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Natvar Bhavsar: ‘I’m a freak of nature’

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A leading diasporic artist brings his first retrospective to India. Natvar Bhavsar tells Ritika Kochhar about the importance of homecoming

THE BEAUTY OF Natvar Bhavsar’s work lies mainly in his technique, which is a process that involves sifting powdered pigments onto canvas, allowing air currents and his own breath and body movements to determine where they fall, creating smoky, layered compositions. It’s not a haphazard process. Howard E Wooden—a museum director and art historian who observed him working—said that Bhavsar uses huge canvases and specially created tools that allow him to move a screen strainer over a canvas covered with clear binder. He must control the rhythm of his bodily movements, the speed, and the distance between the screen and the field in order to ensure the distribution and density of colour in every area. This is repeated to produce a grainy surface effect, and variations in colour and tone are managed by varying the choice of pigment and density of application. He may continue to do this for close to 80 layers. “He is the only painter I know who uses pure pigment this way, although Anish Kapoor has since coated the surfaces of many of his sculptures with it,” says Irving Sandler, one of America’s foremost critics.

DAG will exhibit his works in a single artist retrospective at the Dubai Art Fair in March 2018, and in New Delhi thereafter. HG Contemporary—an avant garde gallery which focuses on bold, provocative artists—held a month-long exhibition of his works in New York, which concluded early January 2018. Nita Ambani has his works in her collection, as does the Metropolitan Museum in New York. His works are in more than 800 private and public collections including at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. He’s a recipient of numerous honours, including the Cultural Leader to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

His work has been compared to the best abstract expressionists such as Mark Rothko. When the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum held its seminal exhibition, The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989, in 2009, Bhavsar’s ‘opalescent ripples’ were seen as an example of how the ‘Buddhist concept of emptiness’ had influenced American painters.

This would make Bhavsar arguably the most famous Indian- American artist who you’ve never heard of. Also, because his paintings are so large and the custom duty so prohibitive that gallery after gallery in India has had to cancel their exhibitions of his works.

Bhavsar’s works at his first retrospective in India, titled Homecoming at the DAG in Mumbai, include works since the 1970s up to about 2000 and were stored in Switzerland. It’s hard to explain why a luminous white on a white and reddish background appeals so much to me while his smaller but denser works appeal more to someone else in the crowd. Certainly, the pitted surface created on some artworks by the many layers of paints is a subject of discussion. Either way, his works are bigger than his canvas, often spreading from end to end, and convey a feeling of expansiveness. Critics say that they project calm yet have powerfully complex, cosmological bursts of colour and form, and even his smallest paintings are potently concentrated, hinting of explosive inner activity.

Many of his contemporaries in India, which include the Progressive Artists and Indian art critics over the years, have been silent about his works, making him almost invisible in this country. This doesn’t take away from Bhavsar, now 83, who has straddled many worlds.

“I first came to Bombay in 1954,” he says, as he sits with his works around him. “It was very different. Green. Pristine. There was the sound of trains and buggies. There were very few cars. My older brother worked in Crawford Market and I came with friends. The beaches were pristine. The buildings were exactly like San Sebastian in Spain.” The irony of the infernal sounds of construction outside the the confines of the Mediterranean- style gallery in Bombay that set our teeth on edge and interrupt our conversation isn’t lost on him.

He was born in 1934 in Gothva village in Gujarat. His father was a headmaster who boarded students at home, and his mother belonged to a family of dyers. Even though his father died when he was 10, he was allowed to continue to study art, and wasn’t yet 20 when he started teaching art to high school students while simultaneously studying under Rasiklal Parikh.

Always one to make the most of opportunities, he moved to Ahmedabad where he was exposed to the works of great artists and architects as well as the newly formed art department at MS University, Baroda. He also became friends with the Bombay Progressive artists like VS Gaitonde and MF Husain with whom he visited Bal Chabda’s studio. He became a part of the Progressive painters of Ahmedabad along with Jeram Patel.

“I believe nature is real. There is a new revelation every minute. Giving yourself to nature will deepen your desire to receive. It requires the antenna of a child. You need to be voracious”

After he graduated in Art and English Literature from Gujarat University, a friend helped him fill in the form to study at the Philadelphia College of Art while his friend’s father agreed to support him financially. Soon after arriving in 1962, he heard about the Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia, at a party. Here he was exposed to rising abstractionists like Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman who were teaching there. His guide was Italian artist Piero Dorazio. But the most lasting impression was left by the seminars with visiting artists such as Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. He felt that “these spirited painters had changed the course of our thoughts and actions through their revolutionary acts”.

Janet Brosious Bhavsar, his artist and photographer wife, whom he met in college, says about her husband, “I’ve never seen anyone with his kind of energy. He had a full-time job as a textile designer. He lived in the suburbs but he’d be in school, he’d come and see me, he was playing tennis. In a little over two years, he’d earned enough to send his brother to Stanford University.” He held a show almost immediately after reaching America and it was sold out. In 1964, he held a show of his Kashmir landscapes. Three years into the course, he received the prestigious John D Rockefeller III scholarship, which paved his entry to New York’s international art community.

BHAVSAR MOVED TO New York where he shared a studio with dancer Elaine Summers. This was a meeting place for most leading dancers and choreographers, and through them, Bhavsar was exposed to artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Morris—some of the most influential American artists of the 1970s.

When the grant ran out, he supported himself by teaching painting at the University of Rhode Island. In 1968, Bhavsar, amongst other artists and gallery owners moved to the SoHo district in New York, then a warehouse and light manufacturing area. It was known as Hell’s Hundred Acres because of the frequency of fires, but soon turned into a vital art community. By 1969, art dealer Max Hutchinson had seen his works and given him the premier show in his new gallery the next year, where he would hold nine more shows.

In 2010, art historian and gallerist Sundaram Tagore made an award- winning debut film on him called The Poetics of Color: Natvar Bhavsar, An Artist’s Journey. It explored Bhavsar’s life and work as a pioneer who paved the way for subsequent generations of artists. While examining aesthetics in the context of globalisation, it explored the multicultural nature of Bhavsar’s work and how that influenced the trajectory of his career. The documentary used Bhavsar’s history as a celebration of the Asian diasporic community and its contribution to American contemporary art.

Bhavsar is frank about why he stayed on in America. He says, “It is hogwash… that India’s produced very little contemporary art of international quality because there’s superior talent in the West. It’s simply because in India one has to spend ten times the amount you spend here on colours, on one-tenth the income. In these circumstances, it isn’t likely that many Indian painters will be working on a scale acceptable to the rest of the world today.”

His familiarity with the art universe since the early 1960s and “having drunk cheap wine with the most famous artists of the world” means that he can speak with authority (and healthy disregard) of the works of Rothko and Pollock. He dislikes being compared to them. “Pollock poured liquid paint over confluences of lines. I’ve been compared to Rothko by many Americans and I’d like some museum to devote a room to Rothko and my works. There’s shallowness to his s urfaces. Rothko puzzles me. He became stagnant. He put God on a pedestal till he ended up asking, ‘Is there a god?’ I’m not sure what he would have done next if he’d lived.” He adds, “You should see his works and mine in natural light and see the difference. I believe nature is real. There is a new revelation every minute. Any person with cognisance to learn will see how giving yourself to nature will constantly deepen your desire to receive. It requires the antenna of a child. You need to be voracious. My works are light sensitive. Every time you’ll see a different light. My inspiration is light and there are a million shades in the range of light.”

Similarly, he doesn’t like being clubbed with Anish Kapoor, as India’s two most successful crossover artists. “Kapoor is a cross between a designer and an artist. He came to fame early with his indigo colours and has an identity more as a colourist. His works are swimming in vats of colour. The British supported him early. I retained my identity as an Indian artist. I stayed an Indian citizen. I didn’t want false applause. Anish Kapoor has had good luck and he’s intelligent and polished.”

He is also uncomfortable with the labels that Western critics slap on his works, whether it is ‘Eastern’ or influenced by ‘Native American’ culture, although all his paintings have Indian names. He’s barely comfortable discussing his tools, many of which he’s had to create himself since nothing exists that could create a continuous one-mile stroke. It takes Janet’s urging for him to walk me through his works. “I use 12-feet large brushes which I’ve refined myself. Dry pigment runs faster than water. Controlling it is an issue. I have to put distillation screens over the entire work. The beauty is in the coagulation. It falls like drops of water. Visual poetry.” The curator of the show mentions that this technique of using dry pigment means that creates a surface so tough that it will last a very long time.

Given the hardships in bringing this show to India, I ask why this India show is important. “There’s a creative excitement and a deep rooted memory in coming back. Ahmedabad became home for Janet and the kids as well when they were around four-and-a-half. But New York is the centre of the world. People like me have thrived there. There is no parochial aspect to life there. It allows you to flourish. I have an unusual story. Inspirational. I’m a freak of nature. Even though my father died when I was 10, I was able to follow my north star. My interest in presenting my art in India is not to enrich myself. I want to tell the story of how I went abroad and explored my individuality. I was given many opportunities and have seen huge achievements.”

(Natvar Bhavsar’s first retrospective in India, titled Homecoming will be on view till January 25th, 2018, at DAG in Mumbai; Dubai Art Fair in March 2018; and at DAG, Delhi, after that)