Mrinalini Mukherjee, installation view of “Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee,” with (left to right): Palmscape II, 2013; Mound III, 2009; and Palmscape IV, 2013, all bronze. Photo: © Mrinalini Mukherjee, Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mrinalini Mukherjee

New York

The Met Breuer

The work of Mrinalini Mukherjee (1949–2015) is astounding, melding craft, high concept, and humor with the consequences of pressing Modernism through the sieve of traditional Indian cultural forms. Her sculptures are overtly sensual, referencing aspects of human sexuality and the fecundity of nature. Both simple and complex, they play at the boundaries between abstract and figurative, artificial and natural. Despite the fact that her titles are mostly in Sanskrit and the subjects thematically derived from vernacular Indian temple adornment and the Hindu pantheon, her work is entirely secular. Rather than faith, it radiates a formal language deeply inflected by sensuality. Mukherjee imbued her forms with the same emotions evoked by the traditional sculptures of Vedic deities—she had no inhibitions about moving her work into the realm of the uncanny.

A bravura display of handwork, “Phenomenal Nature” was staggering for the extreme and sustained labor required to create the objects on view. Throughout a 40-year career, Mukherjee maintained a near manic level of passionate intensity—nothing less was required by her awkward, physically demanding, painstaking, and repetitive processes of fabrication. Her textile sculptures are singular not only in their forms and materials, but also in their extreme coloration: pulsating reds and hot oranges, intense indigos, purples, and greens. Her ceramic and bronze works, though not as concerned with color, emphasize the value she placed on working with her hands in malleable materials. She treated all of her chosen media in a totally spontaneous and intuitive fashion, never making preliminary sketches, drawings, or models.

Mukherjee produced biomorphic and totemic forms throughout her career, transitioning from fiber to ceramics in the ’90s and from ceramics to lost wax bronze casting in the early 2000s. The show was divided between the large, theatrical, knotted works that represent the first part of her career and a body of ceramic and cast bronze sculptures made until her death. The textile works consist of thousands of knots made in chemically dyed, natural-fiber rope. These large, multi-part figurative sculptures sometimes employ armatures or are suspended in such a way as to drape just at the floor. The stiff, sensuous folds of knotted rope have a distinctly sexual muscular ripple.

While echoing the folds of the knotted pieces at a smaller scale, the ceramics and bronzes are particularly focused on the fecundity of nature. Their hybridized imagery is neither figurative nor abstract but something futuristic, like a new species. The cast bronze sculptures are arguably the most inventive and unconventional part of Mukherjee’s body of work. To make them, she impressed sheets of wax on palm fronds, leaves, and pieces of wood. She thought of the objects cast from these materials as “wings,” “outcrops,” “clusters,” and “palmscapes.” When she was told that the lost wax casting process would not produce the kind of detail she wanted, she finished them in high detail using orthodontic tools.

Mukherjee began exhibiting internationally during the 1980s, with major shows in Paris, London, Oxford, Havana, and Sydney. She died in 2015 shortly before the opening of a large retrospective in New Delhi. “Phenomenal Nature” was her first U.S. exhibition.