New York

View of “Mrinalini Mukherjee,” 2019. From left: Basanti, 1984; Yakshi, 1984; Pakshi, 1985; Rudra, 1982; Devi, 1982.

View of “Mrinalini Mukherjee,” 2019. From left: Basanti, 1984; Yakshi, 1984; Pakshi, 1985; Rudra, 1982; Devi, 1982.

Mrinalini Mukherjee

The Met Breuer

The retrospective at the Met Breuer of the late Indian sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee (1949–2015) was also the first solo presentation of her art in the United States. Aptly titled “Phenomenal Nature,” the show—featuring nearly sixty objects, including her signature fiber sculptures and works in ceramic and bronze produced during the latter part of her career—was an overdue introduction to a formally audacious and technically exquisite oeuvre that defies easy art-historical and ethnographic classification. Although her engagement with textiles came in the wake of related midcentury investigations of fiber’s expressive potential by artists such as Jagoda Buić, Sheila Hicks, and Lenore Tawney, Mukherjee was working largely away from the cosmopolitan currents of the international art scene and along her own highly individual path. The startling biomorphic figures for which she is best known—fashioned from twisted and knotted lengths of rope sourced from a market in New Delhi—evoke human and animal bodies, and the excrescences of the botanical world. But they also draw inspiration from Indian fine art and craft traditions, in addition to modern design. With these influences, Mukherjee produced captivating, eccentric hybridities that nod to the organic and the synthetic, the domestic and the deistic.

The daughter of artists, Mukherjee was born in Mumbai and studied with the prominent painter and muralist K. G. Subramanyan, who disdained Western distinctions between the traditional and the so-called fine arts. Her first fiber works from the early 1970s were plantlike forms that hung from armatures anchored to the wall or the ceiling, though she would soon begin to integrate faunal motifs as well. For example, Squirrel, 1972, the earliest work on view, is a dun-colored scrim of hemp, jute, cotton, and sisal; the titular creature, fashioned from these materials as well as bamboo and carpet brushes, hangs upside down on its surface, as though emerging from a forest canopy.

Often suggesting a compelling cross between an anthropological display and a couture exhibition, the show was designed around a series of undulating curtains that guided the viewer through Mukherjee’s career. As the years passed, her works grew in complexity and presence, claiming their space as commandingly freestanding figures; a dramatic sequence of sculptures from the early to mid-1980s was a case in point. The trio at its center—Yakshi,1984; Pakshi, 1985; and Rudra, 1982, all made of knotted hemp and dyed in deep jewel tones of violet, russet, and plum, respectively—were intricate things of dominating scale. Like much of Mukherjee’s sculpture, they are entities quite strategically between; at once plant and animal, male and female, ritual costume and deity incarnate.

By the mid- to late 1990s, Mukherjee had begun to move away from fiber; her desired materials had become harder to source, and the physical requirements of her knotting methods proved increasingly demanding. The earliest of these nonfiber pieces, Lotus Pond, 1995, is a suite of thirteen terra-cotta objects on a low redbrick platform that presents the aquatic flowers as bursting, ripe blossoms. As in the ceramic “Night Bloom” series, 1999–2000, here the artist makes her rigid medium torque and throb like vegetal matter. And in her final series, “Palmscapes,” 2013–15, Mukherjee imbues her bronze castings of fallen tree fragments with a sense of lightness and energy that feels like an embodiment of the whole of her artistic ambition, an amplification of life’s vital potential in all its permutations.