Natvar Bhavsar: Resonance of Color
Feb 10 – Mar 18, 2012
Contessa Gallery is proud to present a one-man exhibition by the acclaimed Indian-born artist Natvar Bhavsar, one of the most influential members of the New York school of colorists and a prominent color-field artist. Having worked in the United States for over forty years, he is recognized today by critics and art historians alike as having extended the language of abstract painting. Bhavsar's paintings appear in more than 800 private and public collections around the world.
At the sensory core of Natvar Bhavsar's paintings are the pure essence of color, the sensual tactility of texture and the impact of size. His method involves sifting pure powdered pigments onto a clear acrylic ground, using air currents and layering of complex forms and turbid micropatterns. His paintings are not representational or figurative, but rather intuitive and associative.
In a landmark essay on Bhavsar titled "The Purpose of Looking", Carter Ratcliff writes: "With the idealist foundations of all the varieties of modernism growing weaker and weaker with each new season, art of value must find its footing outside impersonally defined movements. Bhavsar's position is solid and entirely his own. From it he creates works that - uniquely and extraordinarily - join color to materiality, distance to closeness, the metaphorical to the immediate; they invite an uninterrupted flow of perception, inflecting it so subtly and focusing it so intensely that looking finally becomes its own purpose."
Sensual encounter with unadorned materials in Bhavsar's works becomes the vehicle to the highest philosophical insight. As a result of a long and intensive exploration of the effects of pure color and his refined use of powdered pigments, inspired by artistic and social traditions of his Indian heritage, he has created one of the most individualistic and distinctive bodies of work to be associated with the style of Color Field painting.
Natvar Bhavsar was born in the Western state of Gujarat, India in 1934 and his interest in art began at a very young age. As a child, he was exposed to the vibrant colors of his grandparents' fabric-printing business, the medium of rangoli (traditional decorative folk art of India) and the Indian Holi festival (a religious spring festival, also known as Festival of Colors). These influences made a major impact on the way Bhavsar understood color, and served as inspiration for it being at the forefront of his work. He started his fine arts studies at the C.N. School of Art in Ahmedabad and attained prominence as an artist in India by age 19, working primarily in the Cubist style. However, in 1962, Bhavsar left India to continue studying art in the United States at the University of Pennsylvania. At that time, his work became abstract and in 1963, he had his first American sold out show.
He received the prestigious John D. Rockefeller Grant in 1965, and later, the Guggenheim Fellowship. These early accomplishments fully established his presence on the New York art scene in the mid-60s, the time when artists such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Ray Parker, Jules Olitski, Ken Noland and Morris Louis were prominent in American art culture. The artist recalls that abstract expressionism, color-field paintings and formalist art were the reigning movements. Process art and minimalism were about to emerge, and no doubt had an influence on Bhavsar. However, while it is important to locate his place in the world of New York schools of the late 20th century, it is also imperative to remember his Gujarati roots and the emphasis on balance, spirituality and Indian traditions in his formative years. Bhavsar's paintings belong to both India and New York - he straddles both, transcends both and brings together the essence of East and West.
This peculiar characteristic of Bhavsar's work is perhaps best discussed in the article Lili Wei wrote in "Art in America", "Indian-born, New York-based Natvar Bhavsar makes velvet-napped, sumptuously colored canvases and works on paper that suggest Color Field painting filtered through impressions of Indian life, its art and cosmic imagery. The rich, rainbow hues of Indian paintings and sculpture from such sites as Ajanta and Ellora; the resplendent tints and sheens of textiles such as women's saris; the luxuriant flowers and jewel-like pigments used in the rituals of his homeland - all have found their way into these color-saturated paintings."
When discussing Natvar Bhavsar's paintings, one should evaluate the significance of color, method, texture and size of his works. In the words of the artist himself, "I have felt from a very early stage of my art education that the excitement generated by color was by itself for me, uplifting. There was something very direct and very biological about it, which engulfed me in a way. Over the last 40 years, I have used color in a continuous way yet I have never felt saturated by it."
However, unlike the color field paintings of the 60s, Bhavsar's works have a very different feeling. One can call it a tactile quality, and it manifests in a fusion of the "opticality" of color with the tactility of pure pigment. His paintings have been compared to a cosmos. With its infinite variety of textures and tints of color, heaps of grains, fuzzy soft focused stars, brilliant red and glowing, aubergine galaxies, encounters with velvet and ebony. There is a lot to see: tornadoes of space, starscapes and solar maps. The huge paintings overwhelm with their sheer physical impact. Bhavsar's work draws the viewer in. After a few minutes you can almost feel rich textiles, constellations and cloud-like patterns emerging from the mesmerizing layers of thick color. Indeed, many of his paintings that include indistinct, hovering, swirling forms can capture something of the implied vastness of a universal view. In their soft-edged imagery, they resemble recent photographs of deep space, in which galaxies appear as fuzzy, soft-focused forms. Linking his abstract art with the visible cosmos is in some ways appropriate, although the artist himself denies the presence of any objective form or intention in his works. He, however, accepts parallels and intimations of nature that arise. He has titled some works after natural phenomena and also spoken of the evident potential association of his technique with processes found in nature, with the sprinkled pigment reminiscent of drifting sand or falling snow.
For Bhavsar, the process of painting itself is of the utmost significance and his method of working with dry granules of pigment, though it may appear random, is in fact very deliberate and precise. Bhavsar has invented a new and unconventional expressive means, namely the dispersion of pure pigment on canvas. His first step in painting is to soak the entire surface with acrylic or acryloids. As he describes it, "The color comes in a very fine powder. The dry pigment is absorbed into a very, very soaked surface and binds itself to it. I apply it by brushing it over a very fine screen. So in this way, instead of painting directly on the canvas, I brush the color on from above through the screen. The height varies each time. To make what looks like a very large stroke, I raise the screen level which spreads the color much more."
What emerges , are canvasses that are deeply pictorial in nature. These monumental paintings, some of them more than thirty feet in length, are lyrical, abstract attempts to reveal both the microcosmic and the macrocosmic universe. The art critic Christopher Andrae wrote: "It is expressionism which arises in a strange paradox somewhere between extremely felt sensuousness and extremely felt contemplation. A visual equivalent, perhaps, of eloquent silence."
His paintings are enormous, towering and often almost alarming. Like looking into the heart of the fires that forged universes: bubbling, roiling and commanding. Bhavsar is known for paintings that "swallow" entire walls. Throughout his career he has continually and simultaneously made paintings in an impressive range of sizes, from huge expanses to works only about ten inches square. The purpose of his art is to absorb viewers, just as great music does listeners, to carry them away, to seep them up, and even to strike them dumb. The sensation is primarily physical, apprehended through the body, like the heat of the sun. Bhavsar conceives of the experience of art as essentially biological and likens the color to "sounds that reverberate with rhythm."
Natvar Bhavsar's works can be found in such distinguished collections as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Boston Museum of Fine Art, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, The Library of Congress, and the Australian National Gallery. His works are also in corporate collections of the American Express Company, AT & T, Chase Manhattan Bank, and NBC.