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TWO 1963 oil on canvas works — one called Intent and the other Untitled — were the first works by Laxman Shreshtha that the late Jehangir Nicholson bought. In these figurative works, painted soon after the artist graduated from the Sir JJ School of Art in 1962, one can see Shreshtha striving to break free from the bounds of figuration. For students and lovers of art, the two works are of great interest, showing, as they do, how one of India’s most significant abstract artists gradually evolved the concerns and grammar of his mature works.
These paintings, along with 28 others are part of a retrospective of the artist’s works called “Laxman Shreshtha: The Infinite Project”. The exhibition, which is at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), is the first of two phases. The second phase, which begins in October, will showcase the remaining 20 works that are part of the collector’s trove.
“All collectors have their favourites and Shreshtha was Nicholson’s favourite artist by far,” says Kamini Sawhney, curator of the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF). The collector had bought 41 works of Shreshtha, with at least a few representatives from each decade, and walking through the exhibition, one can see how Shreshtha’s work matured over the years. The last work that Nicholson bought was in 2001, a few months before he died. Nine more works — created by Shreshtha post-2000 — were purchased by the JNAF, in order to maintain the collection as a record of the artist’s entire oeuvre. “This is probably the most number of works by a single Indian artist in any collection and we thought a retrospective would be a good way to bring the significance of Shreshtha’s work into focus,”
Even as the show will serve many as an introduction to an important artist’s works, it also stands as testimony to Shreshtha’s long — and sometimes tempestuous relationship — with his most avid collector. Nicholson met Shreshtha in 1968, at Kali Pundole’s studio, and the two had hit it off almost immediately. The artist, who had begun his abstractionist forays while still a student at the Sir JJ School of Art, had recently returned from Paris where he had studied at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts, the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere and at Atelier 17, founded by English painter and printmaker, SW Hayter.
The artist and the collector would soon become close friends, exploring the art scene, with Shreshtha often guiding Nicholson in his quest for art. The latter, in turn, became the artist’s staunchest supporter. Even when the two began drifting apart over time, Nicholson continued acquiring Shreshtha’s work as before.
“The Infinite Project” has been curated by Ranjit Hoskote, who has been a friend and neighbour of the artist for the last 25 years. It was Hoskote’s idea to split the retrospective into two phases. He says, “The first phase begins with 1963, and goes on to 1988. Then in the late ’80s there were significant shifts in his works, which will be shown in the second phase.” The exhibition begins with what Hoskote describes as the “context wall”, with a display of works by some of India’s most distinguished abstractionists such as VS Gaitonde, SH Raza, Prabhakar Kolte and Mehlli Gobhai, and images of the works of pioneering abstract artists such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsk, Mark Rothko and Piet Mondrian. This, the curator explains, is important as a means of enabling visitors to understand Shreshtha’s work in the context of global and Indian abstractionism. The title of the show is a reference to the fact that abstraction is an “infinite project,” says Hoskote. “Abstraction is a continuous process, because there’s no single way of abstracting from optical reality.” In the truest sense, an abstractionist’s work is never done.
“Laxman Shreshtha: The Infinite Project”at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. Part I closes on October 3, and Part II is from October 14 to December 31