Sunday, May 04, 2003

a keehn eye

It was the mid-1950s when Tom Keehn brought his young family to India. His work was to promote handicrafts, but he ended up being the first signficant foreign collector of Indian modern art.

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in the May/June 2003 issue of Span, a magazine published by the Public Affairs Section of the American Center in New Delhi on behalf of the American Embassy).

In 1956, Thomas Keehn made a trip to Madras to research handicrafts for the Indian Cooperative Union. He also planned to call on a young man, Krishen Khanna, who he had heard about from an upcoming artist called M.F. Hussain. Khanna, who was then working at Grindlays Bank, apparently painted in his spare time. Keehn went over to his house where Khanna showed him one of his paintings called “Quartet.” Keehn offered to buy it, but Khanna didn’t want to sell, as that would imply he was making a commitment to painting. Khanna then had no intention of leaving banking.

Keehn had loved the painting and returned to Delhi disappointed. Some months later, Khanna arrived in Delhi at the Keehns’ household with “Quartet” rolled up under his arm, this time for sale. Keehn and Khanna started to squabble about the price, not because Khanna was bidding it up, but because he refused to say how much and told Keehn to pay him whatever he wanted to. Exasperated, Keehn gave him a signed, blank check. “In later years, Krishen told me that he had filled in Rs. 350,” recalls Keehn, poised at the perch of the sofa, to indicate he hadn’t finished with his story. Keehn eventually donated that painting to World Education, a not-for-profit organization that he worked for. “You know how much World Education sold that painting for?” he asks, his eyes twinkling. “$12,000 and that was over five years ago. Now, that painting is worth about $25,000,” he said and chuckled. In 1956, Rs. 350 would have been about $80.

Keehn was an accidental collector, but one can safely assume that he was the first collector, or at least one of the first collectors, of modern Indian art. Chester Herwitz, Charles Saatchi and Masanori Fukuoka came later and unlike them, Keehn has some of the formative works of India’s great artists like Krishen Khanna of course, and also M.F. Hussain, V.S. Gaitonde, S.H. Reza, Ram Kumar and Jamini Roy.

Keehn and his wife Martha McKee Keehn collected not just Indian paintings but lifelong Indian friends, during their stay in India from 953 to 1961. In fact, when SPAN met Thomas Keehn in March, he was staying at the house of Gopal Jain, the son of Lakshmi Jain who was one of the first people the Keehns met when they moved to Delhi. Lakshmi Jain was then executive director of the Indian Cooperative Union. This time, Keehn was on one of his frequent trips to India, to meet up with friends and to spread the word about a book called INDIA INK, a collection of letters written by his late wife Martha, to her family in the U.S., during the eight years the Keehns lived in India.

Keehn is not just an accidental art collector but also an accidental Indophile. In the late 1940s, he was what he calls a “do gooder” working for a church-related organization in Washington D.C. That was also the time when Harry Truman had became U.S. president and propounded what came to be called The Truman Doctrine, which loosely meant that the U.S. would participate in world affairs by helping countries with economic and military aid. Truman appointed Nelson A. Rockefeller, son of the philanthropist John D Rockefeller Jr, to oversee a committee to recommend Asian and African countries that the U.S. government could provide aid to. Keehn was interested in the committee, and when Rockefeller held the first National Conference on International Economic and Social development in 1952, Keehn was made executive director. Then Rockefeller decided to expand his philanthropic organization, American International Association for Economic and Social Development (AIA) to Asia, and he decided to appoint Keehn as its representative in India.

“I was being sent here without any qualifications and I said yes without even consulting my wife. But she was the adventurous kind and said, ‘Let’s Go’ and the next thing you know, here we are with our two children,” Keehn, now 88 years old, recalls as if it were yesterday. Keehn’s mandate in India was to help market Indian handicrafts and to provide supervised loans to small farmers. He developed projects in collaboration with the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU) that was headed by Kamladevi Chattopadhyaya with Lakshmi Jain as its executive director. That Union has now blossomed into the highly successful Cottage Industries group of emporiums “During the British rule, all the nawabs, etc were urged to develop crafts as a means to keep them out of politics and so post-independent India had these great crafts that the government decided to encourage the marketing and sale of,” Keehn says. He traveled the length and breadth of India by train to do market surveys and discover new crafts persons.

Rockefeller had also told Keehn to promote the emerging modern art movement of independent India. “Find out what is happening in the modern art and culture field. Not classical Indian art and sculpture. Many people are paying attention to that,” was Nelson Rockefeller’s specific mandate. Rockefeller had a deep interest in modern art and was the main supporter of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Keehn readily admits that as far as Indian art was concerned, he had no idea where to begin. But Keehn had made so many friends in a short time, that he soon found three key people to guide him: P. Neogy, an art historian who later taught at the University of Hawaii, Som Benegal, a journalist and Richard Bartholomew an art critic. “(M.F.) Hussain was one of the first artists I met. When I saw his work it was clear this was something special. Then, he (Hussain) was in transition from painting billboards for films and making wooden toys for children. We had so many of his toys, many of which are unfortunately broken now,” says Keehn. A painting by Hussain, of the Keehns’ eldest daughter Deborah on her 10th birthday, and one of the entire Keehn family, still has pride of place at the Keehns residence in Forest Hills, in Queens New York. Hussain and many other artists are still friends with the Keehns who supported them long before they became popular among the glitterati. “All these artists were part of our household when we lived in India,” says Keehn.

In 1956, Keehn was the prime mover in organizing Delhi’s first ever exhibition of Indian contemporary art, titled “Eight Painters.” Years later, M.F. Hussain would remark that this exhibition was as critical a moment for Indian art, as the 1913 Armory exhibition had been for modern art in New York. Then in January 1959, Keehn was involved in organizing an exhibition, “Trends in Contemporary Painting from India,” which opened at the Graham Gallery in New York. It included artists from the “Eight Painters” exhibit. The timing was propitious because it preceded the 1959 Sao Paulo Biennial and a considerable portion of the Graham Gallery exhibit was sent to the Biennial in Brazil.

By then there was a tiny amount of interest in contemporary Indian art. In the early 1960s Chester Herwitz and his wife Davida began visiting India and by 1966, they began collecting contemporary Indian art. Over the next thirty years, the Herwitzs acquired more than 3,000 paintings and drawings from India. But the earliest works of Hussain, Ram Kumar and other Indian artists were with the Keehns.

By 1959, the Keehns, who were now a family of six, were aware of the growing tensions between India and the US on political and economic issues. In 1961, they decided to return to the U.S. taking with them, the memories of their friends, and some 35 pieces of Indian art. By then, they had become acquainted with Welthy H. Fisher, an educationist, who had been inspired by Gandhi to move to India and start ‘Literacy House” in Lucknow, for the advancement and independence in "new India" through education. Literacy House was a small, non-formal school that would combine literacy with agricultural training. The success of “Literary House” made Welthy and other literacy pioneers realize that they could replicate their Indian model worldwide. Fisher started World Education in 1951 in New York City, to provide literacy training to those who needed it most throughout the world. Upon their return to New York, Tom and Martha Keehn began to work for World Education, which they did until the late 1980s. Thomas Keehn was president of World Education from 1969 until 1981 and he’s still on the board of the organization. “Over those years we used the experience of Literacy House in India to extend our programs to Nepal, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, several countries in Africa, and even in the U.S.,” says Keehn.

During this time they often visited India to keep up with their old friends. The last painting Keehn bought was in the 1970s. “We had so many that our house was quite full,” says Keehn. But they wanted to continue with their engagement with India in some form and every now and then discussed “doing something” with the letters that Martha had written home during their years in India. She thought it could become part of a book, which she said should be called “India Ink.” But the book was still a concept until two events occurred. The first was that in June 1995, for the first time, modern Indian paintings were included in a major Sotheby’s art auction in New York and London. The auction included paintings from the Herwitzs’ charitable trust and had works by Hussain, Ram Kumar, Reza, and Jamini Roy, many of whose early paintings adorned the walls of the Keehns’ Forest Hills House. These were followed by auctions at Christie’s and another one by Sotheby’s in 1996.

The second event was tragic: Martha Keehn was diagnosed with cancer. “One of the last things my wife and I did together was to go to that first auction. When the prices for some of the Indian paintings were bid up to the tens of thousands, we were trembling. We were delighted for our artist friends and we also realized how valuable our collection, even though small, was,” says Keehn. When his wife died in April 1996, a devastated Keehn came to India to reflect on his life and develop new priorities.

That’s when he decided to gift some of the collection to World Education. The gift to the Foundation specified that some paintings would be retained in their Boston headquarters and some could be sold and the proceeds used to support program activities in India or for publications, “both of which were special concerns for Martha.” At the formal presentation of the gift to the Foundation, Keehn spoke about the “fortuitous” circumstances under which he and Martha acquired the art works in India forty years ago, and the consternation they felt after the Sotheby’s auction in New York when they discovered the value of the collection. “We were worried,” Keehn said. “Would we have to get insurance?” And then he added that by accepting the gift and taking some of the artwork off his hands, World Education was doing him a great favor!

Keehn also exhibited the collection at a New York art gallery focusing on contemporary Indian art. Deepak Talwar, who now runs the New York-based Talwar Gallery for modern Indian art, describes that exhibition as, “a carefully nurtured collection of formative works from the foremost artists in the Indian contemporary art scene.” Talwar suggests that it isn’t luck, but a “discerning eye that consistently saw something unique and lasting in the artists whose works he (Keehn) acquired.”

By then, Keehn was determined to publish Martha’s letters. “My wife wrote long letters from the moment we arrived in India. She wrote on an old fashioned typewriter with carbon paper. My children and I had a valuable legacy of hers and I was going to find a way to publish the letters,” says Keehn. In 1998, Keehn and Arun Vadehra, his friend who owned an art gallery in India, decided to combine Martha Keehn’s letters with reproductions of the Keehns’ collection of art.

In March 2000, INDIA INK was born. This gorgeous hardbound book encases a wonderful slice of history. Martha McKee Keehn wrote vivid letters describing the Keehns’ day-to-day family life, as well as their daily interaction with people from all strata of society. The tone is affectionate, the letters are informative and witty and the writing is informal yet elegant.

Here she describes meeting with Monroe Wheeler, then director of exhibitions at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “Monroe is a very nice guy but I AM intimidated slightly. … He says, ‘(Jean) Cocteau said last week when I was lunching with him on the Riviera…(He lost me right there. I was so busy conjuring up the picture of lunching with Cocteau on the Riviera that I never did hear what it was he said.) And he tells me. …Evelyn Waugh (is)….’Quite the nastiest man alive.’ ” Incidentally, It was Monroe who suggested to the Keehns start their international art efforts for India by identifying selected international events where modern Indian art could be included. The rest is of course history.

Keehn, meanwhile, hasn’t sold any paintings from his collection. He has mostly kept them or given them away. The one he regrets parting with the most, is a 1962 V.S. Gaitonde abstract that Talwar eventually bought from a World Education auction. “I love that painting. What made me gave it away?” says Keehn, who jokes with Talwar about buying it back from him. “Gaitonde was one of the few painters of that period who did abstracts and he was stubbornly and consistently fantastic. I wish I could have it back,” says Keehn.

Talwar isn’t selling and as Keehn says, “I probably couldn’t afford to buy it now.”