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Natvar Bhavsar: Sublimity’s Avatar

CHAMUNDAA, 2010, 72x112. Exhibition Mus of the Art, Deland, FL

By SIBA KUMAR DAS, February 2020 

Natvar Bhavsar saw a new horizon when, as an art student, he came to the United States in 1962. His horizon opened again in 1965 when a John D. Rockefeller III Fund grant enabled him to move from Philadelphia to New York. There he launched his participation in the Color Field Painting movement, to which he brought an intuitive approach to color rooted in his Indian culture and childhood experiences. Bhavsar normally paints on a large scale and builds up his surfaces with layers and layers of dry pigment, which he applies with different sieves in lieu of paintbrushes. Using a manual process akin to dance, he achieves a state of contemplative ecstasy from where his painting emerges. 

Over time Bhavsar gradually transcended Color Field Painting to make a distinctive contribution to the American artistic sublime. The present is a time when the sublime’s protean possibilities seem relevant again. As the Anthropocene Epoch’s problems multiply, the sublime needs to be reinvented, so art could be a strong ecological force. 

During his early New York years, Bhavsar was drawn to the innovations of the likes of Barnett Newman, Jules Olitski, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still. To the artistic ideas he gained thereby he brought to bear an ancient Indian aesthetic going back to The Rigveda, India’s earliest religious poetry, which saw the universe as itself being an interconnected artistic reality. In a new book on modern art, Simon Morley says that “what we most value in our encounters with works of art is their potential as transformational experiences.” It is exactly such transformation that Bhavsar liberates in us. You think of the Indian intuition that the aesthetic experience, as art historian Ananda Coomarasawmy said, is like “a flash of blinding light of transmundane origin.” 

In American Visions, that great history of American art, Robert Hughes sees in Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings the first stirrings of an authentic American modernism. He singles out her 1917 painting Light Coming on the Plains III for its evocation of an American sublime. The Guggenheim Museum’s 2009 exhibition The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989 highlighted O’Keeffe’s work as manifesting “a constant evolution towards synthesizing Asian and American forms and ideas.” The 1917 painting was a part of this evolution. But even more significantly, the exhibit tells us that modern and contemporary American art, on a large scale, found in Asian art and thought stimulus for new forms of artistic expression.   

Natvar Bhavsar, Studio Home NYC. Left: UNTITLED 1980 + CTR J SOONDAREE 2018. Top: UNTITLED 2018 + DHYAANA III 2005 + RT KALA-RAA 1969 (detail)

The Guggenheim show celebrated Bhavsar's contribution to American art and included a work of his in the art it spotlighted. In a 1998 monograph on Bhavsar, Irving Sandler said, “[Bhavsar’s] goal in painting is to release the energies that colors have locked in them, producing a continuum of energies so charged as to seem to expand beyond the picture limits.” Writing in 2006, Carter Ratcliff saw in Bhavsar a contributor to a "specifically American Sublime, which uses color and gesture to invoke a sense of unbounded space and light."  

You see the effect Bhavsar creates through “Delwara II”, the painting the Guggenheim displayed in its Third Mind exhibition. You see it again in his untitled, predominantly turquoise blue painting on paper of 2018, and his large painting “Chamundaa 2010,” which featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Art, DeLand, Florida. The installation photograph showing multiple paintings hanging in the artist’s studio-home, inclusive of a 2018 painting, “Soondaree,” the vertical painting in the middle, depicts the effect through another form of resonance. In essence, you see Bhavsar praising the universe’s epic grandeur through the sublimity of his colors. His unique painterly method—the application of dry pigment through an enormous number of layers—creates in us a mysterious astonishment that opens up a new sensibility towards that very grandeur. 

Natvar Bhavsar, Untitled, 2017, 44x36

In 2016 Grey Art Gallery and the Hall Art Foundation organized an exhibition Landscape after Ruskin: Redefining the Sublime to alert the world, in the grip of the Anthropocene, to the ongoing unfolding of a calamitous sublime. Reflection on the implications tells us we need to revisit the 2009 Guggenheim show’s core message. Indeed, a recent book, The Crisis of Global Modernity by Duke University historian Prasenjit Duara, suggests that to create a new global commons we need to look for ideas in Asia’s older philosophies. From the ensuing ferment, to which Bhavsar’s art would surely be a contribution, a new aesthetic of the sublime will likely emerge, as happened before.  

Back in 1983, Bridget Riley thought that the potential of abstract color painting, with its highlighting of color interplay, had barely been touched. She thought that by 2020 such painting will have significantly enlarged both art’s vocabulary and our perception of the world.  We are in 2020 and, in the contemporary art world, Natvar Bhavsar is still opening new horizons. WM

Siba Kumar Das

Siba Kumar Das is a former United Nations official who writes about art. He served the U.N. Development Program in New York and several developing countries. He now lives in the U.S., splitting his time between New York City and upstate New York. He has published articles on artists living in the Upper Delaware Valley, and is presently focusing on art more globally. Recent articles have appeared in dArt International, Arte Fuse, and Artdaily.com. 

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