Gardener of beauty

Blessy Augustine | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on February 10, 2017
Charting the abstract (from left) Mary Weatherford, Komal Shah and Gary Garrels image courtesy komal shah

Charting the abstract: (from left) Mary Weatherford, Komal Shah and Gary Garrels Image courtesy: Komal Shah

Over the past nine years, Komal Shah has built a collection that features some of the most interesting female artists in the world

It was in front of a Vasily Kandinsky painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that Komal Shah fell in love. This was in the early 2000s when she was senior director at Yahoo in Silicon Valley. Till then, Shah, a computer science graduate from Stanford University, had always considered herself an engineer. But, after frequenting museums with her husband Gaurav Garg, a venture capitalist, she felt the stirrings of a new passion. Since 2008, the 47-year-old has built herself a collection of over 100 works mainly consisting of contemporary abstract painting. She is currently a member of the North American acquisitions committee at the Tate Modern in London and at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MoMA). Born and raised in Ahmedabad, Shah has been living in California for the past 25 years and considers it home. Last week, she was in New Delhi for the ninth edition of the India Art Fair, to add to her collection, when BLink caught up with her.

Is there an artist or genre you support more than others?

Even though I began by falling in love with Kandinsky, Mark Rothko and Willem De Kooning, I realised that Abstract Expressionism is a thing of the past and became more interested in seeing where its legacy is headed. Four women abstract painters form the crux of my collection — Amy Sillman, Charline Von Heyl, Jacqueline Humphries and Laura Owens. Once I had this core group, I started looking back to some of the other women artists and what they had been doing. That’s how Lynda Benglis came in. These women have phenomenal techniques and make art sometimes as a response to the male-dominated world, and often as play.

Another group of artists that I am drawn to is black abstract painters. This includes Sam Gilliam, one of the founding members of the Washington Colour School. I connect with his method of staining canvases as it reminds me of the similar technique used to dye clothes in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

Then there is Mark Bradford and several young artists whose works deal with segregation and racism. It also became important to me to collect and support living artists; part of this was the sheer joy of seeing an artist’s work evolve over time.

Is there one work that you enjoy looking at every day?

It’s a work by Mark Bradford titled ‘The Next Hotline’ (2015). It is based on the 1920s riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in which thousands of blacks were massacred. The event was wiped out of history till contemporary historians brought it to light in the past decade. Bradford uses brochures and advertisements, what he calls “merchant papers”, to create layers and then sands them down to reveal unique images. ‘The Next Hotline’ invokes the reaction of witnessing blood on the streets, of things being burnt down.

I wasn’t sure that I could bear to look at it every day and was scared of acquiring it. But Bradford and his gallery, Hauser & Wirth, thought that it was an important piece for me to have. Now, having lived with it, it is one of those paintings I love spending time with.

Do you collect works by Indian artists?

Yes. One of the first works I bought was by Rina Banerjee. It was at a Christie’s auction. Since I was a newbie I was being cautious by not bidding for it, but ended up making my collector friend Dipti Mathur raise her paddle on my behalf and then taking the work from her. Zarina Hashmi is another artist I admire and, three years ago, I discovered Vibha Galhotra at the India Art Fair. They make very different kinds of works, but with each of them the energy that you encounter at first blush only intensifies with time.

Since you came late to collecting, did you feel that you need to make up in some way?

I definitely felt the need to educate myself. I read voraciously and make it a point to visit as many exhibitions and fairs as I can. Art Basel and Frieze, for instance, are two fairs I never miss. My collection is heavily influenced by Mark Godfrey — senior curator for International Art at Tate Modern — and Gary Garrels — senior curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA. Godfrey’s judgement is based on his visceral reaction to a painting, while Garrels’s is more intellectual. Getting the mix of both and having them shape the collection has been wonderful. I would ask them to walk me through museums and fairs, where I would take a lot of pictures, and slowly I began seeing a pattern in what I was drawn to. There is the Fisher Collection at SFMOMA and the Anderson Collection at Stanford that are fabulous. Again, they are very Abstract Expressionism-focused, which is why I love them. I try to understand the process by which they build the collections, the criteria that they used.

Any advice for new collectors?

It’s very important to really look and figure out what it is that you are passionate about. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what books tell you or what the auction market tells you about the artist. It’s more important that you enjoy the work every time you sit down with it.

Blessy Augustine is an art critic based in New Delhi

Published on February 10, 2017
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