A Biographical Note:
Kanha Babu Goel was born in 1930 in the small town of Deeg in Bharatpur (Rajasthan). Born to a family of grain merchants, Goel struggled in a metropolitan city like Delhi in the 50s to carve out a career in English journalism. His ardour, his deep involvement with books and intellectual pursuits of his time liberated him from his provincial background. The 1950s saw the world of art come to life in the capital and Goel chose to make a career in art journalism. He began to review exhibitions held at art galleries in Delhi that were not too many at the time. As the art world became more vibrant, Goel became a full time frontline art critic. As an art critic, his endeavor was to pull art writing out of clichés and give it a philosophical turn.
Goel began his journalistic career with Thought, an English weekly in 1952. A year later, he started writing art reviews for Thought. In 1958, Goel joined Indian Express as an art critic and continued till 1963. During this time, apart from Indian Express, he also wrote on art for the Times of India, Shankar’s Weekly, Commerce and Design.
In 1963, he joined Link and Patriot and became an in-charge of art columns of Link and magazine editor of Patriot. He wrote regularly for Sunday Magazine, a column on art called Complementarities. After his retirement from Link-Patriot in 1989, Goel wrote long articles on Art for Economic Times till 1995.
In his career as an art critic spanning over fifty years, Goel wrote dozens of catalogue introductions to the works of various artists, several hundred art reviews and a large number of review articles.
Goel’s critical enterprise which has about it a formal precision and a philosophical framework has been highly acclaimed and appreciated by discerning artists, art lovers and critics.
In The Economic Times, October 11, 1992, Uma Nair writes, “K.B. Goel is a philosophical critic……..He gives a distinctive image to a composition, while most critics tend to superimpose aesthetic ideologies on one another which can lead to confusion Goel’s precision prevents his criticism from degenerating into a guessing game.”
Geeta Kapur’s comment on Goel as an art critic in the magazine, Take (Vol IV, Issue 15, 2014) says that Goel’s writing needs to be reevaluated and given its proper place. She regrets that for whatever reason it was not taken seriously at the time of writing and that it was a great loss.
She further writes, “Studying his collected articles, I realize how much K B Goel dared to complicate issues around contemporary art production compared to most others, including Geeta Kapur, who fancied her ‘proper’ art education as critic…. Today when there is a systematic attempt to write the history of modern and contemporary Indian art, K B Goel needs another level of reckoning and especially as he wrote at the time when practice and theory were coming to be at par in contemporary art.”
“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 art historians, among them the formidable Rosalind Krauss.”
Geeta Kapur’s evaluation is that Goel was, comparatively speaking, “far better read in philosophical and aesthetic regimes available in mid 20th century art history as also in contemporary art discourse.”
Goel wrote extensively on M F Husain, F N Souza and J Swaminathan. But according to Geeta, 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.
Commenting on Goel’s writing on Swaminathan Geeta says, “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 approximately brought structural and semiotic reading to this preference. In the second phase (1965) Swami developed an abstract color geometry, which Goel considered to be in consonance with the numinous image in Tantric occult. And then Goel offered ecstatic formulations on Swami’s third phase (1968) where the artist presented an ephemeral ‘iconography’ of mountain and bird in a non-perspectival space. He wrote extensively about Swami’s use of color; the ‘presentness’ of the image and the perceptual illusion he achieved in a non-illusionistic preposition 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. Goel saw this as the artist’s return to the darkness of the case with extended implications in terms of pigment saturation and gesture; sign and signature; language and authorship.”
Going a little further with K B Goel’s critical practice, Geeta says “He was the first critic to theorize 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 relationship between the subject spectator and the art object. Installation art in India was in itself a political move. Goel wrote only about Vivan Sundaram’s installations. Indeed seeing it as political, Goel also showed same understanding that the subject presented and the occupied space of the installation shaped mutuality of presence that could then be theorized as an encounter at once riskier, more theoretical and dysfunctional in an avante - garde sense of the term.”
To sum up Geeta says “what a fresh perspective might do for K B Goel is to recognize 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 touring 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’ valve in art. He was trying at best to search for a method whereby established forms of philosophy come to be unraveled in the practice of art.” 
Being a scholar and a recluse, Goel was never inclined to seek any kind of patronage, publicity or limelight. He never indulged in self-promoting tactics and therefore he got only very few prestigious assignments like the following:
1986 - Goel was a Jury member of the Kalidas Samman, highest national award in visual arts instituted by Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal.
1987 - was invited to participate in seminars at Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal.
1990 - Visited Paris on the initiative of Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India, during the Festival of India in France.
1991 - was appointed Indian Commissioner to the Havana Biennale.
Some important catalogues:
1. Group show including the works of J Swaminathan, M F Husain, Ramkumar, Jeram Patel, Himmat Shah, Manjit Bawa, Paramjit Singh, Arpita Singh & Bal Chhabra, 1991 Centre for Contemporary Art, Delhi.
2. J Swaminathan, 1988, Dhoomimal Art Gallery, Delhi.
3. Krishen Khanna, 1992, Espace Gallery, Delhi.
4. J Swaminathan, Vadehra Art Gallaery, 1993.
5. Krishen Khanna, Vadehra Art Gallaery & Chemould, Mumbai.
6. Vivan Sundaram, Riverscape, 1995.
7. Vivan Sundaram, Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, 1995.
8. Jeram Patel, Espace Gallery, 1996, Delhi.
9. Catalogue introduction to 4th All India Exhibition, 1997.
Notes See TAKE on Art, Vol IV, Issue 15, 2014 for complete article.