Jeram Patel



In Tate Modern

Jeram Patel 1930–2016
Enamel paint on wood
Object: 710 × 710 × 57 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the South Asia Acquisitions Committee 2017


The square wooden panel of layered plyboard in Untitled c.1963 has a number of large, perfectly circular holes burnt directly through it. They puncture the panel along the centre of the work and across its lower half. Perfecting his technique and skills with a blowtorch, Patel seared through the panel, meticulously charring the surrounding areas of each aperture to reveal the wall behind. He also used the blowtorch on the rest of the surface so that it is mottled by black tones. Patel then carved lines between the apertures, exposing the lightness of the natural wood beneath its surface. The puncturing of the wood in this fashion is a feature of this period of experimentation by Patel in which he would explore methods to both manipulate and alter the wood support, and present its inherent materiality.

Patel first began to experiment with burning with a blowtorch on laminated plywood in the early 1960s, a method that would become characteristic of his practice as a whole. Rejecting colour and representation, his early engagements were reliant on the natural rendering of the burnt wood, presenting his commitment to the material and the elimination and excavation of form. He would rarely give titles or dates to his works in this early stage, a fact that has made precise dating of these works difficult. Patel started exploring different materials and techniques following a visit to Japan in 1961, where he experienced how artists were engaging with a range of materials in various methods and traditions. He also encountered the works of Paul Klee (1879−1940) in an exhibition during this trip. Of his first experiments of burning with a blowtorch on plywood panels, he stated, ‘The black and the forms which emerged out of this act were a revelation to me. The sheer contrast of the original colour of the ply-board, and the burnt wood enchanted me.’ (Quoted in Shukla 2007, accessed 1 March 2017.)

For Patel, the act of burning was a means to emphasise the immediacy of the material he used. Eschewing any form of pictorial representation or space and colour, the technique asserted the authority of the material and the resultant marks and changes to it as the evidence of the artist’s intuitive action through destruction. In a pivotal statement, ‘I Do Not Create’ for the journal Contra ’66 in 1967, he proclaimed: ‘By burning wood, I am making an attack on it … nobody can create anything, the only thing that one can do is to destroy things. By the way of destroying or destruction I want to forget something.’ (Patel, ‘I Do Not Create’, in Contra ’66, June 1967, no.5–6, p10.)

The act of burning would facilitate Patel’s interest in the physical properties of matter and material and his attraction to black tones. As a result, the panels came to epitomise the artistic notions that he promoted throughout his career. During the exhibition with Group 1890 in New Delhi in 1963, he had named the wooden panels that he presented as Gestalts, a term often used in psychology to define the overall effect of an object or event that is made up of multiple elements. The term indicated that, for Patel, the totality of the elements in these works is to be experienced over the separate materials and techniques used to create them. He would rarely give titles or dates to his work, avoiding any connection to external references, choosing rather to prioritise the physical matter of the object itself and its material existence in front of the viewer.

At the time, the works were received as sculptural experiments by critics, yet Patel insisted on their relationship to painting, referring to their legibility as images when placed on a wall. He also dismissed any significance given to colour in his work, seeing these references as misleading to the natural materiality of the object. He explained, ‘My work has nothing to do with space and colour, nor does it refer to realities that are relevant and exist outside it. The work emerges on its own accord, has its own connotations, and makes, finds and accommodates its own existence, asserting its presence near and around with its radiant flavour, like pollen in the air.’ (Quoted in Marg 1968, p.57.)

Further reading
‘Jeram Patel’, Marg, vol.38, no.4, 1968, pp.57−61.
Prayag Shukla, ‘A Conversation with Jeram Patel’, originally published in Solo Exhibition of Paintings by Jeram Patel, exhibition catalogue, Anant Art Gallery, New Delhi 2007, available at Critical Collective: Artists’ Conversations,, accessed 5 April 2017.
Shruti Parthasarathy and Kishore Singh (eds.), Group 1890: India’s Indigenous Modernism, New Delhi 2016, pp.226−73.

Priyesh Mistry
April 2017

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Display caption

Patel began to experiment with burning laminated plywood with a blowtorch in the 1960s. His interest was in the physical properties of the material he used and how it changed through his interventions. He stated: ‘By burning wood, I am making an attack on it… nobody can create anything, the only thing that one can do is to destroy things.’ He rejected colour and representation in works like this, but stressed their relationship to painting. Displaying this on the wall, he felt, helped viewers to see it as an image.

Gallery label, April 2019

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