Tyeb Mehta sells for $1.3 million

Throughout his career, Tyeb (1925-2009), sought to express the struggles of man as a member of contemporary society

Tyeb Mehta sells for $1.3 million

The South Asian Modern + Contemporary sale on September 12 at Christies Asian Art Week, New York – featured a rare masterpiece by Tyeb Mehta (1925–2009), titled 'Diagonal XV' (estimated: $1,500,000-2,000,000). It sold for $1,392,500.Tyeb Mehta, India's most distinguished Bohra Muslim was an artist of conviction and integrity.

Throughout his career, Tyeb Mehta sought to express the struggles of man as a member of contemporary society. From his early trussed bulls – that underline the plight of the helpless animal in Bombay's slaughterhouses, to his falling figures hurtling toward a metaphorical abyss and trapped rickshaw pullers who cannot escape the vehicles that have become extensions of themselves – Mehta's paintings reflect his own disillusionment with the world around him. His unique formal treatment of the canvas only serves to heighten the impact of these images.

In the late 1960s, following a year-long stay in New York on a Rockefeller III Fund Fellowship in 1968, he abandoned the expressionistic style and thickly applied paint that had characterised his work in the preceding years. Instead, moved by minimalism and the work of artists like Barnett Newman that he encountered in America, he worked to achieve pristine planes of saturated colour, on which not a single brush stroke could be discerned. Apart from their precise construction and conscious two-dimensionality - the most striking element of these new paintings was the diagonal line Mehta often included in their composition which aggressively bisected the painted surface.

Tyeb described his diagonal series as an exercise in geometry and human figuration. "I was trying to work out a way to define space…to activate a canvas. If I divided it horizontally and vertically, I merely created a preponderance of smaller squares or rectangles. But if I cut the canvas with a diagonal, I immediately created a certain dislocation. I was able to distribute and divide a figure within the two created triangles and automatically disjoint and fragment it. Yet the diagonal maintained an almost centrifugal unity…in fact became a pictorial element in itself."

Paintings from the diagonal series were the first of Mehta's mature style, with an emphasis on form over content, and mark a watershed in his long engagement with figuration. The artist explained, "Painters who are overly concerned with content, burn themselves out. My experience is now transformed into colour and form. When you transpose your ideas into colours and forms, you are making a suggestion. A suggestion is stronger than a direct message."

In a 1976, review of Mehta's new diagonal series, India's abstract guru, critic and fellow artist Jagdish Swaminathan said, "What strikes one immediately in these works, is the strictly formal geometrical arrangement, or invocation of space-colour, and the line embodying the figure pulled apart like a doll and put together again – laid flat, defining, so to speak, the iconographic area. What appears at first glance as a formal exercise in relating line to colour on a flat plane suddenly becomes very disturbing. While one was immediately moved by the angst portrayed in his former works, one could immediately reach out and share the unfathomable terror, the unrelieved sadness of man alienated, the present works enter the realm of the mystical; terror, pathos, and sorrow are objective entities, masks, implacable deities, setting up a grotesque tableau."

"You enter a world of magic and are enthralled by the elemental dance of the emotions, which freeze and cease to speak the moment you seek to identify yourself with them. What Tyeb has achieved is a double transformation. In his former phase, he has isolated and insulated man's loneliness, protecting it, so to speak, from the profane. Now he has set it up in its own right, impervious to human touch, yet threatening man's complaisance, he added.

In his present work, the focus is on two fragmented figures at the center beautifully balanced by the diagonal. Their bodies, portrayed as disjointed components, are further divided by a green and orange lightning-bolt diagonal that runs from the upper right to the lower left. The blank expression etched on the single face they share reflects the despondency that results from their daily struggles.

Uma Nair

Uma Nair

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