Event Review: Natvar Bhavsar and the Poetics of Color

Painting by Natvar Bhavsar
Jared and I braved the torrential, unending downpour on Saturday to journey to the Asian Art Museum for a special event:  a documentary about and a question and answer session with the artist Natvar Bhavsar.  Bhavsar is an abstract artist (often associated with the color field school, although he finds that classification a bit too simplistic) who works by dropping layers of pure pigment through sieves and screens onto canvas.  He came to the US from India in 1962.  Bhavsar finished his graduate degree in art at the University of Pennsylvania and set up his studio in SoHo, just as the New York art scene was taking off.

Bhavsar quickly found himself in a bit of a netherworld- although he lived and worked in New York and was influenced by major western abstract artists, art critics didn't know how to categorize him.  His work was excluded from shows of American artists because he didn't hold a US passport.  It took a long time for him to be recognized and for his art to be shown in major galleries (including MOMA, the Guggenheim, and the Library of Congress, among other places).  

Painting by Natvar Bhavsar
Despite his training and association with Western artists, art critics in the documentary identify the essence of Bhavsar's work as "Indian"- equating "Indian" with his striking use of color.  As one critic commented, his identity was formed by the time he left India in his twenties.  And Bhavsar's sense of color was closely tied to his childhood experiences in a village in India.  Bhavsar's use of color is striking- he uses up to 120 layers of pigment in creating his paintings.  He describes his creative process as a "dance" that involves his entire body and various instruments while dropping pigment on gigantic canvases covered with acrylic glue.  His work is driven by the day, the light, the mood, and his sense of creative urgency, which Bhavsar describes as an "invitation to something unknown."  Color, to Bhavsar, is "something magical," and working with it brings him great joy.

The documentary film maker, Sundaram Tagore, is a rather colorful character himself.  A descendant of the poet Rabindranath Tagore, he finished the documentary over the course of six years.  As an art historian and collector himself, I was surprised that he used a Bollywood movie model for his documentary.  Every 10 to 15 minutes he interspersed visual collages in the midst of interviews (instead of dance numbers).  It didn't seem all that Bollywood to me, but the visual interludes were the best part of the documentary.  I did notice in his footage of various art openings, however, that Tagore would quickly pan a roomful of people, but then only focus in on young attractive women admiring Bhavsar's art, especially if they were wearing spaghetti straps.