Prabhavathi Meppayil, sb/eighteen, 2018 (detail) © Prabhavathi Meppayil


Reincarnations of the Grid

By Michaëla de Lacaze Mohrmann
Thursday, May 12, 2022

This essay is taken from the introduction to Prabhavathi Meppayil, published by Pace Publishing. It is included alongside texts by Rosalind Krauss, Wells Fray-Smith, and Mami Kataoka.

Indian artists still go riding on the backs of paradoxes, with the more adventurous of them turning this into an original act of self- definition. Sometimes, with the necessary élan, the ride becomes a critical exercise prodding the modern itself or, rather, the fixed notions of that category, to diversify its possibilities outside the Western mainstream.

– Geeta Kapur [1]

Paradox, as suggested by the influential voice of art historian Geeta Kapur, is often a hallmark of great contemporary Indian art that reconsiders modernism—its forms as well as its polemics—through India’s fraught postcolonial experience of modernization. Proving this rule, the art of Prabhavathi Meppayil takes critical paradoxicality to new and exceptional heights, as the following pages explore. More comprehensive than past publications on Meppayil, this book places the artist’s most recent pieces alongside works stretching back to 2010 to capture her oeuvre’s sustained interweaving of the modernist canon with histories and practices that fall outside of it. A conversation between curator Wells Fray-Smith and Meppayil sheds additional light on the latter’s artistic evolution and creative process by tracking the many ways her art “destabilizes fixed categories,” as Fray-Smith observes. Counterbalancing scholars’ tendency to acknowledge the artist’s excavation of Indian culture without ever following her into these depths, an essay by curator Mami Kataoka examines Meppayil’s reductivist abstraction through the cosmologies of Buddhism and Jainism. Finally, readers will find a re-publication of Rosalind Krauss’s consequential essay “Grids, You Say,” originally written for Pace Gallery’s 1978 exhibition catalogue Grids: Format and Image in 20th Century Art.

Considering art historians, most notably Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, have meticulously analyzed Meppayil’s antinomic redeployment of the grid, as well as other germane modernist paradigms such as the monochrome, Krauss’s reprint might be viewed as needlessly yoking Meppayil’s work to accounts of European and North American art. [2] Far from being such a heavy-handed and hegemonizing maneuver, the foregrounding of Krauss’s text is meant as an invitation to further parse Meppayil’s paradoxical production in light of her geographic and cultural specificity, because the grid’s inherent contradictions—or “schizophrenia,” as Krauss puts it—offer a site of intervention for artists like Meppayil. It is in the grid’s and, by extension, modernism’s incongruities that artists from the Global South can often loosen the threads of an overly neat (and exclusionary) modernist narrative, thereby creating spaces for their histories and, above all, futures. In fact, these other(ed) stories and regions are at times already repressed within some of these seminal art-historical texts such as “Grids, You Say,” for instance.


Prabhavathi Meppayil, l/forty four, 2019 © Prabhavathi Meppayil

In her essay, Krauss tallies all the ways in which the lattice is at odds with itself: it is materialist yet transcendental, secular but sacred, temporal as well as spatial, and simultaneously centrifugal and centripetal. Its novelty to twentieth-century artists sprung from the fact that it “appear[s] nowhere, nowhere at all, in the art of the last [century],” Krauss argues. It exists only covertly in nineteenth-century Symbolist paintings of barred windows—reflective and opaque entities sufficiently multivalent to count as ancestors of the modernist grid. However, this origin is more complex than what Krauss acknowledges. Throughout the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution had gradually improved the production of glass from diminutive pieces to expansive sheets. This technological feat led to the Great Exhibition’s famous crystal architecture in 1851 and, more mundanely, to homes with single-pane windows, unobstructed by a grid of muntins. With this in mind, Symbolism’s paintings of barred windows become melancholic portrayals of a vanishing, pre-industrial craft and architectural style. They also capture another trend: the persistent desire for multipaned windows, which until today used muntins not out of structural necessity but owing to a nostalgic appetite for decoration and craftmanship. It is here, then, in Krauss’s chosen Symbolist genesis of the modernist grid that we can locate an additional core contradiction of the grid, one that Krauss never mentions: the grid, despite its undeniable austerity as a basic matrix connotative of science and technological progress, is also an instance of pre-industrial, artisanal ornamentation.

Once viewed through the prism of handmade embellishment, the grid actually appears everywhere in time and space: French cathedral floors, ancient Greek coffered ceilings, Arabic screens, Portuguese azulejos, and Aztec codices. India, too, as Meppayil is likely to know, has its fair share of ornate grids, as evidenced by Jain manuscripts of Rajasthan and Gujarat origin, and sacred kōlams that build floral patterns through a precise grid of dots symbolizing the origin of cosmic order. Even in the Rig Veda and the Upanishads the universe is conceived as a continuous fabric, whose warp and weft constitute a splendorous grid pattern woven by the gods themselves.

The grid’s split identity as spartan yet decorative, and of the machine-made present but also of the handwrought past, could not, of course, be more troublesome to the North Atlantic’s modernist art and architecture, which rely so heavily on the grid while recurrently denigrating the ornamental as criminal and obsolescent, as the decadent and frivolous visual language of women and non-Western cultures alike. [3] Yet many works by white twentieth-century artists who built their oeuvres on the grid obliquely gesture to these prior, more decorative non-European apparitions of the grid. For all its strict orthogonal regularity, Friendship (1963) by Agnes Martin—whose spare grids are often compared to Meppayil’s—makes such a sumptuous use of hand-applied gold leaf that its incised rows of rectangles evoke, for example, the Byzantine golden mosaics adorning the Hagia Sophia’s doorways. Gego, whom Buchloh mentions in relation to Meppayil, also created her Tejeduras by interlacing golden cigarette wrappers into gridded patterns that nod to the embellished latticework of baskets woven by present-day Amazonian tribes. [4] Other examples abound, from the glass grids of Josef Albers and textile ones of Anni Albers to the groundbreaking painted grids of Joaquín Torres-García, who, like the Alberses, found inspiration in Pre-Columbian textiles and architecture.


Prabhavathi Meppayil, l/forty four, 2019 (detail) © Prabhavathi Meppayil

None, however, is more clear-eyed about this particular duality of the grid than Meppayil, whose work stages the grid’s twin asceticism and decorativeness with the dramatic force of a phenomenological encounter. From a distance, her gridded, monochromatic paintings and installations evince a soberness and orthogonal exactitude epitomizing a modernist aesthetic. The viewer thus remains unprepared for the finery harbored by her works. Myriad details—the asymmetrical shapes and floral patterns of found tools; the shimmer of gold and chromatic bleed of oxidizing copper wires; richly haptic imprints of thinnams—are only discovered up close, as if to better overwhelm the eye and tempt the fingers. These elements cannot be mistaken as anything else but ornamental in nature, especially since Meppayil links them to Bangalore’s jewelry district and to her own family’s multigenerational goldsmithing business, thereby recoding the decorative in positive terms. [5] “When the molds are reiterated as art objects,” she notes, “it is difficult to solely read them as Minimalist, simple forms because they come with individual histories that I want to engage with.” [6]

Through its gradual, theatrical revelation of ornamentality, Meppayil’s work stages a return of the repressed not only in terms of the modernist grid but also with regard to Minimalism. Though Meppayil is frequently linked to this movement, its practitioners abhorred any belaboring of surfaces, any trace of the hand—a fact not lost on Meppayil. With her concrete, cubic sculptures bearing incised, copper-lined shapes similar to her father’s goldsmithing molds in sb/eighteen (2018), Meppayil riffs on Donald Judd’s specific object, turning the Minimalist cube—that industrially made thing symbolic of U.S.-corporate capitalism and its neocolonial aspirations [7]—into its opposite: a monumentalized artisanal tool, an homage to India’s age-old tradition of goldsmithing and jewelry-making. [8] Is this a mournful, mnemonic gesture or an act of celebratory affirmation, even resistance?

To Buchloh, Meppayil’s art orchestrates an ambiguous confrontation between “elements of a highly differentiated manual dexterity of the past,” and “omens of the imminent technical control and exclusion of tactile, artisanal, and musical forms.” [9] Yet he hardly conceals his pessimism regarding the outcome of this confrontation, no matter how ambiguous. The artisanal components of Meppayil’s art are, in his words, “residue[s] of a disappearing, if not already lost, external world that can only be rescued in the form of the accidental fragment.” In Buchloh’s analysis the “manifest obsolescence” of the modernist forms that Meppayil resurrects is mirrored by her “almost melancholic” artisanal tools, which seem similarly doomed. [10]

But is the dismal fate of once utopian modernist strategies truly the ineluctable future of India’s visual cultures and crafts and its traditional ways of life? In her interview with Fray-Smith, Meppayil delights in pointing out the energetic sounds of goldsmiths working in her studio’s neighborhood—sounds indexed by her paintings’ rhythmic markings and so lively as to be audible on an international phone call with Fray-Smith. Consider also the continuity of still widely worn Indian “temple jewelry” or how the goldsmith in India is a hallowed professional, responsible for crafting and blessing the thaali: the apotropaic gold chain presented at weddings to ensure—of all things—longevity. This broader context of goldsmithing so skillfully belied by the conceptual tenor and Minimalist style of Meppayil’s work is nonetheless evoked by its materials, tools, and the sounds guiding its production. The artist seeks to maintain this ambiguity and this fraught paradox. She explains:

My work is often read as being about the artist, the practice, and the craft because I come from a family of goldsmiths and because that history is there, but it’s not as simple as that. I am critically engaging with the language of the work through the context of my lived experience. This is where the histories of artisanal practice, or personal narratives, come into the picture and overlap with the visible geometric vocabulary. [11]

In other words, Meppayil is not out to merely revive Indian artisanship. Rather, she is pursuing the interweaving of past and present, of artisanal practice and geometric Minimalist vocabularies. Her work—and this is where its conceptual dexterity becomes apparent— seeks to transcend the simplistic opposition between outmodedness and contemporaneity.


Prabhavathi Meppayil, l/forty seven, 2018 © Prabhavathi Meppayil


Prabhavathi Meppayil, l/forty seven, 2018 (detail) © Prabhavathi Meppayil

Buchloh’s view of late capitalism’s “regimes of total determination and control” is, ironically, so fatalistic that it performs the very domination it rails against. Meppayil’s copper wires come to evoke an “invasive ... expanding electronic and technical order,” which domineers everyday existence. [12] Yet India is also negotiating this technological order on its own terms by becoming a hotbed for homegrown tech startups, as Kataoka notes in her essay. [13] Too taken by his visions of totalizing forces, Buchloh fails to see the futurity encapsulated in India’s time-honored crafts. True, Meppayil’s art points to “conditions of rapidly advancing reification,” that is, to global capital’s threat to ways of life metonymically suggested by the artisanship present in her work. [14] Nonetheless, her art simultaneously alludes to the awesome endurance of Indian craft-based traditions—traditions that have been reinvigorated, not decimated, by foreign incursions for a staggering 5,000 years. This is the paradoxical intervention of Meppayil’s oeuvre: that the tired modernist grid may finally be reaching a bright future by riding on the back of India’s ancient decorative crafts, and vice versa.

  1. Geeta Kapur, When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India (New Delhi: Tulika, 2007), 147.
  2. See Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Prabhavathi Meppayil: Redeeming Abstraction (under Duress),” Prabhavathi Meppayil: nine seventeen (New York: Pace Gallery, 2014).
  3. See, for instance, Adolf Loos’s 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime.”
  4. Buchloh, 47.
  5. Meppayil’s reframing of the ornamental also amounts to a revalorization of its many cognates, for example, the “feminine,” the “primitive,” and the “oriental,” which are terms used to unfairly disparage cultures and practices falling outside of Europe and North America’s patriarchal societies. It should also not be lost on readers that Meppayil’s very use of thinnams and goldsmithing techniques counts as a subtle feminist gesture given that India’s goldsmithing trade is dominated by men and passed on from father to son—a fact surely not lost on Meppayil, the daughter of a goldsmith.
  6. Prabhavathi Meppayil quoted in Wells Fray-Smith, “Being with the work and in the work,” this volume, 95.
  7. See Anna C. Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” Arts Magazine 64.5 (January 1990), 44–63.
  8. Meppayil attests, “When the molds are reiterated as art objects, it is difficult to solely read them as Minimalist, simple forms because they come with individual histories that I want to engage with. Unlike the industrial objects of the 1970s, these molds are handmade and used by individuals; there is a human touch. The socio-cultural history and context of the objects add layers to the complexity of the language.” Fray-Smith, 95.
  9. Buchloh, 48.
  10. Ibid., 48, 51, 44.
  11. Fray-Smith, 95. My emphasis.
  12. Buchloh, 41, 46.
  13. See Mami Kataoka, “Surface Echoes,” this volume, 90.
  14. Buchloh, 44.
  • Essays — Reincarnations of the Grid: Michaëla de Lacaze Mohrmann on Prabhavathi Meppayil, May 12, 2022