Subodh Gupta, the most recognizable contemporary artist in India to emerge from the last art boom, watched his auction prices falter with the recession. Now, the 50-year-old artist known for piling shiny lunch-pails into massive sculptures is enjoying a closer look—at home.
On Friday, New Delhi's National Gallery of Modern Art opened the first major museum survey in India of Mr. Gupta's art, a hometown validation that could bolster his support among collectors locally and abroad.
Mr. Gupta's 40-work exhibit, "Everything Is Inside," is curated by former Venice Biennale director Germano Celant and fills both of the museum's sprawling spaces. The original Art Deco building—a onetime palace for the maharajah of Jaipur—displays Mr. Gupta's new series of small paintings that depict meals he's eaten lately, his version of a food diary captured in crisp miniature. Other areas feature the artist's steel and bronze renditions of objects that symbolize India's global growth: piles of workaday lunch dishes, called tiffin boxes, as well as taxis and airport luggage carts laden with bulging suitcases.
One of several new works in the museum's glassy new wing is "Solid Water," a 60-foot-long wave of silvery dishware arranged so that it appears to spill out of a corridor and cascade down some stairs into the lobby. It is inspired by the "devastating beauty" of natural disasters like tsunamis, the artist said in an interview. (An opening in the middle of the piece will let visitors use the stairs.)
"A good artist starts with his roots and uses that cultural identity to say something larger to the international art world," Mr. Celant said. "But for an artist like Subodh, it's also important to come back and be seen at home."
Born in northeastern India, Mr. Gupta grew up copying pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses like those he saw dancing in his mother's calendars. By 1989 he had gained an important patron in the then-chairman of Tata Steel, 500470.BY +1.91% Russi Mody, who sponsored a gallery show of Mr. Gupta's earthen-hued early paintings and bought a few himself for around $400 apiece.
Seven years later, heavyweight international collectors like Christie's owner François Pinault had taken notice, and Mr. Gupta's career arguably shot up faster than anyone else's. Some of his asking prices topped $1 million or more.
That doesn't mean European and American collectors fully understood his art. Mr. Gupta said he intended his use of tiffin lunchtime dishes, gleaming and empty, to evoke the rampant hunger still faced by India's poor, but art circles largely overlooked this critique.
When the market crashed, Mr. Gupta said, he felt relieved. The waiting lists for his works fell away and, with them, market pressure to produce a continual avalanche of pieces. "In the pressure, I made some bad works I wish I hadn't made," he said.
India's contemporary art scene hasn't bounced back to the same degree as other emerging art hubs like, say, China. Dozens of galleries and biennials exist across India, but the scene lacks China's government-supported, museum-building boom and auction proliferation. Christie's only held its first auction in India last month.
Mr. Gupta's auction prices still haven't fully recovered. In October 2012, Sotheby's sold "Cheap Rice," one of his dish-laden rickshaws from 2006, for $387,799; during the market's peak in 2008, Christie's sold a similar rickshaw for $842,500. But collector and dealer Aparajita Jain, who works for a Delhi gallery that handles Mr. Gupta's art in India, said she thinks his prices, and career, still matter to India's contemporary art scene overall.
Ms. Jain said that is because Mr. Gupta remains one of a handful of Indian artists of the boom-era generation—alongside Jitish Kallat and Mr. Gupta's wife, Bharti Kher —whose prices serve as a referendum on the health of India's contemporary world. "The art bubble burst in India and weeded out the artists that were not going to stay," Ms. Jain said.
The NGMA show, up through March 16, could reinforce Mr. Gupta's career, said Mr. Celano.
Even so, the curator said the gems of the exhibit aren't Mr. Gupta's oversize hits. Mr. Celant said he sees fresh potential in the plate-size paintings that Mr. Gupta has started making of his meals—a meditation on food that could resonate in any culture, Mr. Celano said. "To paint your own plate is such a personal thing," he added. "It also shows Subodh is not afraid to change."