Curated by the local Visual Arts Center, a series of twenty-five watercolors and drawings on paper by Sajal Sarkar was exhibited at the Free Public Library of the city of Summit in New Jersey from June 1 to July 31, 2019. Four years ago, the artist permanently moved to the United States from India. The series, “Perilous Home”, a body of work done in the last three years, represents a noticeable turning point from the work Sarkar made before his move—paintings, prints and sculptures dominated by realistically rendered nude human bodies. The departure of this series is striking, due not simply to the absence of human figures, but also to radical shifts in formal and conceptual decisions. Sarkar has never been a committed abstract painter, yet these images flirt with abstraction just enough to introduce a fresh dimension to the articulation of form, subject, and meaning. It is necessary to take a quick detour through certain crucial junctures in the history of modernist abstract art before returning to Sarkar’s work to clarify my point.
Of all the debates and discussions provoked by modern art through the last century, some of the most passionately contentious ones have involved the subject of abstraction. It is the question of appreciation of an image that does not faithfully mirror the visible –or more precisely, material—reality, the question of its worth as art, which has made the gulf between the “art world” and the “public” the widest.[i] Material reality, however, was always the starting point in the experiments with abstraction in prewar European painting. Pioneers like Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich, all of them highly trained in the academic means of emulating nature, dismantled material reality through a gradual process to achieve the pictorial integrity they sought. In other words, one’s understanding of their simultaneous awareness and rejection of material reality is indispensable to one’s appreciation of their work. Such noted modernist critics as Roger Fry and Clive Bell used terms like “Significant Form” and “Ultimate Reality” to enthusiastically endorse that early formal investigation, generating a confident rhetoric that bestowed a transcendental status to what was in essence deeply personal, quasi-spiritual visions of white male artists. Eurocentric utopias held by modernist abstract artists thus came to be seen as universally relevant.[ii]
In the wake of World War II, when the hub of modern Western art shifted from Paris to New York, a group of middle-aged –mostly male– American painters drew on that European legacy, but pursued a different avenue to forge their own, American brand of abstraction. Theorized by influential critics (of whom Clement Greenberg was the most prominent), the New York School artists painted large canvases. Rather than starting from descriptive material reality beyond painting, they considered the materials and processes of painting itself –paint, canvas, the act of painting– as their point of departure.[iii] The European rhetoric of Significant Form and Ultimate Reality was thus replaced by one that underscored the physicality and essence of painting as a medium.[iv]
Despite their differences, there were two significant overlaps between prewar European and postwar American abstract art, both of which were asserted more forcefully in the latter discourse: first, divorce from extraneous subject and content, with the adamant claim of detachment from material life; second, assertion of a universality that transcended specificities of cultural and other contexts. In fact, sidestepping his own racial and gender identities, the (male) New York School artist identified himself as both “American” and the universal subject; and the exploration of material and process by this subject became the sole content of his art.[v] Such decisive endorsement of an iconoclastic, self-referential “non-figurative” art –often described by the populist label “formalism” and empowered by the universalist identity of the artist– established the international status of Abstract Expressionism in the postwar years.
And yet, paradoxically, the discarded material reality implied by the term “non-figurative” and such synonyms as “non-objective”, “non-representational” and so on, has always lingered in the shadows of all abstract art. For if “figuration” signifies not just human or animal figures, but any reference to anything material and visible, then any notion of “pure” abstraction turns out to be a myth, as the most non-figurative gesture on a surface is always capable of invoking visible and material experience, even if remotely. All intelligent abstract painters have occasionally produced images that betray their awareness of this myth of abstraction. Malevich’s iconic White on White (1918), a sort of culmination of what he called his “Suprematist” experiments, is a case in point. Passionately essentializing all references to material reality into colored rectangles interacting on white canvas, Malevich ultimately made this uniquely simplified image, which, with a remarkable twist, refers back to material reality: it can also be read as a tilted blank canvas mounted on a white wall. It brings Malevich’s investigation of abstraction to a full circle, unequivocally demonstrating that far from being mutually exclusive (as the populist debate in modern art between the “art insiders” and the “public” might suggest), pictorial realism and abstraction are always in a symbiosis, each embedded in the other. Needless to say, the duality of visual perception in Malevich’s painting also demands duality of subject, now that the drastically simplified geometric shapes acquire a concrete identity (tilted canvas on a wall). Much of the abstraction of the postwar years, particularly those by the American Minimalists (Frank Stella’s early images of pin stripes, among others) were informed by the awareness of this underlying paradox in the discourse of abstraction, where iconoclasm was rhetorical, at best.
Following the Pop movement’s challenge to the elite rhetoric of the New York School, this myth was further exposed –most intensely in the American scene, but also in western Europe — to intellectual inquiry, when the very premise of abstract art was critically dissected between the 1970s and the 1990s—the era of postmodernism. The many fashionable gestures and ephemeral trends of this period aside, one of its insightful contributions to the critique of modernism (to the chagrin of many ill-educated artists to date) was that projection of the abstract artist’s subjectivity with any claim of universal validity was no longer tenable in a heterogeneous world. This meant, first of all, that pursuit of abstraction would be relevant if mediated by self-reflexivity, such as through irony; second, in case of any committment to some sort of spiritual vision, it would have to be offered as the exclusive product of the artist’s own earnestness, with no prospect of being perceived as a symbol of a collective utopia; and finally, despite its apparent isolation from material reality or perceivable subject and content, the image as well as its maker would be unambiguously recognized as products of a historically specific value system.
The fact is, albeit marginalized during the above period of scrutiny, abstract art was never extinct. The revisionist tide, in fact, opened the doors to a fresh surge of an immense variety of experimental abstract art –often labeled New Abstraction– around the turn of the century by freeing it from its previous mandates, including the prerogative of white male artists.[vi] This explosion of heterogeneity has indeed been a liberating scenario for artists from diverse backgrounds. Spearheaded by artists of color and of various sexualities and genders, a largely self-conscious abstract art has emerged over the last couple of decades where incisive political and social subjects are playfully concealed beneath energetic explorations of material and process on immense canvases (a nod to the New York School), demonstrating the artists’ sharp awareness of history. Mark Bradford, Julie Mehretu, Chris Ofili and Nari Ward are among those who stand out on this front, all of whom exploit abstraction’s apparent detachment from material reality to encode it with signs from that same reality.[vii]
Sajal Sarkar’s work, however, has no apparent kinship with the playful iconoclasm of any of these artists. Unlike them, Sarkar was not trained to be aware of the grandeur and influence of Abstract Expressionism, as the New York abstraction never had much impact on modern Indian art when Sarkar went to art school in India. Thus, contrasting the commanding presence of their paintings, Sarkar’s watercolors and drawings on paper are far more intimate. They seem to blend with their surroundings due to the delicate treatment of material and their modest scale. If, in fact, one considers the dominance of realistic human bodies in Sarkar’s past work, then the production of this series seems more akin to the European strategy of essentializing material reality, rather than the American mode of self-referential abstraction; the motifs in these images appear radical simplifications of the realistic imagery in the artist’s production from a few years ago. Yet where “Perilous Home” falls in line with the works of the artists I cite above is its persistent reference to subjects and concepts that would be ceremoniously dismissed as extraneous in the traditional discourses of abstract art. The potent ideas buttressing Sarkar’s images take advantage of the myth of abstraction to engage in vibrant dialogs with the elements of pictorial construction, material and process. I find this a compelling reason to include Sarkar in the company of these artists.
Perilous Home, watercolor on paper, 2016.
Most of them monochromatic, the exhibits can be loosely grouped into two types, with a handful bordering on both. Quasi-abstract compositions present discernable referential subjects in one group, while design dominates in the other, privileging surface over representation of space. Both, however, were made between 2016 and 2019 (after his move to America), in no strict sequence, which is why my observations do not claim any chronological significance in the production of these images.
Untitled, watercolor, gouache & mica pigment on paper, 2017.
smaller circle is placed at the center, tightly framed by several successive bluish-gray rectangles. Amorphous shapes emerge from the circle, the largest of which wants to escape the rectangular barrier. Tiny luminous dots populate the two of the innermost rectangles. What does one see here? Is it primarily a formal experiment with geometric shapes, punctuated by a few organic ones? Is it a drastic close-up of some machine with a hole, emitting smoke? Or is this a framed picture-within-a-picture of a dying planet taking its last breath, with stars as the only witnesses of its demise? Perhaps the cold, metallic surface of the frames invites one to understand the circular shape as a dark hole, to imagine peeking through it into a frightening unknown? Ambiguity prevails.
Adda is arguably a crucial component of Bengali cultural discourse. It loosely translates as a kind of informal chit-chat. A thek is a recognized venue for adda..this site is a virtualthek. One part of the site has Sunanda K Sanyal’s personal stuff: essays, images, and blog..