Field of Color: Tantra Drawings From India
The Drawing Center
“Marvelously anonymous. Like an antidote. Or a balm…”
—The Drawing Center’s Drawing Papers, "number 50, Field of Color: Tantra Drawings From India", 2004
Originating as illustrations for 17th century tantric texts, tantra drawings have taken on autonomy through their dissemination for use in spiritual practice. In the center of each paper there is a form that has been handed down for generations, used over and over again to aid in meditation until it is worn, some accident befalls it, or a new practitioner arrives. Then a new version is made and the form starts a new life.
Stains from water or other random marks offset the symmetry and provide a context and therefore depth for each transmitted form. In some, the stamps and signature of an official business bleed through from the back and reveal the thinness that separates their respective worlds. In others, small little nicks in the paper reveal color from a paper that has been attached below. When the swiftness of these tiny cuts ruffles the paper just so, they create an awareness of the surface’s dimension.
The papers they are painted on are sometimes pasted together in the most delicate and unassuming way, using, apparently, what was available to put together a surface to hold the painted form. Painted in gouache, tempera, or watercolor in mostly broad, flat areas, these forms sit in the middle of delicate papers that bear the traces of both the lives they lead and those they have passed through.
Each one is unusual in its own way. A narrow band of plain paper frames two blue squares; in each, lines of pink paint run parallel to the edge, vertical in one and horizontal in the other. Beginning fairly opaquely, the pink lines slowly allow the blue to penetrate as the paint in the brush diminishes. Over the whole this ebb and flow of the material resembles raw silk, yet the lines are perfectly straight. The deep breathing of the practitioner who made these pieces resonates when the focus needed to achieve that perfection stills the mind. When those lines are being made, there is nothing in the world but their making. They offer an antidote to the anxiety of a fragmented world.
In “Anonymous Untitled” (1990), from Bikaner, two pink forms sit side by side, the right one a somewhat elongated version of the left. In each, a circular form has been removed from its edge, and a thin black line that spirals counterclockwise is in the center, roughly the same size as the circular void pieces. The forms seem to correspond to the distance between the two eyes and the two minds, left and right, so separate and different from one another, although they are the same.
Yet to begin to describe these pieces is to move further from what they essentially are, since what they effect seems much closer to the truth they embody than how they appear. They could almost slip into the tradition of abstraction that began in the 20th century, and certainly that coincidence at this point in time facilitates their reception, but they are much older than the history of abstraction, and that raises questions about how they can be received. Framing them and putting them on the wall to be viewed in the context of the Western tradition of art invites difficulties, which is not to say they shouldn’t be seen.
In the Drawing Room on the end wall, a painted pattern was carried over from the Tuttle exhibition across the street; it seemingly ties the two exhibitions together. Whereas Tuttle’s energetic marks thrive against this active ground, which enhances the marks’ tendency to enliven, the tantra drawings are rendered invisible against the pattern, since the activity thwarts the drawings’ essential drive to quietude.
It is only after apprehending the terms that each individual work or body of work sets for itself that we can begin to make critical judgments. The tantra drawings are particularly poignant for our time. Insofar as they stand outside of this tradition, they reveal the limits of viewing as separate from Being.
The noninitiate can penetrate only so far into the world with which the initiate is intimate. We will not easily enter the world from which these works have come. In looking at them I feel myself walking barefoot in the snow.
JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.