New Delhi

View of “Transfigurations: The Sculpture of Mrinalini Mukherjee,” 2015. From left: Van Raja, 1991–94; Netty’s Green, 2000; Untitled, 2000; Palm Scape II, 2013. Photo: Ram Rahman.

View of “Transfigurations: The Sculpture of Mrinalini Mukherjee,” 2015. From left: Van Raja, 1991–94; Netty’s Green, 2000; Untitled, 2000; Palm Scape II, 2013. Photo: Ram Rahman.

Mrinalini Mukherjee

National Gallery of Modern Art | New Delhi

View of “Transfigurations: The Sculpture of Mrinalini Mukherjee,” 2015. From left: Van Raja, 1991–94; Netty’s Green, 2000; Untitled, 2000; Palm Scape II, 2013. Photo: Ram Rahman.

MRINALINI MUKHERJEE’S fiber sculptures are efflorescent in both form and technique, gradually blossoming into their final shapes, some standing more than seven feet tall. And her palette—a spectrum of deep greens, yellows, reds, blues, and purples complementing the material’s natural browns—only adds to the works’ lushness. For more than two decades, beginning in 1969, Mukherjee exclusively worked with fiber, producing the strange and singular oeuvre that was at the heart of her breathtaking retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, where she lived and worked since 1972. Like the work of other pioneers of fiber art, Mukherjee’s resolutely physical, organic, three-dimensional creations broke through the gridded rational order and orthogonal frames of woven textiles and tapestries, pushing the medium beyond pictorial conventions into the realm of sculpture.

Curated by gallerist Peter Nagy, the exhibition spanned more than four decades of Mukherjee’s practice, bringing together ninety-three works in natural fiber (predominantly hemp but also jute and sisal), ceramics, and bronze, the three very different materials she used throughout her career. Forgoing a more traditional chronological or medium-specific approach, Nagy distributed the work through the galleries, rhythmically balancing the verticality of the fiber pieces with the lateral arabesques and earthbound clusters of the bronzes and ceramics, a strategy that strengthened the impact of Mukherjee’s abiding formal and thematic concerns while still allowing for comparisons between the materials. The show opened with a sampling of Mukherjee’s work in each medium: Three large ceramics sat on a low plinth in the middle of the main gallery, while small rooms to the right and left showcased theatrically lit fiber and bronze pieces.

Mukherjee grew up surrounded by art. Born in Bombay in 1949, she was the only child of two artists. Her father, Benode Behari, was a renowned painter and muralist, and a pioneer of the Bengali modernism associated with Nandalal Bose and Abanindranath Tagore; he studied and then taught at Kala Bhavana (the Institute of Fine Arts) at Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan in rural West Bengal, a famous school that encouraged the pursuit of learning in communion with nature, following the philosophy of its founder, Rabindranath Tagore. Mukherjee studied at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda from 1965 to 1972, training in painting, printmaking, and mural making with one of her father’s students, K. G. Subramanyan. An influential artist-pedagogue, Subramanyan firmly rejected the Western modernist hierarchy between art and craft. In India, vernacular and artisanal practices still flourished in what Subramanyan called “the living tradition,” and he urged generations of students to engage with this legacy by adopting its materials and techniques for their own expressive agendas. Mukherjee began experimenting with jute and was encouraged by Subramanyan to adopt natural fiber as her chosen medium once she began working with him in the murals department.

The large, curtain-like macramé piece Water Fall, 1975, the exhibition’s earliest work, gives some indication of Mukherjee’s beginnings. Hanging off a horizontal wooden rod, six plaits of natural rope, each with numerous variously patterned sections, rest atop a knotted backdrop featuring a spectrum of hand-dyed, watery blue-greens. Tangled up on the floor, the frayed ends suggest the churning currents at a cataract’s base. Unlike weaving and knitting, knotting—the principal gesture of Mukherjee’s technique—allows for the creation not just of two-dimensional surfaces but also three-dimensional volumes. Instead of the mechanical repetition of weaving, knotting enables greater complexity, allowing for both intuitive accident and human predetermination.

By 1980, Mukherjee had begun to move away from the wall, abandoning the flat, rectangular format and tethering her creations to simple, curved metal armatures instead of straight wooden rods. Laboriously knotting and twisting hand-dyed rope into undulating sheets of sagging mesh, Mukherjee created both hanging and freestanding organic forms that were undeniably sculptural despite their pitted, porous surfaces. Folded in on themselves to create furrows and recesses, knotted sheets and ruffles were transformed into a profusion of complex forms that, while largely abstract, suggest both the vegetal and the corporeal.

Mukherjee worked intuitively, without preparatory drawings. While her languid, process-driven fiber pieces do resemble post-Minimal explorations of anti-form such as Robert Morris’s felt works or Eva Hesse’s experiments with latex-dipped string and cord, Mukherjee’s art is distinguished by an exuberance that unabashedly celebrates nature’s endless fecund capacity to create and sustain life. Many of her totemic creations are inspired by and named after the local nature spirits and forest deities represented in ancient temple sculpture and venerated in modest roadside shrines. Bulging prominently at its top and bottom, the abstract maroon and red Yogini, 1986, resembles an enlarged, ancient fertility fetish. With their clearly articulated faces, other works, including the majestic Van Raja, 1991–94, triumphantly holding court at the back of the first gallery, and the resplendent Vanshree, 1994, a terse purple figure enshrined in a sweeping golden canopy, are more explicitly anthropomorphic. But while her fiber works are rife with such references, Mukherjee’s interest in the sacred was largely phenomenological. As she explained in 1994, “My anthropomorphic deities owe much to the equation with awe and reverence that a traditional invocatory deity inspires in her spectator. But my mythology is de-conventionalized and personal as indeed are my methods and materials.” The deities evoked are rarely derived from a specific religion such as Hinduism; they are primarily generic divine personifications of forests, flowers, and nature, symbolic of an animist worldview in which divinity and humanity are not separate from nature but emerge from it.

Though the accompanying wall text carefully avoids any such mention, Mukherjee’s work is also strongly feminist and undeniably sexual. Like Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings and the ceramic plates Judy Chicago created for The Dinner Party, 1974–79, the mandorla-shaped Black Devi, 1980, and the more circular Pushp, 1993, and Aranyani, 1996, are overtly vulval, conflating nested floral forms with the folds of female genitalia. Other works quietly critique sexual difference by playfully collapsing it into abstract, gender-ambiguous morphologies. At the heart of the labia of the saffron-yellow Basanti, 1994, hang three flaccid but prominent trunk-like tubes, and Vruksha Nata, 1991–92, consists of a trio of tall, treelike forms whose upright vigor is compromised by unfurling, splitting, and drooping. There is something vaguely menacing about Mukherjee’s iconography of abundance; its proliferating forms seem to embody the threat of unbridled fertility that film scholar Barbara Creed has dubbed the “monstrous-feminine.”

Mukherjee began producing ceramics in the mid-1990s, spurred by a residency at the European Ceramics Work Centre, in ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. The first three works encountered in the show—Earthbloom, 1996, a grotesquely distended blossom in a terra-cotta-red glaze, and Fluorescence I and II, 1996, flat, round plates covered with a profusion of petal-like sheets and stamen-like tubes—indicate her early success at translating into clay her parallel and somewhat paradoxical interest in the distinct volumes and morphologies of flora, on the one hand, and a material-driven investigation of the informe on the other. Scattered throughout the galleries, the other ceramics on display were more timid—perhaps because of the absence of larger-scale pieces, whose fragility made them impossible to exhibit—often displaying simple hemispherical or jar-like bases adorned with flowerlike ruffled strips and nested slabs of clay. In some, however, such as the dusty black Leaf Totem II, 1996, the base grows into a lingam—a cylinder with a rounded top that is a common abstract symbol of Shiva—whose shaft is buried in a tangle of fleshy ridges, subtly compromising its phallic minimalism.

Mukherjee took up another new medium, bronze, in 2003, exclusively using the cire perdue, or lost-wax casting, technique that allowed her to retain the tactility and malleability of fiber and clay and to re-create detailed surface textures in cast metal. Beginning modestly, she worked in series with titles such as “Natural History,” “Cluster,” “Matrix,” and “Outcrop,” creating pieces that feel at once geological and living, resembling unearthed fossils or underwater corals, with accretions of congealed pools, as if molten metal had been poured and hardened immediately. In Forest Flame I–IV, 2010, these units form a set of tall columns that simultaneously resemble towers of petrified leaves and flames.

In her last few years, Mukherjee pushed her mastery of bronze even further to produce extraordinarily complex shapes that defy the lugubrious weight of the metal. Her monumental and occasionally monstrous “Palm Scapes,” 2013–15, a series of dramatically swooping and curling plant forms, capture moments of violent dehiscence, with the occasional spiky stem bursting out of a leafy stalk, as if nature had turned hostile and weaponized itself. A little over five feet tall, the majestic Palm Scape IX, 2015, one of Mukherjee’s last works, consists of a thick, pointy stalk unfurling its layers as it rises up in a strong diagonal. A single leaf unfolds straight down, providing the sculpture with the most delicate point of support, a breathtaking study in aggression and balance.

Highly respected throughout India, Mukherjee is less well-known internationally, though her art undeniably resonates with prevailing currents in global art practice. Her totemic forms presage a trend in figurative sculpture that repurposes archaic iconography and modest materials to create contemporary monsters, as exemplified by the work of Huma Bhabha, Thomas Houseago, David Altmejd, and others. And, as growing numbers of artists adopt materials such as fiber and ceramics that were once dismissed as the stuff of lowly craft, the art world has finally begun to acknowledge the contributions of elders such as Sheila Hicks and Ken Price, the subjects of two recent, critically acclaimed traveling retrospectives. While Mukherjee’s work could and probably should have been included in the landmark survey “Fiber: Sculpture 1960–present” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston this past winter, her inclusion in the 2014 Gwangju Biennale seemed to promise international recognition. Tragically, on January 26, the day before “Transfigurations” opened, Mukherjee was admitted to a New Delhi hospital, where she died a week later. Any rediscovery of her unparalleled sculptural investigations into materials, processes, surfaces, and volumes will sadly take place in her absence, though her unique vision will endure in the universe of generative forms she leaves behind.

Murtaza Vali is a critic and curator based in New York and Sharjah.

See artforum.com for Passages essays on Mukherjee.