There is something vaguely creepy about Max Streicher’s giant floating dolls. Like the weird naked babies in a Chintan Upadhyay painting, they are, in spite of their benign subject matter, unsettling. Yet, for Abhay Maskara, owner of Warehouse on 3rd Pasta, the cavernous art space in Mumbai currently hosting these works, the dolls are, in a word, lovely. “I’m just here to show good art,” he says, looking up lovingly at Silenus, a 26ft-long bobbing giant, silently being pumped with industrial blowers.
In the grand scheme of things, seeing the works of Streicher, a Canadian sculptor with impressive credentials, wouldn’t provide reason to pause. Significant, however, was that the works of Streicher were being seen in Mumbai, and that, more importantly, he wasn’t the only one.
Maskara poses with Streicher’s works (Photo by: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint)s
In the last few years, Pablo Picasso, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Kiki Smith, Jonathan Meese, Matthias Mansen, Zhang Xiaogang and several other artists from China, America, and Europe have found their way on to the walls of galleries in New Delhi and Mumbai. To some extent, international art has always had a place in India, usually in the form of token one-offs that galleries ticked off as part of a once-a-year line-up. The artists, when they bothered coming down at all, tended to be obscure, often selected for their “India” connection, a woolly qualifier that somehow almost always involved a period painting the “colours” of the subcontinent.
The change, then, propelled in part by the number of gallerists coming off stints in New York, London, and Berlin, has been in the approach. When smartly curated and integrated as a vital part of a gallery’s roster, international exhibitions can be thought-provoking, helping initiate cross-cultural dialogue, and expose local audiences and artists to genre-bending forms of art.
The key factor in this process has been scaling up the quality, diversity and pedigree of artists being brought over. Picasso, Freud and Bacon all came courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi, which, since 2006, has been swapping art with London’s Grosvenor Gallery. Earlier this year, Sotheby’s complemented its exhibit of South Asian contemporary and modern works with a small but key collection of noted Chinese artists such as Zhang, Yan Pei-Ming, and Wang Guangyi. Starting in August, two galleries in Mumbai, The Viewing Room and Chatterjee and Lal, through tie-ups with galleries in London and New York, will bring emerging British talent Natasha Kissell and Natasha Law, as well as highly regarded American artists Dona Nelson and Glen Fogel. And, the list continues. Smaller galleries unable to bankroll high-profile names have taken chances on lesser known talent, seemingly unfazed by nearly 15% custom duties, poor commercial prospects and a wary market as yet unwilling to embrace names not ending with Gupta, Dodiya, Kallat, or Komu.
the Smith exhibit at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke
“I don’t know if the understanding or the vision or the knowledge is there yet,” says Ranjana Steinruecke, co-owner of Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, “but it should come.” Steinruecke has every reason to be hopeful. Since opening her airy, loft-like gallery two years ago, Steinruecke and her mother Usha Mirchandani have regularly supplemented paint-and-canvas shows with unusual performances and talks.
While Smith, an acclaimed German artist displayed ink and watercolour works, Japan-born Meese, a highly controversial performance artist, complemented his vividly drawn oils with a somewhat unsettling performance at the National Center for the Performing Arts, where he pranced around the stage giving the Nazi salute in his underwear. “I think a lot of people missed the point,” Steinruecke muses. “Art is about pushing those limits, and opening up areas of discomfort… It’s important to show how much more the West has done. It’s vital for a meaningful dialogue.”
A painting by Meese
Despite the controversy, Steinruecke, who is currently exhibiting works by German woodcutter Mansen, says that non-Indian art tends to sell almost as well as Indian art. Yet, not everyone who attended Meese’s performance and his more muted recital at the opening, thought this signalled changing times. On his blog Collectors Mind, Maskara wrote: “Did anyone stop to wonder how come an artist...regarded as a front-runner contemporary artist from Germany, still manages to sell large format, significant works on canvas for a fraction of the price that some of our stars command?”
Maskara could relate. Priced between Rs50,000 and Rs8 lakh, Streicher’s floating figures, and black-and-white photographs, were selling for less than the watercolour and ink drawings of a first-time solo artist showing elsewhere in the city. “Are we catering to the market, or trying to create a new market?” he rues. Despite varying degrees of interest from local collectors, one of his first buyers was a French couple who walked in off the street, thrilled to find a recognizable name selling for a comparative snip.
Silenus, the bobbing giant, was bought by artist, curator and avid collector Bose Krishnamachari. “If you look at Subodh Gupta you can, for the same price, buy a work from an artist like Jeff Koons,” he notes drily. Having amassed a small collection by Damien Hirst, Kiki Smith, Gary Hume, and Edward Rucha, Krishnamachari is keen to start his own museum, possibly in Kochi or, if funds allow, Mumbai.
However, with that two or three years away, artists, and the people who promote them, remain cautious. “I’m not expecting much,” says Mansen, a lanky and affable German whose panels of ashen birch trees and rain-splashed puddles can be found hanging in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Indeed, two weeks into the show, only a couple of pieces, priced between €4,500 (Rs2.95 lakh) and €28,000, had been sold, though given the slowing pace of the summer season, this was somewhat expected. “In an audience of 100, if six people think it’s fabulous, then it’s okay,” Steinruecke says, shrugging it off.
Xiaoming Zhang, the Sotheby’s Chinese contemporary specialist, who accompanied the travelling exhibit, similarly confessed, “The reaction was encouraging and exciting for us, but it’s a slow process getting real interest from Indian collectors.”
For others, however, the process of assimilating the Indian buyer is an expected bump in the road to a more mature market. “The country has to build up its own culture, especially with contemporary art, before they can start to look outside,” says Peter Nagy, owner of Nature Morte in New Delhi. Nagy, who hosts the occasional non-Indian show, says they are a poor commercial prospect, but that “it’s a natural way the art market develops”. As evidence, he points to New York, where non-American art wasn’t really accepted until the 1970s.
Until that happens, international gallerists lured by the promise of a thriving market, also appear to be hedging their bets. “If I would bring only American artists, it would be a little more problematic,” says Thomas Erben, owner of Thomas Erben Gallery in New York, which will occupy Chatterjee and Lal in Mumbai in August. “But, if I bring in a mixture, I feel more confident.”