On October 24, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York will open a retrospective exhibition dedicated to the work of Vasudev Gaitonde. The show, curated by Sandhini Poddar, is an extraordinary recognition of the abstract painter’s achievement in the spiritual home of post-Word War II abstraction, New York City. No comparable honour has previously been accorded to a modern Indian artist.

The exhibition is a sign of how the West’s perspective on twentieth century modernism is slowly changing. Not long ago, Gaitonde’s canvases would have been dismissed by the curators of the Guggenheim as merely derivative of American abstraction. Now, a more subtle understanding is developing, which acknowledges not just the inspiration non-Western artists drew from the West, but also what they contributed to modernism as active interpreters rather than passive imitators.

The buzz around the upcoming show grew dramatically louder last December, when a work by Gaitonde sold for a record Rs 23.7 crore ($3.8 million) at an auction conducted in Mumbai by Christie’s. The artist, who died in 2001, did not benefit from the sale, but perhaps it would have made little difference to him anyway. The romantic view of artists is of people so wrapped up in their thoughts and creations that they have little time for worldly matters. I’ve never known an artist who fit that description, (and I’ve known hundreds of artists), but Gaitonde, whom I never met, came close to it, if the accounts of his friends are to be believed.

History of art trade

The year after Gaitonde died was an inflection point in the history of India’s art trade. Tyeb Mehta’s triptych Celebration sold for Rs 1.5 crore rupees ($3,00,000 at the prevailing rate), the highest amount then paid for a modern Indian work of art, triggering a six-year price escalation of a kind never witnessed before. The celebration ended with the collapse of Lehmann Brothers on September 15, 2008. On that very day, an auction of works by the British artist Damien Hirst in London, titled Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, fetched $198 million. Nomen est omen. Hirst’s title seemed to bracket off an unrepeatable era of excess during which the global 1% hoovered up luxury goods unconstrained by ideological doubt.

The western art market, supported by its own established collector base as well as new buyers from Russia, China, and the Middle East, proved resilient after the 2008 debacle, but the shallower Indian market suffered a long recession. Some read December 2013’s Gaitonde sale as signalling the end of hard times. The data of the sale as a whole, however, revealed a mixed picture characterised by a widening split between modern and contemporary art. The division was reinforced by subsequent auctions, including a recent round in September and October this year.

The market for Indian art is broadly divided into three categories: antiquarian, modern, and contemporary. Since the antiquities trade is over-regulated and therefore underdeveloped, most Indians think of the market as consisting only of modern and contemporary work. The moderns, again broadly defined, are artists born before Independence. They include deceased painters like M.F. Husain, Jehangir Sabavala, Tyeb Mehta, and Bhupen Khakhar, but also living ones like S. H. Raza, Arpita Singh, and Jogen Chowdhury. What sets apart artists placed in the contemporary slot from the moderns is not only their relative youth, but also the diversity of mediums they employ. Exhibiting Husains and Souzas involves carting a few paintings to the venue and hanging them on walls, while a show by young contemporaries might involve video, performance, and the use of perishable materials in site-specific installations.

Last month, Christie’s auctioned a chunk of the collection of Arani and Shumita Bose, who were partners in the now-defunct gallery Bose Pacia, which pioneered the display of Indian art in New York in the 1990s. The most significant contemporary work in the sale was Bharti Kher’s I’ve Seen an Elephant Fly, a fibreglass sculpture covered with tiny bindis, the artist’s signature medium. Kher’s work, with a price estimate of between $5,00,000 to $7,00,000, failed to take wing, although a larger, differently designed iteration of the elephant and bindi combination had set a record of $1.78 million back in 2006. As if to underline the gulf between contemporary and modern, F. N. Souza’s The Butcher, fetched $1.65 million at the sale, and an untitled Gaitonde canvas went for $9,65,000.

Triple whammy

Auction houses have quickly adjusted to the new reality. Saffronart, the leading home-grown auctioneer, which a decade ago led a move toward selling contemporary work, stuck with modern masters in its successful auction early last month, which comfortably topped the high estimate of Rs 35 crore. On the other hand, galleries that concentrate on young contemporaries, and are unable or unwilling to shift focus, face a triple whammy. They show work that is expensive to transport, and complicated to display; they find it hard to set prices and sell in a conservative market; and the growing importance of art fairs entails a whole new set of expenses.

The net result is that a number of galleries now focus on foreign collectors rather than Indians. The best example of this trend is Calcutta’s Experimenter, run by Priyanka and Prateek Raja, which has turned the misfortune of being located in a visual arts backwater to its advantage, building a international roster of artists, and a reputation far greater than its small permanent space would have permitted in the pre-art fair era.

Both the market for modern masters and the one for young contemporaries, then, are increasingly defined by foreign judgments: the stamp of esteemed institutions such as the Guggenheim and Tate Modern in the first case, and the pocketbooks of adventurous collectors in the other.