Following on its ground-breaking 2016 exhibition of Nasreen Mohamedi, the Met Breuer presented “Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee” from June 4 to September 29, 2019. The Progressive Artists’ Group has been explored in exhibitions at the New York Asia Society (2018) and the Queens Museum (2015), and contemporary Indian artists appear with increasing frequency in galleries, but artists who emerged as major figures between 1970 and 1990 have rarely been seen here, so the Mohamedi and Mukherjee exhibitions were particularly welcome. (Hopefully, they will be followed by exhibitions of canonical figures such as Gulammohammed Sheikh and Bhupen Khakhar.)
“Phenomenal Nature” included examples from all three phases of Mukherjee’s career-the textile sculptures, the ceramics, and the late bronzes-but it is the textile works that stake her claim to a place in the art history. In them, she invented a radically new vocabulary for sculpture.
As Met curator Shanay Jhaveri explains in the catalogue, Mukherjee’s early textile pieces were mural-scale wall hangings made for venues such as the Mahatma Gandhi Institute in Mauritius and the Air India office in Washington, D.C. Photographs reveal that these works of the mid-1970s consisted of woven elements resembling columns, capitals, and arched portals, positioned in front of flat panels. In the exhibition, this period was represented by Waterfall (1975), a row of columns dissolving into loosely hanging strands.
Mukherjee’s artistic breakthrough occurred around 1977. It can be perceived clearly in her 1979 sculpture Nag Devta. Here, hanging strands and panels are replaced by tensile curves. The curves of Nag Devta are anticipated by folded and draped elements in Mukherjee’s earlier murals, but they now become the dominant element of her work. She seems at this moment to adopt a technical approach resembling coil basketry. While a loom-woven fabric is inevitably a flat panel, Mukherjee’s knotted fabrics curve simultaneously in multiple dimensions. The result is a genuine revolution in sculptural form.
In both the Indian and the European Renaissance traditions, carved and modeled sculpture depends on what the American realist Thomas Hart Benton called “the bump and the hollow.” It is the rhythmic alternation of these antithetical elements that transforms the artistically inert contours of head, limbs, and torso into an arrangement of aesthetically satisfying forms. Abandoning the bump and the hollow, Mukherjee works primarily with sections of a saddle shape: a surface that curves simultaneously in two different directions. Each section of her textile sculptures emerges from another without ever forming a continuous surface, transforming solid form into a series of curving planes. As noted in the catalogue, her work has some affinity with the fabric sculptures of Euro-American artists like Magdalena Abakanowicz and Robert Morris, but Mukherjee develops her vocabulary of folds into a sculptural language of unique complexity. She further accentuates the structure of her work by dying different elements with different colors, although the low light levels at the Met (no doubt dictated by the exigencies of conservation) made the colors hard to see.
However, the effect of Mukherjee’s technical innovations stands to be nullified by a series of unfortunate compositional decisions. Most of her woven sculptures are grossly anthropomorphic, subordinating the free play of forms to a repetitive anatomical schema. The periodic eruption of phallic and vulvar shapes, identified in the catalogue with the ancient motifs of lingam and yoni, seems intended to impart a sense of sexual vitality, and titles like Yogini and Yakshi recall the tradition of erotic temple sculpture. In contrast to their stone counterparts, however, Mukherjee’s sculptures remain visually inert. The problem is that almost all of them are bilaterally symmetrical, so that the energy of each curved plane is echoed and cancelled by its mirror image. The sculptures develop dynamically along a vertical axis but--unlike most Indian temple sculpture--are static along the horizontal.
What their symmetry recalls, rather, is the frontality of classic West African sculpture, of the type that influenced Picasso, Brancusi and other European sculptors at the beginning of the twentieth century. The resemblance seems to have played a subterranean role in the reception as well as the creation of Mukherjee’s work. The catalogue quotes an Indian critic as saying that the sculptures “remind one of totems,” and Mukherjee herself gave the title Totems to a series of ceramic works. Inevitably, the idea of the totem summons up the ideology of Euro-American primitivism, with its imperialist vocabulary of “pre-logical thought,” “fetishism,” geometry as a defense against a “dread of nature,” etc. There is little precedent for this in Indian art, and it is depressing to see the work of a contemporary Indian artist yield such a reading.
Mukherjee’s ceramics of the 1990s typically consist of spherical bases or cylindrical cores resembling lingams, which she swathed in labial sheets of clay. The dynamism absent from her textile sculptures blossoms in the ceramics, but its effect is diminished by the continuing reliance on conventional anatomy, as in Night Bloom VI, where a torso, arms and breasts protrude between the folds. The sexual iconography is fashionably provocative and gender-bending, but, in contrast to the textile sculptures, Mukherjee’s ceramics do not explore the qualities of the medium as such. (In contrast, Rummana Hussain’s 1993 Fragments, currently on view in the India Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, derive enormous expressive power from the shapes, volumes and materials of simple terracotta vessels that have been surgically divided.)
In her late bronzes, such as Palmscape VII, Mukherjee adopts a radically different procedure, creating assemblages from found pieces of plants and casting them via the lost-wax method. The phallic core of the ceramics returns here, sometimes sheathed in the spathes of palm trees (as in Palmscape VII), sometimes extending into spiky tendrils (as in Palmscape III). One of the catalogue authors compares Mukherjee’s textile sculptures to H.R. Giger’s designs for the monster in the 1979 film Alien; the resemblance is even more striking in the late bronze works, which often seem poised to attack the viewer. However, expressive power has been achieved at the expense of form. Their combination of forms feels arbitrary. The smooth and rugose elements of Palmscape VII, for instance, seem to have been joined at random: one does not emerge from the other, nor do they alternate in a regular pattern.