S. H. Raza in Paris. Photo: The Raza Foundation, New Delhi.

FOR SOME REASON, which now will forever remain a mystery, the great Indian painter S. H. Raza was always known by his family name. His initials stood for Sayed Haider, but one rarely found these used. This was, oddly, common to all the founders and associates of India’s modernist movement, the Mumbai (then Bombay)–based Progressive Artists’ Group: M. F. Husain was Husain, not Maqbool Fida; K. H. Ara was Ara; F. N. Souza was Souza. This was probably just coincidence; to find any significance in this is likely to be futile.

What was significant was that the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group was formed in the year of India’s independence from British colonial rule, in 1947. While the country discarded the yoke of an imperial power, these progressive artists set out to deliberately discard the formality of European Realism. Each of them did it in his own way: In forming a group, they did not evolve a common manifesto of style. Others who later joined them (notably, V. S. Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, Krishen Khanna, and Tyeb Mehta), too, found their own individual ways to break free.

I met Raza rather late in his life. By then, his reputation was such that you approached him with awe. But surrounded as he was by acolytes and admirers, his manner was kindly and without condescension. I engaged him in a long conversation, which he seemed to enjoy. We talked of the place of art in today’s India, the growing intolerance of religious fanatics, and whether spiritualism was incompatible with modernity. Here he was emphatic on one point: Human beings needed a strong sense of spirituality more than ever today, but their sense of belief had to transcend the orthodoxies of organized religion.

His own life and work were a clear embodiment of that. He was born a Muslim in a small town in India’s central state of Madhya Pradesh in 1922. His parents were traditional Muslims, and his father was a forest ranger. Raza began to show his talent for drawing at the age of twelve. Luckily, his parents were liberal enough not to try and straitjacket him and force him to study for the civil services. Recognizing his talent, he was sent to the Nagpur School of Art and then to Sir J. J. School of Art in present-day Mumbai, India’s premier art school. A French scholarship then took him to France’s École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts.

S.H. Raza, Prabhas, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 39 1/2 x 39 1/2".

Raza was enamored with the French landscape, and his early work contained many series of paintings reflecting this. Later, his Expressionist landscapes gave way to a more abstract style. If you wanted to encapsulate his work in these years you could broadly say that Raza was swimming with different currents of Western modernism. But, as he later said, although happily settled in France (and happily married to a fellow student at Beaux-Arts, Janine Mongillat), and in spite of a fair degree of success, he felt a sense of restlessness and unhappiness with his work. Visits to India in the 1970s, and particularly to the caves of Ajanta and Ellora, and the religious center Benares (now Varanasi) began to move him away from landscapes to landscapes of the mind.

Raza then remembered his childhood, when a primary-school teacher drew a dot on the class blackboard and asked him to concentrate on it in order to stop his mind from wandering. Thus was the idea of the Bindu born. The Bindu is a large dot, the dark core of energy from which the cosmos emanates. That dot became the center of his work, along with the mandala, the image of the cosmos, and the tribhuj, the triangle of space and time. Later came representations of male and female energy, all rendered in vibrant colors of red, black, and yellow. The palette later expanded to include green and orange as well.

What is remarkable about this major shift in Raza’s work—which was to continue till the end of his life—was that all these symbols come from Hindu mythology. If Raza’s mature work is spiritual in nature, that spirituality stems from Hinduism. How did Sayed Haider Raza, born a Muslim, who neither renounced his religion nor converted to Hinduism, do that, or, in today’s fraught atmosphere, dare do that? He achieved this by simply transcending religion. Spirituality for him was beyond its confines. Ultimately, he often said, we all are of the same flesh and blood.

The changes in his color palette toward the end of his career are also consistent with Hindu spirituality, where the last phase of life is one of sanyas, the renunciation of material life. His work was now an exploration of whites and off-whites, the absence of color being his sanyas. This must be why, although suffering from physical disability and confined to a wheelchair, Raza never stopped painting. When he held his brush, his hands as steady as a young man’s, he reached a sense of tranquility and peace. Raza’s was truly a life well lived.

Anil Dharker is a columnist and writer based in Mumbai. He is the founder and director of the Mumbai International Literary Festival.

Malick Sidibé, Self-portrait, 1956, silver gelatin print, glass, paint, cardboard, tape, and string, 16 x 12 x 1/4".

REGARDEZ-MOI!” a voice shouts assertively. The photographer turns and swings toward the young man dancing. His knees are bent low, buttressing a torso thrown impossibly far back. His arms are flung wide open, his grin even wider. Snap. The photographer shifts position, steps one foot forward, lowers his camera, and snaps again. The year is 1962. The place is Bamako, Mali. And the photographer is Malick Sidibé, whose formally elegant, dynamically composed black-and-white images testify to the complex modernities fashioned across postcolonial Africa.

That they exist as such is cause for both celebration and despair. To be sure, Sidibé has been deservedly lauded for expanding the narrow range of racist Euro-American perceptions of the continent, challenging the colonial archive of African photography no less than contemporary media’s Afro-pessimism. But tethering the photographer’s work to this pedagogical charge has tended to obscure its specificities and depths: its knotty contradictions, its uncomfortable displacements. As Sidibé’s photographs are tasked to correct and defend—to testify to African modernities—our gaze is invariably directed beyond the images, toward evidentiary functions that can stretch and overdetermine their meaning, and ultimately, occlude them. As I remember Sidibé’s passing, and consider his inscription into the historical record, the photograph’s injunction “Regardez-moi”—Look at me—sounds like a dirge. Seeing his work mandates freeing it from its documentary “lesson,” releasing it from the weight of white ignorance—especially because, as Chinua Achebe pointed out, said “ignorance” about Africa is itself a deeply motivated occlusion.

Malick Sidibé, Regardez Moi (Look At Me), 1962, silver gelatin print, 17 x 17".

Sidibé’s oeuvre presents as a potted history of enormous visibility matched by equally sizable blind spots. To begin, we might wonder why, among a gamut of varied subjects, Look at Me and Sidibé’s other images of dancing (notably Christmas Eve, Happy Club, 1963) have become his most iconic. It may be—as Sidibé assumed—that such photographs marked a distance from Seydou Keďta’s studio portraits, even as they retrospectively appeared to establish a proximity to Euro-American audiences through internationally legible gestures of dance. Certainly, as we navigate around the Scylla of Afro-pessimism, the lure of seemingly carefree, twirling youth is undeniable. But such images can be a Charybdis of their own, especially when they are transparently linked—as they all too frequently are—with a performance of social or political freedom.

A 2009 fashion spread Sidibé shot for the New York Times Magazine titled “Prints and the Revolution” is only the most egregious in the insistent presentation of his work against a facile backdrop of “revolution.” Time and again, the democratic impulse of his images is taken at face value: dancing youths (albeit defying state curfew) are read as signifiers of liberty; studio portraits are touted as a self-fashioning of postcolonial subjectivities. Yet the limits on self-fashioning imposed by religion and state, custom and family—limits that Stephen Greenblatt underscored in the same breath as he introduced the term in his study of Renaissance Europe—are usually forgotten in the rush to rally these images as documents of freedom.

Malick Sidibé, Christmas Eve, Happy Club, 1963, silver gelatin print, 13 x 13".

Sidibé himself stressed the boundaries and tensions that animated photographs such as Look At Me: from denying the illusion of sexual license (“We never slept with the girls we danced with!”) to underscoring the gendered inequities of “freedom” in a polygamous, Muslim country (“Here boys have always had freedom; but girls have never been free.”). Sidibé, by the way, is survived by three wives and seventeen children. Manthia Diawara, who has brilliantly unpacked the complex enmeshment of Sidibé’s photographic subjects in American and diasporic culture, has plumbed the nuances and paradoxes of “freedom,” generational conflict, and defiance in 1960s Bamako. The chic, oh-so-modern young women in Sidibé’s photographs often had to smuggle their miniskirts and bell-bottoms under more voluminous clothing. That their mothers would pass them contraband garments through the window in defiance not only of paternal authority, but also of the roving militia of the largely unpopular socialist regime in place between 1960 and 1968, which dispatched scantily clad teens to re-education camps, only begins to gesture to the array of internal pressures pushing up against the picture plane. Freedom may always be a myth, but Sidibé appears to have captured a highly gendered and deeply compensatory modeling of it that belies simple projections of liberty. “All was controlled and forced,” the photographer has explained. “Young people could feel free at the parties because they were not free the rest of the time.”

Far from diminishing the centrality of the postcolonial context that undergirds Sidibé’s work, I want to champion an engagement with it that acknowledges how the historically specific contradictions and disavowals of postcolonial Mali trouble a straight line between the photograph and the polis, or between the imagined emancipation of subjects and their performance of it. Likewise, the limits Greenblatt cautioned about the illusory freedom of fashioning the self apply all the more to the illusory, partial knowledge we can construe of another. In this sense, Look at Me is a negative demand: to stop reading me through you, through your projections. The call for Africa to not merely be a mirror of Western narcissism has underpinned postcolonial critiques for the last thirty years. But is it possible for us to surmount our own egos in this way?

Some would say not. That the image is always a mirror. That interpretation is always projection. Nonetheless, this is the challenge Sidibé’s legacy throws out to us. Never has the demand to see beyond ourselves been more urgent. Regardez-moi! the photograph calls out. Again.

Leora Maltz-Leca is associate professor of contemporary art history in the history of art and visual culture department at Rhode Island School of Design.

Vladimir Kagan. Photo: John Walsh.

PUCK IS DEAD. That was my reaction when I heard of the passing of Vladimir Kagan at the age of eighty-eight. I only met him late in his life, by which time he had an unmistakable sparkle of celebrity. But even when he was young, I imagine that he resembled Shakespeare’s “shrewd and knavish sprite” pretty well. Like the elfin upstager of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kagan stood somewhat outside the mainstream of his profession (that is, furniture design), a good place to be if you want to provide a little light relief. Though he was initially influenced by the Bauhaus, he never adopted its rigorous functionalism. Nor did he push the envelope of technology, like Ray and Charles Eames, or rethink fundamental engineering issues, like Eero Saarinen, or conceive a new vocabulary of symbolic form, like Ettore Sottsass. His achievement was simpler—and, for many people, more alluring.

Kagan sweetened modernism up, dispensing curves like spoonfuls of sugar. Plenty of other designers, from Alvar Aalto to Eva Zeisel, helped make avant garde style palatable by giving it more sensuous lines. But none were as keen to make their work touchable, beckoning to the hand as well as the eye. In Kagan’s furniture the lines are always taut, and the upholstery is always pleasingly plump. Let’s go ahead and say it: His furniture is sexy. He was the master of that slightly louche manner of design which has become iconic in recent years thanks to the TV show Mad Men, which is cited constantly in discussions of Kagan’s work. Clichéd it may be, but the reference is apt, particularly when you come to think of what “sexy” meant in the midcentury moment. Kagan developed his aesthetic in a pre-Feminist age—the age of Jane Russell, padded bustiers, and va-va-voom—and more or less adhered to that look for the rest of his career. The world of Don Draper doesn’t seem all that remote when you read the New York Times obituary of the designer, in which hotelier André Balazs remarks of his Kagan-designed office chair: “I think that with good furniture, if it doesn’t at some point make you want to make love on it, it’s missing something.”

  • Vladimir Kagan, Contour High Back Lounge, 1953, walnut with rubbed oil finish, 36 x 33 x 35".

  • Vladimir Kagan, Sculpted Coffee Table, 1950, walnut with rubbed oil finish, 16 x 59 x 30".

  • Vladimir Kagan, Serpentine Sofa with Arm, 1950, maple base with ebony finish, 30“ x 11' x 61”.

  • Vladimir Kagan, Fettuccini Chair, 1997, chrome frame with Siena leather, 27 x 28 x 27".

  • Vladimir Kagan, Limited Edition Gabriella Chair exclusive to Ralph Pucci International, 2016, cast bronze frame with leather, 33 x 29 1/2 x 33 1/2".

Yet if Kagan’s conception of sensuality was relatively self-evident, his means of achieving it definitely were not. When he sat down at the drawing board—he never did migrate to the computer—magic happened. Try making an outline sketch of one of his pieces yourself, and you’ll see how expertly he marshaled his compositions. The typical Kagan design has a single point of tension. From this vertex springs a set of sinuous lines: broad cushions curving from the narrow end of an asymmetrical sofa; a gazelle-like chair, leaping forward from tapered hind legs; the undercarriage of a table splaying out from its nether angle. At the convergence point, all is tautness, energy, and snap. Otherwise the lines in the object are relaxed—which is exactly what Kagan wanted his clients to be.

Kagan’s desire to set the world at ease was also embodied by his blog, which he began in 2009 when he was already an octogenarian. He wrote often and unaffectedly, in a style that combined old-world charm with New York kvetch. Reading it is a lot like chatting with him. Alongside perceptive and generous discussions of his fellow designers, such as Zaha Hadid, Santiago Calatrava, Studio Job, and Wendell Castle, he delved into his travels to see London’s contemporary architecture (thumbs down) and Paris in the snow (thumbs up), his experiences driving a Model T (thumbs up), unauthorized knockoffs of his own work (thumbs down of course, but also the objects of his genuine curiosity), and bagels and chopped liver (thumbs way up). One my favorite entries is his very last, which is devoted to maintaining the pleasures of eating in an age of anxiety about weight loss: “Lunch. Don’t neglect this.” Words to live by.

A final point to make about Kagan’s work is that it has always been superlatively crafted. He apprenticed as a boy in the Fifty-Seventh Street woodshop of his father, who had moved the family from Worms, Germany, when Kagan was young. The experience instilled in him a lifelong respect for the skills of the artisan, and he continued to oversee the manufacture of his pieces with the family firm for many years. After a period of relative quiet in the 1980s and ‘90s, he enjoyed a renaissance via collaboration with the design impresario Ralph Pucci. It so happens that on the day that Kagan died, a new chair called the Gabriella was unveiled at Pucci’s New York showroom. Curvy (of course) with a bronze frame and upholstered seat, the chair recalled his classic designs but also suggested the new directions he might have pursued, had even more years of energetic productivity been left to him.

When Kagan’s wife Erica Wilson, a leading embroiderer, died in 2011, the designer posted a moving tribute on his blog. “The little joys, the good things she did uncomplainingly and selflessly are daily missed,” he wrote. “Everything is a little more curtailed–less enjoyable.” Much the same can be said about the loss of this delightful man. I began this remembrance by calling him our Puck, but if I were going to inscribe a monument for Kagan, who so beautifully combined visual and material intelligence, I would select these words of Hamlet’s: “O, ’tis most sweet / when in one line two crafts directly meet.”

Glenn Adamson is an independent curator and writer based in Brooklyn.

S. H. Raza, 2015. Photo: Vadehra Art Gallery.

WHEN THE PAINTER Sayed Haider Raza passed away on July 23, 2016, he was ninety-four years old and the last surviving founding member of the Progressive Artists’ Group and the exceptional community that it animated in Mumbai (then Bombay) in the immediate postwar, postindependence period. This included the patronage of European émigrés in India Walter Langhammer, Emanuel Schlesinger, and Rudolf von Leyden, and the visionaries Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy, close friends of Raza’s who founded Gallery Chemould, the city’s first commercial art space.

Born in a small village in India’s heartland of Madhya Pradesh in 1922, Raza migrated to cosmopolitan Mumbai in 1943 as a student at the Sir J. J. School of Art. He became a founding member of the Progressive Artist’s Group in 1947, a group closely tied to India’s independence from Britain that year. In 1950, Raza left Mumbai for Paris and spent much of the rest of his life in France developing a body of work that interpolated elements of landscape and geometric forms. A remarkable colorist, he was part of a distinguished aviary of Indian artists who explored principles of modernist abstraction, turning away from the dominant focus on figuration across South Asia.

S.H. Raza, Bleu d’été (Blue Summer), 1963, oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 21”.

Raza’s paintings covered concepts as expansive as cosmology and sites as specific as Mumbai’s Flora Fountain in Monsoon, 1945, and the region Saurashtra, 1983. His strongest works harmonize the sublime and the familiar, as in the exceptional Bleu d’été, 1963, shown in the exhibition “Radical Terrain” at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York in 2012–13. “Radical Terrain” considered the subject and form of landscape and was the third and final installment of the series “Modernist Art from India” that I organized for the Rubin. Raza painted Bleu d’été, a representation of the sky’s blues in summer, as part of an exploration of light and darkness in different seasons that he undertook in the 1960s.

For “Radical Terrain,” I invited eight international contemporary artists to contribute or create work in conversation with one of the modernist landscapes on view, and I paired New York–based artist Byron Kim with Raza. Kim perceptively reflected on Bleu d’été in relation to his own painterly considerations of the night sky: “He has this red field that seems to be around the sky . . . I think he probably used that red in order to indicate something about seeing the sky in the city. There aren’t any stars . . . so he was probably dealing with light pollution as well.” The painting, which hints at Mark Rothko’s mature works, appears to be a night sky with an abstracted horizon interrupted by a single sketched house. Kim’s keen observations suggest that even as the iconography of the work renders an idyllic (if stark) countryside, Raza was principally focused on urban sight lines and concerns. By the ’60s, his approach to light and landscape had undeniably been transformed by his urban residences.

For generations of Indian artists who succeeded him, Raza represented a gateway to France and Western Europe. His work fashioned a bridge to international practices of modernist abstraction. Raza sparked a lifelong, mutual, and fluid conversation among cultures and contexts—between Paris and Mumbai, city and country, the transcendent and the everyday—that continues even now.

Beth Citron is the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Rubin Museum in New York.