“Approaching Abstraction,” at the Rubin Museum, tries to put an Eastern phenomenon in a Western box. It doesn’t always work, but there’s much to be learned from the effort. It helps to let go of the Euro-American idea that abstraction is purely a formal phenomenon; in Indian modernism it can also be a rupture in narrative.
The show is the second in a series of three more or less consecutive exhibitions on Indian modernism of the postcolonial period. “The Body Unbound,” which closed in April, focused on the years right after India’s independence, in 1947, and included mainly figurative art.
The current exhibition continues into the 1960s and ’70s, and finds Indian painters gradually and selectively moving away from the figure, both on canvas and, sometimes, in experiments with film, through strings of loosely connected images that are not exactly nonrepresentational but, having been severed from their original contexts, certainly break with traditional Indian art.
Many of these artists began their careers as figurative painters; V. S. Gaitonde, for instance, who gradually reduced the human presence in his works to a set of black stick figures on a horizon (as seen in a loan from the Museum of Modern Art) and ultimately did away with it entirely.
But the overall transition from figuration to abstraction is not presented here as a linear progression of the kind we are familiar with from Western art. The installation, organized by Beth Citron, a curator for the Rubin Museum, can feel choppy. Works hang in 13 clusters of just one or two artists each, on walls painted in a bevy of contrasting colors, under subtitles like “Formalist Abstraction,” “Lyrical Abstraction,” and “Abstracting the Everyday.”
A few of the show’s artists, generally those who have spent significant periods of time outside India, are attached to some major Western movements. Two of them, Zarina Hashmi and Nasreen Mohamedi, are fairly well known Minimalists; it’s not surprising to learn that Ms. Mohamedi studied art in London in the 1950s, and Ms. Hashmi has been living in New York since the late ’70s.
Ms. Mohamedi’s drawings on graph paper work against the grid, with slanted lines of various weights and lengths. Ms. Hashmi’s white-on-white relief prints, threaded with silk cord, aren’t as abstract. But they create a kind of loop in which paper and string become endlessly self-referential. One work looks like an envelope, another like a spool.
Few of the show’s artists seem, at least on the surface, to engage Indian culture or spirituality. One exception might be the paintings of G. R. Santosh and Biren De, both identified as “neo-tantra” by a wall label: luminous, interlocked forms signifying the union of male and female, whether in clusters of embryonic cells or barely abstracted images of coitus.
To judge from this show, Indian modernism looks most “modern” when it takes the form of film, specifically the films made in the late 1960s, when the national Films Division of India and private foundations gave grants to select Indian painters. Three of the artists — M. F. Husain, Akbar Padamsee and Tyeb Mehta — are each represented at the Rubin by a painting and a short film. Generally the films outshine the paintings, though prolific artists like Husain are not well served by a single canvas.
Mr. Padamsee’s 1964 painting “Untitled (Bird in Landscape),” with its deadeningly repetitive use of the palette knife, does not excite. But his animated film “Syzygy” (1968-69), made with the help of a fellowship from an Indian foundation, finds an enlightened middle ground between math and art. As tightly constructed as a proof, it first lays out Mr. Padamsee’s principles of abstraction in a sequence of graphs and charts and then furnishes numerous examples in the form of elegant, Mondrianesque line drawings.
Line has a different function in a painting by Mr. Mehta, part of a late-1960s series in which strong diagonals cut across the canvas and through flattened figures in an explicit reference to Partition. It’s a dynamic, unsettling work, and Mr. Mehta’s film “Koodal” is even better; with its cows headed for slaughter, crowds massing at Gandhi’s funeral, and the gyrations of a self-flagellating dancer, it will leave you off-balance.
M. F. Husain (1915-2011), one of the most celebrated modern Indian artists, has a more lighthearted way with film in “Through the Eyes of a Painter,” which won a Golden Bear Award when it was presented at the Berlin Film Festival in 1968.
It opens with Husain, brush in hand, introducing the film as a set of “unrelated moving visuals juxtaposed to create a total form, a total poetic form, very integrated.” The camera then darts impulsively through the Rajasthani landscape, taking in palatial architecture, river bathers, schoolchildren and curiosities like an open umbrella marooned on a rocky cliff.
The film is a peripatetic experience in a similarly peripatetic show, which could have benefited from some more historical context. As it is, you’ll need to venture into the reading room or consult the timeline on the Rubin’s Web site.
“Radical Terrain,” the third installment in the museum’s series, centers on the post-independence landscape and is due in November. Unlike the first two shows it will include some contemporary artists who are not of Indian descent.
In the meantime this show argues for a comprehensive look at Indian modernism (as opposed to just surveys of Indian contemporary art, which seem to have proliferated along with talk of emerging markets). Such an undertaking might include more film and more history, and a little less Western art jargon.