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KB Goel: The Critic in his Labyrinth

Born to a family of grain merchants in the year 1930 in Deeg, Rajasthan, Kanha Babu Goel lifted himself from his provincial background during his journalistic career in Delhi. In the 1950s, the world of art came to life in the capital and he began to review art exhibitions. In time, as galleries flourished, he became a well-respected art critic whose writing had a philosophical undertone. After working for Indian Express and writing for The Times of India and Shankar’s Weekly, he joined Link magazine and Patriot (then a daily newspaper) till 1989. Even after his retirement, he wrote for Economic Times till 1995. He wrote extensively on MF Husain, FN Souza and J Swaminathan.

For this Tribute on KB Goel’s first death anniversary, we reproduce Geeta Kapur’s article published in 2014.

From the 1960s through the 90s, Link and Patriot carried the voice of a maverick art critic, KB Goel. This was a voice not heard with any real attention, both because it was featured in media linked to the Communist Party (supposedly addressing only comrades) and because it spoke in an irksome idiom that was polemical and even tendentious in the Marxist sense of that term.

It was the sovereign voice of Richard Bartholomew that set the standards for art writing in the decades from the 1950s to the 80s (Bartholomew died prematurely in 1985); and for all the admiring affection I feel for the elegant poetics nurtured by this marvellous presence (see my long essay in homage to RLB: ‘A Bard’s Puzzle’, An Art Critic: Richard Bartholomew, anthology edited by Rati Batholomew et al., Bart, Delhi, 2012), I believe that the neglect of KB Goel from the art discourse in Delhi has been a loss that we must now repair. (Parenthetically I also want to mention another critic, the late Santo Dutta, to whose Marxist-inclined art writing we should pay heed once we set apace the process of re-evaluating art criticism in the recent past of Delhi/India.)

Studying his collected articles, I realise how much KB Goel dared to complicate the issues around contemporary art production, compared to most others, including Geeta Kapur, who fancied her ‘proper’ art education as critic and who had seen (and read about) some of the best contemporary international art from the 1960s onwards! Today, when there is a systematic attempt to write the history of modern and contemporary Indian (from India across to the American Academy), KB Goel needs another level of reckoning, and especially as he wrote at the very time when practice and theory were coming to be at a par in contemporary art.

Goel wrote very well about MF Husain, despite following the argument against the iconic status of the Progressive Artists’ Group in terms formulated by J. Swaminanthan for the Group 1890. And when, from the 1970s, Souza came and showed in India more frequently, Goel wrote on him with passionate dedication, becoming a close friend of this brilliant and provocative artist. But Goel’s contribution is unique in relation to his Delhi friend and ‘comrade’, Swaminathan, on whom he began writing in the early 1960s, when both artist and critic were relative amateurs. He continued to write on him until and beyond Swami’s death in 1994 and developed his critical apparatus in relation to Swam-inathan’s ‘ideology’, attitude and painting propositions. This should come through even with the few passages I quote in this brief introduction. Such passages can appear naïve if judged for their academic consistency; but, like the rhetoric of the artist himself, the argument is shrewd, contrarian and anti-canonical.

What were the theoretical reference points for Goel, engaged in his own way with philosophy and art theory? Octavio Paz’s presence in Delhi contributed to a sustained poetics combining the surrealist imaginary with a Mexican and Latin American understanding of indigenism and third world politics. But there was still the big bad West to be dealt with in reference to art history and artists’ practice. Far more than the School of Paris, or London, the framework for contemporary criticism was provided by the fierce debates in New York.

Goel was reading about these in the 1960s and 70s, while it all ‘happened’: Clement Greenberg versus the more Marxist-anarchist Harold Rosenberg; Michael Fried versus the Minimalists, some of whom were text-driven and brought forth a generation of formalist (left-leaning and avant-garde) art historians, among them the formidable Rosalind Krauss. (Greenberg’s visit to India in 1967 as ‘ambassador’ for an exhibition of American post-war art from MoMA, New York, galvanised a debate in Indian art but in rather simple terms: the ‘import’ and ‘export’ of styles as between the West and the ‘rest’. Harold Rosenberg’s visit in 1978 at the invitation of Triennale India, convened by Swaminathan, Krishen Khanna and Richard Bartholomew, provided a more generous camaraderie.)

That these parameters were developed by the high profile American critics of the period, Greenberg and Fried, makes Goel’s self-positioning paradoxical, even dubious: Why apply a formalist approach favoured by American critics to contest Indian artists aligned to the School of Paris? In this regard, Goel may have learnt and even tried to mirror, his friend and mentor, Swami-nathan, whose tactics of argument was to get his point across every which way; to offer, simultaneously, a repudiation and valorisation of ideologies that would gain him the status of difference and alterity. Though in no way a rhetorician like Swami, Goel was far better read in philosophical and aesthetic regimes available in mid-20th century art history, as also in contemporary art discourse.

I would like however to go further: a polemic against one school of thought and practice deployed against another, when you are a follower of neither, may seem merely expedient. Yet it is both ironical and permissible. You always have the possibility to free yourself of the contradiction by devising a third method: to gain a complex understanding of art language by trial and error if not by training. And to then position yourself as a critic in some tangential relationship to the canons of the time. It is typical of innovative reflexion by artists and thinkers functioning outside western canons to use and bend, retrieve and invert the rules of the game.

Let us look at Goel’s trajectory vis-a-vis Swaminathan. His ‘primitivist’ paintings in the exhibition of Group 1890 (1963), established Swaminathan’s preference to treat painting as an opaque ‘wall’ rather than a picture-window. Goel, appropriately, brought a structural and semiotic reading to this preference.

In the second phase (1965), Swami developed an abstract colour geometry, which Goel considered to be in consonance with the numinous image in Tantric occult. He saw Swami’s conceptual understanding of the mystic diagram to be much more prescient than the declared neo-Tantrics in the field.

And then Goel offered ecstatic formulations on Swami’s third phase (1968), where the artist presented an ephemeral ‘iconography’ of the mountain and bird in a non-perspectival space. He wrote extensively on Swami’s use of colour; the ‘presentness’ of the image; and the perceptual illusion he achieved in a non-illusionistic proposition that bespoke a relationship between nature and art in the unalienated universe to which the human mind aspires.

But perhaps the critic spoke most eloquently about Swami’s ‘return’, in 1988, to non-representational mark-making on the picture surface. He understood the density of allusions educed by Swami from his actual and romantic engagement with adivasi art in Madhya Pradesh (which found its brief but brilliant exposition in Swami-nathan’s curatorial vision at Roopankar Museum, Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal, in 1982). Goel saw this as the artist’s return to the darkness of the cave with extended implications in terms of pigment saturation and gesture; sign and signature; language and authorship.

KB Goel, ‘Revolt’, New Delhi, 1975:
In this context Swaminathan’s show at the Kunika-Chemould Art Centre in February 1969 was significant: it was a big leap forward from the earlier space-geometry work he showed some two years before… .
Swaminathan’s geometry has connections with very ancient archetypes. One can even quote Greenbergian rhetoric to lend them the prestige of metropolitan art: they were exclusively two-dimensional, optical and in their purity of the optical were resolved ‘all conflicts between nature and art’ and there was the perceptible shift towards art rather than nature.

Or perhaps it was all a result of his long experience of measuring the correct size of mountains… of multiple focal points and the creation of many centres in his compositions. He applied the Chinese wisdom of landscape composition: your centre is always where your sight-line is. So the geometry since his 1969 show became actually diagrams of his own relationship with mountains. These had necessarily an abstract format because these were private images, images that were the result of meditations…

KB Goel, ‘Scaling the Invisible Wall’, Patriot Magazine, New Delhi, 29 March 1970:
In the new work two things strike us immediately. Inside the overlapping mountain-forms Swaminathan creates an arbitrary colour area which both creates a feeling of space (not in the conventional sense of pictorial space…) and has a compositional function…This spatial experience is further defined by a stone-form mass which is seen hanging in the air as if some gravitational force other than the earth’s is keeping it there… . The intensity of our experience before such mystery is disproportionate to our capacity for conscious interpretation. The pyramid-like movement within the mountain forms makes us aware of another principle. We realise that the picture format itself is wholly illogical… .

This is indeed a mental construction… . The indeterminacy of experience is an obstacle and Swaminathan enjoys this game of our trying to scale an invisible wall. His art… presents the… puzzle recently posed by America’s single-colour giant-size canvases covering the whole wall of a gallery; their enormous expanse forced the spectator through colour dynamics alone to feel as though he was inside the picture and yet conscious of the fact that he was outside it. This illusion of aesthetic distance finds a different expression in Swaminathan’s recent work. The peacock painted in re- presentational style reminds the viewer of other modes of seeing which of course are not apprehended with the naked eye but with the mind’s projective subliminal vision.

KB Goel, ‘The Painter in his Labyrinth’, Economic Times, 6 December 1991:
The sublime is not to be found in nature; it is in us. For this very reason the experience of the sublime is the effect of a subjective projection. Nature is used to give us a feeling of a finality of nature; we are encouraged to project our conception of the sublime into nature.
Its presentation cannot be purely symbolic (in the Saussurean sense of the term which implies analogical resemblance between the symbol and what it symbolises). Where the art is overtly symbolic, the content operates in it to the exclusion of form; content indeed renders form inadequate.

Swaminathan’s colour geometry of mountains has a peculiar pictorial grammar. In them, the content becomes form. The mountain is defined by its magnitude—a feeling of largeness which seems incommensurable to the dimensions of an easel painting. The order of largeness is, however, made commensurable with the dimension of a bird that is, anyway, at much higher elevation. The bird, metaphorically speaking, transcends the largeness of the mountain; it appears absolutely large. Thus the content—the idea of mass and quantity—is presented not in terms of Albertian quantities of vision but as a noumenal agency of intuition.
Nature, when transformed into a world as it has been in these recent works of Swaminathan, haunts the visible while holding back the invisible for itself. This makes Swaminathan a romanticist for whom desire for the other was experienced as the desire to be a painter.

In the same article, ‘The Painter in his Labyrinth’, Goel wrote:
A 180-degree shift in sensibility came with the 1988 Dhoomimal Gallery show. With this, it seemed, Swaminathan returned to the point from where he had started. The position between the eye and the hand hardened into a resolve. The visible was received as it arose from the invisible with prayer and surrender.

In the new paintings, the vision does not organise the visible, nor does it bestow meaning upon it constituting it into a sign. The surface of the canvas ceases to be a two-dimensional support system upon which to represent a world, whether abstract or figurative. In the new mode the surface becomes an arena within which to act and from which the creative act and its material world arise. The image in mind yields to the materials in hand. Intention gives way to surprise; the revelation is contained in the act of painting.

The act is transfigurative; it is the birth of a world. In this world the truth of seeing is acknowledged, not the truth of the visible. Seeing with the Swaminathan eyes the other of Swaminathan is born.

Delirious with new focal variations, this other of the imagination may not succeed in entering the world of Swaminathan. Because Swaminathan’s world remains nascent, in a permanent state of gestation, it is like an apparition that never reaches the threshold of reality. It is like nature which appears to each one of us according to the pattern of relationship we have forged with it. The painting invites us to see the transformation of nature into a world—to see for ourselves how painting manifests the event of its appearing and to witness how a painting is born in us and, we, in it.

The desire for a world other than he was born into made him in his youth a Utopian socialist, a trade unionist, a journalist… .But a desire for a self-made world led him to painting. Which, in the long years of struggle, became his other… .

KB Goel, ‘Africa of the Rational Mind,’ J. Swami-nathan, catalogue,1988:
No longer does a purely visual song make sense to Swaminathan; nor is he concerned with fobbing us off with the old symbols in a new language. Earlier the paint soaked in and became part of picture’s life: now the canvas has a life of its own. It is more real than the paint application methods. Similarly Swaminathan’s concept of totality in which parts were all fitted into what is called a composition has gone: now colour implicates not only surface values, texture and tone but the responsive echo of the presence of the other, the ontology of the symbol and its acts.

But the beginning counts; it should, for the great beginnings are always problematic and therefore important: they are never false as under no circumstances are they borrowed. In going back to his pre-tulsi, pre-mountain-and-bird period there lies the peril of being lost since Swaminathan, who will turn 60 this year in June, cannot travel back in time. If Swaminathan fails it is the artist who alone dares fail. He has arrived at a stage where what is important is the mode of arrival and the quality of involvement and not whether what he is doing has future promise, whether he is seen as a success or failure, if over the years you have known the old Swaminathan. The passionate affirmation of his exploring self: the poet who disappears behind his poetry; the possibility of a pure music of vision and the importance of that possibility in the new painterly mode—these define Swaminathan’s current engagement, his beginnings: and in a way they also define the limits of his new painting.

Disentangled, Goel’s critical corpus yields some key concepts that demonstrate a canny engagement with perception and form: He tried to understand the modernist logic of paint, surface, structure and flat support; the sheer opticality and a pristine presentness whereby ‘late’ modernist painting gains its sovereign status. His larger quest was perhaps to understand the terms advanced by some of the major movements of modern art after Cezanne.

Once Goel had brought to the fore mediumistic renderings of colour-saturated picture surface and the perceptual protocols that the viewer must uphold in the act of looking at modernist painting, he gave the painter and his dilemmas an existential and, on that very count, a political perspective.

In the same article, ‘Africa of the Rational Mind’:
The only radical development in Swaminathan now is to deconstruct the text his signature implies: and Swaminathan has done just that—refusing to discover any personal truth in the pattern, the syntax and grammar of the language of the mountains. That is one aspect of the painter’s truth; the other is to reject the apparatus. As Brecht has phrased its tragic implications, the apparatus has features resembling those that identify it with Kafka’s Castle: it controls the creative artist. And such is its hold on the arts that it processes a work to fit its own requirement, and this is to a general habit of judging the work by its suitability for the apparatus without ever judging the apparatus by its suitability for the work.

Swaminathan could see what no other artist of his generation ever attempted to see: how the Castle has become art’s meaning and it has imposed itself as it were incognito.

Swaminathan’s main contribution was that he freed the minds of his contemporaries and encouraged them not to lock themselves into themselves. It was the only way to escape from the solipsist inwardness of the self-identical ego. His simple message: Do not close the doors of your souls because these cannot be closed from inside.

But let me go a little further with KB Goel’s critical practice. He was among the first critics to theorise installation art just as it developed in India in the 1990s. He could move into this new territory with a certain confidence because he had something like a philosophical framework for understanding art through the prism of phenomenology. When the time came, he could test his understanding of installation art as form-in space; and appreciate that the new art practice involved another kind of a relationship (than the one deployed in relation to painting) between the subject-spectator and the art object. Installation art in India was in itself a political move and more so in its early development by artists like Vivan Sundaram, Nalini Malani, Rummana Hussain and Navjot Altaf. (It should be added that from among Indian artists, Goel knew and wrote only about Vivan Sundaram’s installations.) Indeed, seeing it as political, Goel also showed some understanding that the subject-position and the occupied space of the installation staged a mutuality of presence that could then be theorised as an encounter at once riskier, more theatrical and disjunctive in an avant-garde sense of the term.

To Goel’s ‘expanded field’ the canonical ‘schools’ of Indian painting revolted: this included the old war horse, FN Souza; as also Swaminathan, Manjit Bawa and others of that sensibility. In any case Goel retracted somewhat after his friend Swami-nathan’s death in 1994 and after a point went into relative eclipse. What a fresh perspective might do for KB Goel is to recognise that he brought to the understanding of contemporary Indian art a peculiar kind of discomfort which is useful as a marker of change. Indeed, the Indian art scene was changing significantly in the mid-1990s and by now we have several active trajectories of art practice covering the ‘expanded field’.

Returning to the ailing critic, I highlight two things. Goel’s agitated passion in the act of looking; and his attempt at a hermeneutical reworking of the ‘truth’ value in art. He was trying; at best only trying, to search for a method whereby established forms of philosophy come to be unravelled in the practice of art.

I am told that every so often Goel asks his son to pull out from the bookshelf and bring to him a favourite book published in 1993 and soon acquired by this avid reader: The Optical Unconscious by Rosalind Krauss. This is significant. Here Krauss makes detours into the history of twentieth century art and deliberately strays from the canonical account of modernism; she stages a kind of insurgency against the principle of vision and the consciously focussed optics that it emphasised, especially by the time we come to modernist and late modernist painting upheld by ‘masters’ like Greenberg and Fried. This book turns to the unconscious and therefore to obsession, fantasy and unruly production by alternative sets of artists and writers from the 1920s onwards. It anticipates her younger colleague Hal Foster’s book titled, after Andre Breton’s phrase, Compulsive Beauty; and anticipates, as well, her own later book with Yve-Alain Bois, Formless: A User’s Guide, which turns determinedly to the legacy of Georges Bataille, author of Story of the Eye, ‎The Solar Anus and much else. Bataille writes a ‎more visceral, libidinal prose than even Andre Breton who drove the surrealist movement. And I end here, on this note of perplexed query: What makes Goel conclude a lifetime’s reading with something so riddled as the optical unconscious and with Bataille’s ‘base materialism’ when loftier forms of art and theory have lured him through much his life?

In “The Painter in his Labyrinth’, Goel wrote:
The reply to a question like ‘Am I still myself?’ is difficult. But it presumably lies in the recognition of sociality which is at the heart of desiring—the desire for the ‘other’. For, a relationship with the other empties me of myself and calls me into question.
Under the other’s gaze, let me confess, desire does not gratify but feeds with new hungers…

First published: Geeta Kapur, The Critic in His Labyrinth: KB Goel on Swaminathan, TAKE Critic, Vol 4, Issue 15, 2014, TAKE on art.