Phenomenal Nature, Mrinalini Mukherjee (2019) at The Met Breuer, installation view (courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

In 1972, a young Mrinalini Mukherjee began making sculpture with fiber in New Delhi, India. At the time, fiber and similar textiles were mostly unrecognized as materials possessing artistic merit by her Indian contemporaries. In the Western hemisphere, however, a few artists had taken up fiber as a medium for non-representational or abstract art in the ‘60s and ‘70s, though Mukherjee did not identify with Western trends either. Nonetheless, the artist created a colossal oeuvre of artwork over the next four decades, probing into fiber and later ceramic and metal as art forms that can represent intangible ideas and tradition simultaneously and resist typical artistic categorization. Now Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee is on view at the MET Breuer in New York City. It is a jaw-dropping retrospective of Mukherjee’s career that investigates her transitions between modern and traditional forms and redefines boundaries between figuration and abstraction.

Mrinalini Mukherjee (1949-2015) was born in Bombay, India. She earned a degree in fine arts and completed a tutelage under the renowned Indian artist K.G. Subramanyan in the late 1960s. Mukherjee began her foray into traditional materials such as fiber, jute, hemp, and cotton, using ed techniques like open warps and knotting. Fiber’s understanding as a traditional material refers to its non-radical use in traditional crafts and textiles in India at the time. Mukherjee’s solo shows and public commissions took off in the 1970s, earning her critical reception. A few artworks from this period are displayed at the MET Breuer including the individualistic sculpture “Nag Devta” (1979). A neat arrangement of grape-purple and green fiber and hemp, the duo-chromatic sculpture peeks into male and female sexualities through the juxtaposition of a crafted phallus and vulva, morphed in the form of the serpent Hindu deity. The sculpture is one of her earliest probes into traditional Indian myth that breathes synergy between male and female sexualities.

Phenomenal Nature, Mrinalini Mukherjee (2019) at The Met Breuer, installation view (courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Phenomenal Nature, Mrinalini Mukherjee (2019) at The Met Breuer, installation view (courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

“Nag Devta” sets the tone for Mukherjee’s next decade of semi-figural art that brings brought forth a fluid understanding of Hindu divinity and human sexuality. In the ‘80s,  she redirected her emphasis on loose fiber strands and vegetal forms in favor of stylized figures of Hindu divinities and mythical nymphs that transgressed conventional gendered norms as they appeared in representational artworks. There is a feisty defiance in “Sri” (1982), “Black Purush” (1980), and ”Apsara” (1985-86), however, which are devoid of conspicuous social messages and thus open to interpretation. “Apsara” (1985-86) (traditionally, a celestial nymph in indu myth) works with organic and earthy tones as it folds with grace yet generates a great force within the sculpture toward an outward display of vigor. A free standing form of resilient fiber, “Apsara” teases ironically with delicate representational form of the female nymph, while its semi-abstract silhouettes simultaneously challenges its representational understanding. Created with traditional material yet modern in its understanding of human sexuality, “Apsara” is a pleasing conundrum of fiber art.

Mukherjee’s depictions of divinity, mingled with bold statements of sexuality, were not transient, to say the least. Her corporeal sculptures channeled even bolder statements as they ebbed into increased abstraction and less figuration in the 1990s. “Vanshree” is a freestanding sculpture that hints at abstraction; its organic form originates as a cylindrical structure from the ground. The artwork morphs into grape-like tones of purple bundles of fiber that take the semi-abstracted form resembling the vaginal opening of the female anatomy. Brown strands of fiber give it a silhouette that folds into a form that resembles the clitoral hood, connected with the fibrous bundle underneath. A technical feat where the larger than life piece rests on the ground without extra support, Mukherjee achieves a sense of eroticism that is never a singular, gratifying depiction of sexual pleasure. Instead, the sculpture pulsates with sensational vigor that simply exist because it can. The flow of energy from the bottom to the top that binds “Vanshree” is a unique ode to the understanding of the delicate female anatomy, sexuality, and presence that throbs through technical manipulation of a rough textile such as fiber.

Phenomenal Nature, Mrinalini Mukherjee (2019) at The Met Breuer, installation view (courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

The late ‘90s and ‘00s witnessed Mukherjee take on more abstract sculptures, made with ceramic and metal that further resist artistic or theoretical categorization. The Night Bloom series (1999-2000) contains six freestanding ceramic and bronze sculptures that play curiously between form and texture. Night Bloom III titillates the eye; the sculpture can be studied in multiple ways. Divide it into sections and it references anatomy while evoking sexuality; study it as a singular form and it denotes vital personhood, resistance, independence, and material aptitude.

Perhaps the principal lesson that historians, critics, and viewers acquire with an astounding retrospective like Mukherjee’s is how art can resist being viewed as delineated under a methodical Western canon. Her massive oeuvre is not fully representational, neither completely abstract. It learns from her native history and tradition, while educating us in new ways to engage with subtleties of her work. In her life, Mukherjee sought this resistance; while her energies were dedicated toward the radical intervention of textiles that stem from deep roots of symbolic Indian art and craft, her visual vocabulary sought independence from traditional roles and linear depictions of gender, sexuality, and myth. Conceptualized by the artist and realized at the Met Breuer, Mukherjee’s art stands in its magnificence, existing purely for its own sake.

Phenomenal Nature, Mrinalini Mukherjee continues at The Met Breuer (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 29. The exhibition is organized by Shanay Jhaveri, Assistant Curator of South Asian Art, Department of Modern and Contemporary Art.

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Nageen Shaikh

Nageen Shaikh is an art historian, and art and book critic. Her research develops questions of production over ideation in South Asian and early modern art, transnational art, contemporary artists’ studios,...