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The Pizzuti Collection’s Visions from India comprises two exhibitions: Transforming Vision: 21st Century Art from the Pizzuti Collection, the larger in scope and size, showcases significant holdings of very recent Indian art; The Progressive Master: Francis Newton Souza from the Rajadhyaksha Collection, includes thirty works by the sought-after Indian modernist painter. These exhibitions, tucked away in a private nonprofit museum in Columbus, Ohio, present some excellent examples of Indian modern and contemporary art, while also making visible how private collecting of Indian art has been facilitated in the United States in recent decades.
In the short catalogue text for Transforming Vision, curator Greer Pagano both invokes the plurality and complexity of India as a site and counsels deep dives into individual works. As she notes, the exhibition is anchored by the work of Sudarshan Shetty and includes two of his monumental sculptures. One is his untitled 2008 installation of life-size aluminum dog skeletons, each mounted with a video camera and encased in red transparent acrylic. That work exemplifies the artist’s tense and detached neo-Dadaist meditations on surveillance and inorganic life, a set of concerns echoed in works by Avinash Veeraraghavan, K. P. Reji, and Chinmoy Pramanick, as well as in the hypnotic 2008 untitled sushi-conveyer-belt and tiffin-tin sculpture by Subodh Gupta. The second Shetty work is For All That We Lose (2011), a twelve-foot hollow arch of reclaimed teak carved by craftsmen into an intricate tree-patterned screen mounted with a metal sword, swinging like a pendulum, a menacing marker of the passage of time. Its mournful tone is shared by equally spectacular sculptures by Sakshi Gupta, Ranjani Shettar, and Astha Butail. Vibha Galhotra’s Beehive (2006–8), a hanging agglomeration of the gungharoo bells worn on dancers’ ankles, is linked by the curator to the phenomenon of honeybee colony collapse disorder. A similar mixture of apprehension and nostalgia animates the paintings by Anju Dodiya and Jagannath Panda. Reena Saini Kallat constructs a ribcage out of curved swords in the multipart painting Xylophone II (2005)
Lying outside of Shetty’s conceptual field is Dia Mehta Bhupal’s large Diasec photograph of Waiting Room (2016), her life-size installation of a room formed out of tight rolls of patterned paper. Other works similarly combine haptic visuality with a sense of emptiness, whether playfully, as in Pors and Rao’s kinetic stick-figure sculpture Heavy Hat (2008–11); more forebodingly, as in Kanishka Raja’s quietly coercive airport lobby, Line of Control (2008); or somewhere in between, as in Anant Joshi’s just plain weird polyptych of fairies casting large shadows over empty cities. In this context, even more tonally neutral works can become menacing, such as the parabolic lens in Anish Kapoor and A. Balasubramaniam’s Self in Progress (2002), in which a powdery plaster figure appears embedded in a wall.
Pagano’s texts and stagings suggest some of these thematic connections, but overall she is eager to let viewers interpret the work for themselves. Unfortunately, this approach can also be read as a lack of certainty about how to place the work art-historically, beyond a vague idea of the vastness of the subject of India. Given the body of writing available from presentations of contemporary Indian art for audiences in the United States and Europe, more precision can be expected. That is particularly true with the works here, as the collectors have been quite specific and grounded in their taste, choosing work on the basis of its rich materiality. The Pizzuti Collection does not survey the Indian contemporary art scene; if it did, it would have to include more transparently politically and socially engaged work, more anti-aesthetic work, more video and performance, and so forth. The collectors’ choices can be traced to the market for contemporary Indian art, however—a conclusion supported by acquisition information on the labels at the exhibition. While the Pizzuti collected some pieces between 2002 and 2007, the bulk of this collection was acquired in 2008 from the Tilton Gallery, with additional acquisitions from Bose Pacia and Talwar Gallery, all in New York. Most likely, the collectors took advantage of the devastating effect of the Great Recession on the bubble market for Indian contemporary art; in 2008, prices for top-selling Indian artists were slashed by 40 to 70 percent. The subtext of this exhibition is this history of boom and bust, which allowed first for the development of spectacular, large-scale practice by Indian artists, particularly in sculpture, and then for the growth in collecting, largely mediated through New York gallerists, who helped to develop American patronage for a group of Indian artists. Later, Indian galleries got more involved through major fairs, such as Art Basel, at which several of these works were exhibited.
The global market for Indian contemporary art has come to include works by artists of Indian origin living anywhere in the world, doing away with the distinguishing category of “diasporic artist” that was important in the 1990s. While this ethnicity- rather than place-based description may be justified by the nomadic lifestyle of the contemporary artist, it obscures histories of artistic production. One place where more attention to the context of making is needed is in the dependence of many of these artists upon the work of Indian craftspeople—the wood-carvers, gungharoo and glass-bead embroiders, and tiffin and bindi manufacturers without whom the works by Shetty, Galhotra, Veeraraghavan, Subodh Gupta, and Bharti Kher would not exist. The intimate spatial proximity of craft labor can also contextualize Indian painting, as in Mithu Sen’s Bahia Peacock (2006), an exquisitely skilled watercolor cabinet of curiosities into which the artist collaged ready-made embroidered appliqués. This reliance on craft labor is largely absent in the work of artists who produce outside of India; the works by Pors and Rao and Anish Kapoor require precision engineering instead. Grounded information about the production of the works would be helpful to their interpretation. This exhibition more closely reflects the terms in which Indian contemporary art is marketed.
The conditions of collecting frame the smaller exhibition as well. Its title, The Progressive Master, combines two labels attached to the work of Francis Newton Souza (1924–2002). Born in Goa, Souza helped found Bombay’s Progressive Artists Group, an influential, short-lived collective that held a single exhibition, in 1948, before Souza jumped on a ship for London. He eventually found prominence in that city, staying there until 1967, when he moved to New York, where his work sat more uncomfortably. Despite the Progressive Artists Group’s quick dissolution, its reputation was stoked by its members and gallerists across decades, until the late 1990s, when auction houses and galleries began to cultivate a market for the group as “modern masters.” Souza was wholeheartedly embraced in these terms, and his work of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as his career-spanning exploration of Christian imagery and the nude emerged as most desirable for collectors.
The Progressive Master includes an outstanding example of Souza’s mature work, an untitled 1965 painting of the head and shoulders of a man carved in a field of black oil paint. Its bitter, caricature-like subject echoes Souza’s satirical sketches of bourgeois men in Words and Lines (1959), published as he broke through in the London art scene. The black painting, made while Souza was still represented by London’s crucial Gallery One, retains the painter’s odd combination of wit and weight. Other standouts include watercolors made as he forged the Progressive Artists Group, particularly a 1945 self-portrait and the very fine Christ on the Cross (1944). These thoughtful and experimental works contrast with the artist’s more flippant treatments of the human subject, particularly of the female nude. Souza’s frankly erotic drawings and paintings are fetishistic, flirting with a misogyny that runs through his oeuvre. The collection also includes a looser set of works from 1997, near the end of the painter’s life but at the precise moment when demand for his work was building among Indians settled in the United States.
This presentation of the Rajadhyaksha collection amply introduces Souza’s work but provides little information to place it in its broader Indian, British, or American art-historical context. Supplementing the short, celebratory text included in the catalogue, a brochure by the present owners of Delhi’s Dhoomimal Art Gallery intersperses stories of exhibitions held about once a decade from the late 1960s through the 1990s with anecdotes about Souza’s difficult personality. Little light is shed on either production or the challenges of collecting, including the artist’s periods of over- and underproduction and the range in quality of the work that has come onto the market. A heavier curatorial hand might have excluded some of the exhibited works that do reflect the artist’s unevenness. Instead, Pagano builds series driven by subjects (such as the nude, Christianity, etc.), grouping stronger and weaker works. At times the strategy pays off, as in the presentation of the 1944 crucifixion alongside later, less carefully executed examples, a sequence that both highlights the painter’s preoccupation with the Christ image and demonstrates how the collectors built their holdings.
The Pizzuti Collection space and conditions for showing this work are excellent overall. Unfortunately, two glaring errors marred the installation: one was a misattribution of the year of Mithu Sen’s Bahia Peacock (1986 for 2006) and the other a badly keystoned, overlit, and too quiet exhibition of Sudarshan Shetty’s usually gorgeous 2013 video Waiting for Others to Arrive.
Overall, Visions from India represents a rare view of excellent works by modern and contemporary Indian artists as well as a window into two private collections that exemplify the kind of interest that has been shown by American collectors in Indian modern and contemporary art.
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Michigan State University