Natvar Bhavsar's paintings do not reflect our immediate realities or matters of the physical world, as we know it. And yet, viewing his paintings, despite the lack of representational forms, is an intense visual experience.
I met him on an unusually cold March afternoon in New York City. As I arrived at his studio-cum-apartment in SoHo, the hustle and bustle of the street outside made way for a large, maroon canvas that was hung right at the entrance to his house. A large number of finished and work-in-progress canvases were stacked right across the big one. Bhavsar, dressed in black, greeted me with a dramatic line that I am paraphrasing from memory: "welcome to a different time zone." Indeed, an artist's world is quite different from the goings-on of the outside world, and Bhavsar's is not different, especially because his work has no obvious relation to corporeality. The living room of his residence is full of his paintings, mounted in the manner of an art exhibition: the whites, greens, yellows of these enormous canvases create an atmosphere of stillness. "Silence is so accurate," Mark Rothko, the pioneering 20th-century abstract artist who influenced Bhavsar's own inclination towards non-representational art, once said. The first glimpse of Bhavsar's work reveals just this. But there is more to his paintings than silence.
In Bhavsar's work, what the viewer beholds is a vastness of colour, which is the result of layers and layers of dry pigment " typically close to a hundred " applied over the canvas. It is an unusually laborious process, involving at least ten hours of daily studio work, mostly standing or squatting. At 85, Bhavsar (b 1934), an Indian-born, American artist, continues to be absorbed in his practice with the vigour of a young man. When I met him at his residence, I found him to be much younger than his age " tall, lean, agile, with a penetrating gaze, and long, slender hands that befit a painter. Advancing age is the least of his concerns, when he said that he wanted to live for another thousand years. "It would take thousands of years to surmise that there is nothing more to explore in this path," he said, referring to the (still) unravelling possibilities of his colour-based abstract language.
Installation view of Natvar Bhavsar's paintings
Despite being non-representational, Bhavsar's paintings invoke many indirect visual references such as the unbridled play of colours during Holi, which shaped his sense of aesthetic as a young boy; the dyed fabrics drying up in the sun, which he grew up around; the sheer brilliance of colour in Indian miniature paintings; and the wall paintings of Ajanta, which he visited as a young man. "As a young boy, I had a natural tendency to walk into the wilderness and examine minute events, such as dewdrops, raindrops, the falling of leaves, a rainbow, or incredible small particles floating back and forth through the roof of the house " these kind of things would hold my attention," Bhavsar said, decoding the hidden visual metaphors in his abstract work. There are other non-autobiographical but equally implicit visual references in his work, such as the science of geology, which is about the study of the solid components of Earth; or the galaxies, which comprise billions of stars and dark matter. The luminous forms of colour, painted as if they are floating about on their own in space, point to a strong affinity with the science of astronomy in his work.
His paintings are only restricted by the scale of his canvas, which otherwise establish an aura of infinity, a quality which defines The Universe. It is because of this reason that the very abstract nature of his work, despite his training in realist art, hints at something fundamental about our existence. While one can interpret his art in different ways, it is possible to only talk around it. In his own words, his "art does not require any support, it brings you to enjoy it as it is."
Born into a family of textile hand-printers in Gothava, Gujarat, Bhavsar gravitated towards art at an early stage of his life. He began training in visual art during high school and excelled in a state-level exam in drawing. By 1953, when he was 19 years old, he began teaching drawing at Gujarat's Chanasma High School. At the school, he also took classes in advanced study for drawing teacher's diploma.
If his Indian roots, especially in Gujarat where he was born, sowed the seeds for his early exposure to and engagement with art, his American life, which began in the early 1960s, shaped his vision as a widely regarded artist of abstraction. An important catalyst for his imagination was an exhibition of paintings by Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, both pioneers of line- and colour-based abstract painting in the 20th century, which he viewed in the United States. "They had created magic and I thought there was room for the eternal. That's why I say that I want to paint for 1,000 years, which would be too short to explore the possibilities of creating," he said.
Natvar with wife Janet Bhavsar
Bhavsar was drawn to the quality of the limitless at an early age. As a 19-year-old man, he visited the ancient rock-cut caves of Ajanta and Ellora near Maharashtra's Aurangabad district. According to the historian William Dalrymple, the Ajanta paintings are possibly the finest picture galleries from the ancient world, with many of them representing "nothing less than the birth of Indian painting." It is also a well-known fact that the artistic innovation and grandeur of the caves, their sculptures, murals and paintings have ignited the imagination of many artists in the subcontinent and beyond, and across time periods. Bhavsar was no different. The deep spiritual transcendence of the Ajanta paintings, their stylised forms, imbued with a striking divinity, and their enormous scale had an impact on him. The Ajanta encounter led him to discover, in himself, an early penchant for dabbling with ideas of what he refers to as the unknown. "At that time, I made a lot of pencil drawings and I wish I could bring them back from wherever they are now. But the beauty and power of how a mark can lead you to examine the unknown. That became a fascination very early."
For Bhavsar, the realm of the unknown is intertwined with the scale of his paintings. Prolific output, especially in terms of the monumentality of works, has been a major and early characteristic of his oeuvre " a quality that instantly drew him towards the works of America's abstract expressionists, who are known for their life-size paintings and distinctly spontaneous and powerful use of vast amounts of colour. In India, while studying art at CN School in Ahmedabad, he created an 80-ft rangoli, which took 15 days to complete. While juggling between teaching and taking advanced training in art, Bhavsar created large-scale murals that often drew upon India's religious and mythological texts, and traditional painting. His early workings with realist art also included landscapes, on Kashmir; portraiture; and cubism (the latter being the first influence of western-style modernism on Bhavsar). At the school, where he enrolled in a five-year diploma course in art in 1956, his teacher was Rasiklal Parekh (1910-1982), an important artist from Gujarat who worked with sculptures, paintings and woodcuts. Bhavsar recalls: "Our professor, Rasiklal Parekh, was a genius. People do not recognise him, but his lyricism in line, if he drew¦ He would take us out to draw from nature, and he would take a pencil and scribble, and all of a sudden, you would see magic happening on paper."
Natvar Bhavsar, K-etu, 1973, painting on canvas
In the early 60s, Bhavsar exhibited for the first time, along with many other artists, including the avant-garde abstractionist Jeram Patel, as part of the Progressive Painters of Ahmedabad collective. Despite his early success as a realist-figurative painter in India, Bhavsar was already looking in another direction that would pave the way for a unique colour-based language that he is now synonymous with. In the mid-50s, he viewed paintings by abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, which were displayed at an exhibition by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Ahmedabad. "When these paintings were shown, they had relation to my needs," he said, pointing towards a new artistic trajectory, combining the purity of abstraction and colour, which Rothko was known for, as an important colour-field artist of the 20th century.
During the second half of the 20th century, as a newly independent India was trying to find its feet after the end of the British rule in 1947, many artists travelled to the West. Bhavsar, along with Krishen Khanna, SH Raza, FN Souza, Akbar Padamsee, Ram Kumar, VS Gaitonde, among others, belongs to that generation of artists who developed their respective vocabularies as they encountered major art movements in the West. Bhavsar minces no words while talking about his transition from India to the United States, where he began his journey in 1962, as a student of art and young painter, and eventually became an American citizen in 1996. "When I came to the US, I gave up all that I had learnt in India," he said, referring to his work with representational or realist form of art. It was not only the exposure to contemporary art movements and the burst of creative activity in postwar America that equipped Bhavsar to take a giant leap from his Indian moorings. His migration to the US brought him access to a pool of resources, both financial and in terms of better materials for making art, that he believed was not possible in post-independence India.
Nearly two decades before Bhavsar arrived in the US, the country had already witnessed the rise of what has been known as the "Postwar American Art", where movements, from the 1940s and 50s onwards, such as abstract expressionism, pop art, conceptual art, etc shifted the focus of the art world from Paris to New York. As a student of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania, the young Bhavsar came in close contact with a number of well-known artists whose influence dramatically altered his vocabulary, in the favour of a non-representational style. These included his teacher and the Italian abstract painter Piero Dorazio, the American abstract expressionists Robert Motherwell and Clyfford Still whom he met at university seminars and classes. In Philadelphia, he was also drawn towards an exhibition of paintings by Ray Parker, another important postwar abstractionist who became his friend later, like Rothko. As one of the earliest recipients of the $10,000 John D Rockefeller III Fund grant, along with Gaitonde, Padamsee, Jyoti Bhatt, KG Subramanyan, and other artists from India, Bhavsar had first-hand experiences with these movements as a resident of New York from 1965.
As recently as last year, Aicon Gallery in New York mounted an exhibition of his paintings, under the title Beginnings, which featured his work from the late 60s to the 80s. While the influence of his encounters with different styles of abstract expressionism is visible in these paintings, the exhibition also demonstrated that as a newcomer in the American art scene of the 60s, Bhavsar's style rapidly evolved with the promise of a dedicated practitioner of abstract art. "Most of the works since 1965, they resort to the power of colour as something that wants to say something by itself," he said, while referring to the exhibition. His approach to the subject matter of his paintings is reminiscent of the abstraction expressionists' emphasis on creating art that is deeper than realist and figurative representations: "I find that people are always trying to tell a story in art all the time. And I have taken the story out of it completely, whether social or art history."
While Bhavsar's work has led critics to draw parallels with Rothko's bold use of flat colours or with Pollock's process of dripping paint over the canvas, the artist's grainy colour-scapes stand out for their individual style and unique process of layering pigments. For Bhavsar, Dorazio's coloured strips, patterns and grids, Motherwell's messy picture planes, and Stills' gestural colour-fields served as critical entry points into the evolution of a language that is strictly his own. The Indianness of his abstract works is hard to miss, even though he gave up working in the realist mode as an artist in America. Whether it is the title of his works (such as Hindol, Varsha, Jeth) or the organised spontaneity of his colours, memories of his homeland pervade his work. It could be argued that India's monuments, its diverse topography and its people, and their cultures, are deeply embedded " and stylistically abstracted " into his canvases. He recalled one such memory from Chanasma town, located in Gujarat's Patan district, where he worked as an art teacher. During one of the Navratri festivities, he sat over a tree and watched a one-mile-long queue of devotees in the darkness of night. Holding diyas, or lamps, they danced with each other in a big circle, he reminisced.
If the fluid and cloudy formations of colour in his paintings hint at the dance of garba during Navratri, the seemingly boundless quality of them invoke the rendition of a raga (Sanskrit for colour or passion) in Indian classical music. On canvas, his colours have a life of their own. It is because of this reason that his paintings have an affinity with the raga's melodic and improvisational quality that cannot be bound by the limits of time. It is not surprising when Bhavsar says he relates to music as a way to establish a connection with colour: "In music, the sounds can sway you into an entirely different universe. I find that colour has the same significance. Without trying to use it as a vehicle to document something, colour has a very emotional trait, directing us to enjoy the non-peripheral. In sound, there is no periphery, and similarly, a drop of colour does not have a periphery either, in terms of the visual experience."
Bhavsar began showing his work in the US in 1962, when he had his first show in Philadelphia, while commencing his studies in industrial design and then fine arts. Since then, he has exhibited at a large number of galleries and museums in the US and outside, such as the Guggenheim Museum, New York; Philadelphia Art Museum; Brooklyn Museum; Wichita Art Museum, Kansas; Max Hutchison Gallery in SoHo; and the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Other than Guggenheim Museum and Jewish Museum, his work is part of collections at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and American Express, among other public and private collections.
In comparison, he has received sparing attention in India, where he exhibited at the international Triennale at the Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi, in 1982; followed by a show in Ahmedabad, and at Mumbai's Pundole Art Gallery and Chemould Gallery. During 2017-18, DAG organised a "retrospective of sorts" of his paintings in Mumbai, which was titled Homecoming, as a way to fill the gap in his visibility in India, his place of birth.
Even as Bhavsar awaits a career-long survey of his work at a museum in the US, the artist continues to be driven by the desire to create more art, which, in his own words, does not have a shape. "It is not the shape of anything. It is the experience. I feel that creating art of that nature would be good enough."
For someone who wants to continue to paint for a thousand years, his canvas is no doubt a tool to seek immortality.
All images courtesy of natvarbhavsar.com