Anish Kapoor is a contemporary British-born Indian sculptor and installation artist with a long and varied career. In 1991, Kapoor won the Turner Prize and in 2009 was the first living artist to hold a solo exhibition at Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts. He is perhaps best known for large-scale sculptures and public artworks made from simple, biomorphic shapes, including pieces such as his famous sculpture at Millennium Park in Chicago, Cloud Gate (colloquially known as ‘The Bean’). As another hallmark of his work, Kapoor has a few visually striking materials he often defaults to. Many works, like Cloud Gate, are constructed with steel polished to a mirror-like finish. Others make copious use of sanguine wax. Kapoor’s love for visually distinct surfaces led him into controversy with Vantablack.
Anish Kapoor Begins the Vantablack Controversy
In 2014, Surrey NanoSystems released a material called ‘Vantablack.’ At the time, Vantablack was famously promoted as the world’s blackest black, absorbing 99.965% of visible light. That same year, Kapoor began to use this newly developed material in his artwork. Though it was developed primarily for its engineering application, Kapoor immediately recognized the artistic potential for ‘Vantablack’: the material is so dark, it gives the appearance of complete flatness.
In fact, Kapoor had pursued such an effect in his artwork before, with works like Descent Into Limbo, a 600 cm cube installation view in Serralves, Porto, composed of a circular hole in the floor, the walls of which are painted black to give the impression of an absolute void. Thus, the promise of a thin material achieving the same visual result was understandably irresistible to Kapoor.
Anish Kapoor’s initially innocent interest in Vantablack became controversial in 2016. After a few years of experimentation with the material, Kapoor struck a deal with Surrey NanoSystems: he bought the exclusive rights to Vantablack’s use as an art material. This development caused immediate friction in the art world, with many decrying Kapoor’s actions, claiming that he was stealing from the artistic community.
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Exclusive Colors of the Past
An artist monopolizing any material, in any context, is likely grounds for outrage. The practice, however, is not without precedent. Back in the 1960s, Yves Klein patented a mixture of blue pigment (International Klein Blue, or IKB), which became his signature color in a series of monochrome paintings. Beyond legal restrictions, some art materials throughout history have been difficult to access for other reasons. Ultramarine blue, for instance, was traditionally made with powdered lapis lazuli, making it prohibitively expensive until a synthetic alternative was developed in the 19th century. The recipe for Mummy Brown paint includes actual, ground-up mummies, and has not been produced since the early 20th century in part because of the dwindling supply of mummies.
Regarding Vantablack, still, there are a number of complicating factors, which make it a somewhat unique situation. Vantablack is not merely expensive, but exclusively available (for artistic purposes) to Kapoor. Further, Kapoor himself did not create the material, he just bought the rights to it. Perhaps most importantly, Vantablack itself has an inherent and powerful emotional quality because of what it is: the world’s blackest black.
The Appeal of Vantablack
In the case of Kapoor and Vantablack in particular, there is, perhaps, another dimension to the outrage. Vantablack and its flattening effect have an immediate and visceral aesthetic power. To understand this controversy in total, the emotional appeal of color like Vantablack must be considered. Klein’s blue, for example, was just a particular shade of blue. Vantablack is, in contrast, the purest, most complete black on the market. The idea of ‘the blackest black’ is, in and of itself, deeply enticing. The controversy around Vantablack and Kapoor exploded so dramatically, at least in part, because of this essential allure surrounding diverse materials so dark it shrouds form.
The Art World Reacts
Among the wide derision expressed towards Kapoor’s actions, the artist Christian Furr made the case that Kapoor was hurting the artistic community in an interview: “I’ve never heard of an artist monopolizing a material… All the best artists have had a thing for pure black – Turner, Manet, Goya… This black is like dynamite in the art world. We should be able to use it. It isn’t right that it belongs to one man.” As Furr notes, artists throughout the years have used color, pure blacks especially, to various and great effects. The idea of denying access to the purest black to date, then, is in no small way a crime against art. For many artists, there was no reason, other than greed or malice, that Kapoor would do this.
Not willing to back down, Kapoor tried to explain his actions “Why exclusive? Because it’s a collaboration, because I am wanting to push them to a certain use for it. I’ve collaborated with people who make things out of stainless steel for years and that’s exclusive.” Though Kapoor felt that he had to work closely with the makers of ‘Vantablack’ to realize its artistic potential, many still felt his choice to retain exclusive rights to the color was wrongful.
The Pinkest Pink
The most direct and biting reaction to Kapoor’s monopoly on Vantablack, however, was Stuart Semple’s. As another British artist, Semple found himself likewise allured by the abyssal color. Following his discovery of Kapoor’s artistic monopoly on the material, Semple hatched a plan. In the last days of 2016, retribution found Kapoor in the perhaps unlikely, but certainly poetic form of new pigment developed by Semple, one which he claimed to be the “Pinkest Pink.” It was posted for sale on Semple’s website with this legal rider:
“By adding this product to your cart you confirm that you are not Anish Kapoor, you are in no way affiliated to Anish Kapoor, you are not purchasing this item on behalf of Anish Kapoor or an associate of Anish Kapoor. To the best of your knowledge, information and belief this paint will not make its way into the hands of Anish Kapoor.”
Semple’s hopes for the stunt were humble, he explained: “I thought I might sell one or two, but the website itself would be almost like a piece of performance art, and the pink jar would be like an artwork.” These expectations were, however, far, far exceeded, and Semple attracting a wave of attention, soon found himself with thousands of orders to fulfill.
Semple’s pink quickly caught Kapoor’s notice, however, and he wasted no time striking back, further building the controversy, with one uncomplicated image posted to Instagram.
With growing public antagonism between Semple and Kapoor, Semple set out to circumvent his opponent’s exclusive claim to the world’s blackest black. Semple explains “[the Instagram post] kind of upped the ante. At that point, everybody started writing in and asking me to make a black.” Semple obliged, developing a prototype black paint in early 2017, which he brought to numerous other artists and paintmakers, collaborating to improve the pigment and darken its color. Eventually, “Black 2.0” was unveiled and made publicly available, just as the pinkest pink had been, to all except Anish Kapoor.
Subsequently, Stuart Semple has released both the third iteration of his black paint, as well as “Diamond Dust,” a product he calls “The World’s Most Glittery Glitter.” Fittingly, none of these products are available to Anish Kapoor. A 150ml tube of Semple’s “Black 3.0” can be purchased for the reasonable price of £21.99, which boasts a similar flattening effect to the prohibitively expensive Vantablack. To date, Kapoor has been able to make only sparring use of Vantablack due to the extreme expense and difficulty of producing large quantities of the material.
Blacker Than Vantablack
Vantablack is no longer the blackest black on the market: in 2019, a material was developed at MIT which absorbs 99.995% of light. This new material was unveiled by way of new artwork by Diemut Strebe, installed at the New York Stock Exchange, entitled The Redemption of Vanity. The piece consists of a single diamond, coated in this new, darkest material, thus appearing as an absolute void.
Further, Strebe and the team of engineers at MIT Boston released this statement alongside the artwork: “The project can also be interpreted as a statement against British artist Anish Kapoor’s purchase of exclusive rights to a formula of carbon nanotubes as a material for artworks. Strebe and Wardle use a different composition of carbon nanotubes, which will be available for any artist to use.” This, it would seem, will finally end the controversy surrounding Kapoor and Vantablack, as both Semple’s functionally similar, and much cheaper paint, as well as an objectively darker material now exist for the use of all artists.