When the 84-year-old Tyeb Mehta died last July of chronic heart disease in Mumbai, none other than the India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, said it was "a major loss for the art world." Indeed, Mehta, long allied with the Mumbai-based Progressive Artists Group, the first generation of artists to emerge after the country’s independence, in 1947, epitomized the fantastic strides Indian art has made in the past decade on the world stage.
A quiet man who lived simply, according to friends and associates, Mehta initially trained as a cinematographer, winning renown for his 1970 black-and-white film Koodal, which he shot in a Mumbai slaughterhouse. It was his painting, however, with its startling imagery combining Hindu themes and firsthand memories of the sectarian violence that consumed the country during partition, that made him a kind of national hero, albeit of a very different sort from his close colleague and fellow Progressive Artists Group founder, the jet-setting, Ferrari-driving M. F. Husain.
"If you were to take a poll among the young and upcoming artists here and ask them who their role model is," says Arun Vadehra, of the Vadehra Gallery, who also works as a consultant for Christie’s in New Delhi, "I think 95 percent would come out with Tyeb’s name, because of his attitudes, because of his sincerity and because of his approach to art. He never became a victim of the market."
Mehta’s early style was strongly influenced by Francis Bacon, whose paintings he became acquainted with during the five years he spent in London, starting in 1959. Expressionistic and characterized by heavy impasto, it underwent a sea change after 1968, when the artist spent a year in New York on a Rockefeller Foundation grant and was exposed to Minimalism.
"My encounter with Minimalist art was a revelation," Mehta said in an interview for the 2005 book Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges. "When I saw my first original [Barnett Newman], for example, I had such an incredible emotional response to it.... I became interested in using pure color. Normally brush marks suggest areas of directions. I wanted to avoid all this to bring elements down to such a minimal level that the image alone would be sufficient to speak for itself."
The result was a distinctive style that relies on rich Hindu imagery — such as his freeze-frame depictions of Mahishasura, a mighty half-man, half-buffalo demon who was slain by the warrior goddess Durga — with a simplified look. Typically, a single figure or intertwined duo is set dramatically against flat planes of color.
Over a career spanning almost six decades, Mehta created fewer than 500 paintings, says Vadehra, less than 10 a year. The figure would undoubtedly be higher if not for the artist’s exactitude and penchant for destroying his own works.
Popular taste took time to catch up with Mehta’s style. "When we were showing Tyeb, starting in the 1960s and through the early ’80s, my parents weren’t selling much of his work. The paintings were under a thousand rupees [about $500] in the ’60s," says the Mumbai dealer Shireen Gandhy, of Gallery Chemould, which was founded in 1963 by Shireen’s father, Kekoo, considered the Leo Castelli of India. One young collector, the now-celebrated art patron Kanwaldeep Sahney, paid the gallery 800 rupees in eight installments for a work.
That has changed. Mehta’s market evolution is exemplified in the route traveled by his 1987 painting Drummer: In December 2001 at Saffronart in Mumbai, it sold for $36,000; when it returned to auction at Christie’s New York in March 2004, it made $101,575. "Tyeb is defined as being at the vanguard of creating those critical moments as an artist in the auction world," says Minal Vazirani, cofounder and director of Saffronart. "The paintings have an incredible universality that really resonates, especially among people of Indian origin."
If late in coming, Mehta’s popularity has proved durable. As the speculative bubble in Indian modern and contemporary art popped last fall, with the collapse of economies worldwide, his primary-market prices have continued to hover around $1 million, according to Vadehra.
This September, barely three months after the artist’s death, two of his paintings went on the block in South Asian contemporary and modern sales in New York: And Behind Me Desolation, 1976 (est. $250-350,000), brought $350,500 at Sotheby’s, while at Christie’s a nonresident Indian couple, buying for the first time at auction, paid $1,280,900 for the 1994 Mahishasura (est. $600-800,000). The latter painting last sold for $107,550 (est. $40-60,000) at the same house in a September 2002 sale that also included Mehta’s 1995 triptych Celebration, which fetched a then-record $317,500 from the Japanese collector and Glenbarra museum founder Masanori Fukuoka. If Celebration were to come on the market today, says Vadehra, it would go for $5 million.
So far, Mehta has exceeded the million-dollar mark 11 times at auction. This streak began in September 2005 at Christie’s New York when a 1997 Mahishasura (est. $600-800,000) sold for a record-smashing $1,584,000.
According to Hugo Weihe, an international specialist at Christie’s, Mehta said his greatest wish was to be shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he first experienced Barnett Newman. That has yet to happen. And although the London-based art-market research firm ArtTactic recently cited Mehta as an artist to watch and his paintings have been in group exhibitions at major U.S. museums, his posthumous market is still evolving. The big question is whether his work can find a following among Western modern- and contemporary-art buyers, some of whom find his content, at least at first glance, sentimental. But, says Weihe, "in my view, there’s no doubt he’s one of India’s greatest artists, even though his subject matter sometimes is not so easy, even for the average Indian, because he is showing suffering.""Tyeb Mehta" originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's November 2009 Table of Contents.