerhard Richter's recent Abstract Paintings, to give an obvious example, one cannot easily guess at what the work attempts. The blankly literal title counters the 20th-century habit of declaring a painting untitled, and may be meant to show up the aesthetic autonomy that Modernist abstraction is supposed to strive for, because leaving a work untitled was one way of claiming that sort of autonomy for it. Abstract Paintings, moreover, makes one ask if the works are not images of certain sorts of later Modernist abstraction, rather than abstract paintings themselves. And to the extent that aesthetic autonomy requires the abolition of the image, the way these works look warrants saying that they show up, somehow, the desire for autonomy.

But one should not go even this far. The most that one can claim with any assurance is that Richter's surfaces communicate a certain ambivalence about autonomy. Asserting anything more - that, for instance, they parody or simulate or in some other way subvert the desire for it - would provoke immediate disagreement. At this point the critic has two options: he can declare that the work only has, and that painting now can persuasively only have, this rudimentary sort of meaning; or he can claim that meaning here is complex but, although visible, simply eludes words.

One is not quite brought to this pass by Velu Vishwanadhan's work: but before going on to it I should note that to take the first option is to concede that painting as an art is exhausted. (Arthur Danto, one of the more important philosophers of art today, has argued for some time that art itself - Western art, at least - has come to an end by transmuting itself in some Hegelian fashion into philosophy.) That seems extreme: one hopes, rather, that paintings can still make sense in new and intricate ways, even if words can no longer easily bring out how they do. Richter's work communicates a very complex attitude towards the image as it is now, an attitude which can be articulated only in painting (and only in painting which has Modernist art behind it. Here I am using the word "Modernist", with a capital M, only to refer to European and American art.).

Figure 1: "Red Painting", 1967, oil on canvas, 120 cm X 120 cm.-N. BALAJI

THE excursus above was needed because Vishwanadhan has lived in Paris for almost 30 years, and one expects that he will have taken account of recent painting, and thinking about painting, in Europe and America. At first glance, his new work (see Figure 4) might seem to allude to, or even quote in some oblique way, the Optical Art of the 1960s, or some other variety of what was called post-painterly abstraction in America. But a more attentive eye will pause, and come to suspect that Vishwanadhan's relation to the late Modernist past is not so easily glossed. (And whatever that relation may be, the artist is surely not appropriating these modes of painting in any postmodern fashion.)

One reason to pause is that Vishwanadhan continues to regard himself as an Indian painter. It is very difficult nowadays to say just what the pictorial consequences of that might be, and Vishwanadhan's painting has never advertised its Indianness (as some of Raza's 'neo-tantric' exercises do, for instance; incidentally, Raza too has spent the better part of his life as a painter in France). In conversation, Vishwanadhan maintains that his eye is essentially Indian, and that the interaction of colour in his painting, to use Josef Albers' phrase, is governed by the rich experience of colour that he had on a daily basis while he was growing up in India. (The ritual use of colour, for instance, would have been a factor in this.) In Formalist painting of the sort mentioned above, on the other hand, the role of colour is shaped not merely by the painter's daily experiences of the use of colour. (The canonical accounts of the work, at least, would not admit that.)

Very broadly, one could venture to say that the measured play of colour in Vishwanadhan's work makes the historical subject that he is somehow visible, whereas relations of colour in late Modernist painting are meant to manifest - to a self whose vision has been released from the exigencies of its own time - the very essence of painting as Art. (This is almost a caricature of Formalist critical ideas. Greenberg's thought, for instance, is much more nuanced.)

Figure 2: Untitled, 1980, acrylic on canvas, 134 cm X 134 cm.-N. BALAJI

HOW does Vishwanadhan's painting bear all this out? That is difficult to say, but the retrospective of his work - showing at the Lalit Kala Akademi auditorium in Chennai; it came from the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi and will go on to Calcutta and Mumbai - is a good place to begin tackling the question. There is a wide enough selection of work there, from the mid-1960s (when he was living and working in the Cholamandal artists' village near Chennai) to the present. The four pieces reproduced here should give one an idea of the formal direction that his painting has taken.

Vishwanadhan himself describes his work as a trace of his passage, as a particular sort of person, through the world as he finds it. The word "trace" has played a large role in writing about art in the last two decades or so, and its repeated use has dulled its edge somewhat. But if one keeps this characterisation of the work in mind, the painting should lead the eye in ways it otherwise would not.

Figure 3: Untitled, 1987, casein on canvas, 202 cm X 202 cm.-N. BALAJI

Looking again at the new piece (Figure 4), the hint of the hand in the broad lozenges of colour - visible in how pigment might collect at an edge, for instance, or in how edges overlap - now communicates a certain volition, of a kind and degree that late Modernist painting would not show. The subtle presence of will in the work cannot be called post-painterly (mainly because one does not read it now as negating or refusing the Abstract Expressionist's gestural brush stroke). On the other hand, the painting does not entirely contradict Formalist thinking on the potency of colour because the painter's will seems to have been taken up by the work, as it were, and then somehow completed by the interaction of colour. This is why the epithet "postmodern" is inappropriate for Vishwanadhan's painting.

THIS is one way of taking in what is visible. The suggestion that colour be seen as active in this way might seem fanciful, but the exercise can be carried out, and doing so should endow the work with a distinctly sensuous character. To begin, one might set the new work next to an earlier one (Figure 3), where the pictorial will seems to be a different quantity, something directing colour, rather (through its central triangle: it is instructive to see how the unprimed canvas in the new painting now, by contrast, only inflects the emergence and recession of colour).

Figure 4: Untitled, 1997, casein on canvas, 202 cm X 202 cm.-N. BALAJI

The will that is taken up by the new work is a particularly formed one - the pictorial will of a subject with a certain history. And history is not obscured by how the interaction of colour completes will here. (That is needed if the painting is to be regarded as a trace of the sort of historical subject that Vishwanadhan is.) Making good such a claim would be very difficult. One strategy is to argue that Vishwanadhan's oeuvre has steadily developed a sensuous character, which the new work, when it is read this way, extends or refines. Doing that requires that we describe how his painting builds from Indian modernist sources. The earliest work reproduced here, for instance, shows the tutelage of both K.C.S. Panicker, under whom Vishwanadhan studied, and J. Swaminathan, who was quite a presence in Indian art in the 1960s. (It is worth noting that Swaminathan paid attention to Albers and that he seems to have looked at Albers' work through the filter of the Indian past - through Basholi painting, for instance.)

None of this can be attempted here, of course, and a sceptical reader might ask for a more direct pleasure from the work than my reading of it allows. Vishwanadhan's recent painting will more than oblige him. Looked at keenly, it communicates a sureness and a poise, which restores to the eye some power native to it. And that is a very good reason to look.

The National Gallery of Modern Art is one of the sponsors of this retrospective. The logistical support it provided was doubtless crucial. But no attempt was made to relate Vishwanadhan to his contemporaries here in India - the catalogue could have taken up the question - and that is a serious lack.