In 1978, N Krishna Reddy took his daughter to the circus in New York and got mesmerised by the clowns himself. So much so that over the next two decades, clowns would appear regularly in the work of the Indian-born American printmaker – most notably in The Great Clown series, which is on show in an exhibition in Kolkata.

Reddy, who died last year aged 93, left an indelible mark on printmaking worldwide. He worked at Stanley William Hayter’s iconic Atelier 17 printmaking studio in Paris for over two decades, before moving to New York in 1976. It was at Atelier 17 that he, along with Hayter, discovered the simultaneous colour printing method – arguably Reddy’s biggest contribution to the art world.

The exhibition titled To a New Form at the Experimenter Gallery – the first big show of Reddy’s works in India since his death – features intricate copper and zinc intaglio plates as well the prints Reddy made with them. Works like Seed Pushing, which depicts cracked earth making way for a new beginning, are on view here, as are Maternity and Woman of Sunflower. There is a kind of cause and effect symmetry to the juxtaposition of plates and prints (they are displayed facing each other on opposite walls of the gallery) that builds interest in the intermediate transformative process of intaglio simultaneous colour printing. Also on display are the artist’s drawings – all studies of the human form. Together, they give a glimpse into the printmaker’s process.

The story of simultaneous colour printmaking goes back more than 60 years. Around 1951, when Reddy first came to Atelier 17, printmakers were already collaborating to find alternative, more direct ways of making colour prints. “They found the existing traditional methods of printing colour from multiple plates too mechanical and too indirect to work a print, although perhaps convenient for predictable reproductions,” Reddy wrote in his seminal book on printmaking, Intaglio Simultaneous Color Printmaking: Significance of Materials and Processes.

The artists’ experiments led to new ways to superimpose colours simultaneously on a single intaglio plate – offset, contact and stencil processes. In this atmosphere of trial and invention, Reddy and Hayter discovered a method for simultaneous multi-colour printing by mixing different colours with very specific quantities of linseed oil. The aim was to achieve a different viscosity for each colour, so they wouldn’t mix when applied to the same plate for printing in one go. They called the method simultaneous colour printmaking.

Reddy continued to experiment with the form throughout his career. A striking example of this is his Great Clown Series, represented at Experimenter by multiple prints of the same plate. Each time the plate was reinvented by application of different colours mixed with just the right amount of linseed oil to produce bursts of blue and yellow, yellow and orange, and shades of red. The idea was to depict a circus seen from above, as if by a trapeze artist swinging overhead.

Prints from 'The Great Clown' series.

Written partly as instruction for students and partly as a record of developments in printmaking, Intaglio Simultaneous Color Printmaking offered pertinent insight into Reddy’s artistic process. “New ways of working the plate, besides etching and photo processes, involve conceiving and working on the plate with sculptural methods – carving and engraving it directly with hand and machine tools,” he wrote. “With the new methods of preparing the plate and selectively depositing both intaglio and surface colours simultaneously on the same plate and printing it in one operation, we have achieved a colour print of great graphic quality, with a directness and immediacy never before realised.”

Reddy was feted abroad more than in India (museums from Tate Britain in London to the Museum of Modern Art in New York have Reddy’s work in their permanent collections). But his viscosity colour method made inroads in India and remains one of the leading methods for printmaking in the country more than 50 years after its invention.

“Krishna Reddy is regarded as one of our pioneer printmakers,” said artist Paula Sengupta, author of The Printed Picture: Four Centuries of Indian Printmaking. “Many Indian printmakers learnt with KR at Atelier 17 in Paris. [He] also relentlessly travelled across India, conducting workshops in the viscosity process for Indian printmakers. Through a percolating effect, this has remained the most used method of colour printing in intaglio printmaking in India.”

Sengupta, a practicing printmaker, added that while her technique is different from Reddy’s, there is no getting away from his influential approach to printmaking as a “living process”.

“In printmaking, the process is as important as the product,” Sengupta explained. “Indian printmakers, having essentially adopted a European import in the process, remained greatly absorbed in mastering the medium for the longest time, without really focusing on the artistic or conceptual premises in their work. It was as if their vindication lay in mastering the medium. But KR moves well beyond that in his own work, developing a deeply philosophical school of abstraction in his work, [which] was akin almost to music, often regarded as the most abstract of all art forms. He also encouraged other printmakers to venture beyond the technicalities of the medium and explore its philosophical and metaphoric possibilities. It is for this reason that Reddy and [Somnath] Hore’s work is timeless and remains relevant even today.”

It is no coincidence that Sengupta compared Reddy’s work to music. It was an analogy he drew as well, notably in his notes under the heading A New Form, which he began with the words: “The same way as sound transforms into light (sic) waves through a medium, the visual form if expressed spontaneously in any medium like in words, music, colour, stone, metal, etc., a completely new form results.”

These notes were on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2017 as part of an exhibition titled Workshop and Legacy. On show were works by Reddy, Hayter and renowned artist Zarina Hashmi, who studied intaglio at Atelier 17 from 1964 to 1967.

Reddy’s abstract forms in his sculptures, metal plates and prints form a vivid contrast to his drawings, which are also on display in Kolkata. Detailed studies of the human form that he made from the 1960s to the 1990s bear evidence to his early fine arts training with Nandalal Bose and Ramkinkar Baij – both emphasised the importance of drawing – at Shantiniketan.

Yet among the black and white of the drawings and the burst of colour in the prints, what viewers will likely remember most vividly are Reddy’s copper and zinc plates. The precision of the markings on them. The textures and gentle rising and falling of lines. The sheer range of the work, from almost figurative (as in Woman of Sunflower and Violence and Sorrow) to the abstraction and power of works like Maternity and Seed Pushing.

To a New Form is on view at the Experimenter gallery, Hindustan Road in Kolkata till March 31.

All photos courtesy the Experimenter gallery.

N Krishna Reddy in Paris, c. 1960s. Image courtesy: Experimenter gallery.