Artsy Monopoly

Why everybody’s mad at Anish Kapoor

Art International Newsletter
Why everybody's mad at Anish Kapoor. Seen here: the material known as Vantablack.(Courtesy Anish Kapoor's Instagram:  Instagram.com/dirty_corner)
Why everybody's mad at Anish Kapoor. Seen here: the material known as Vantablack.(Courtesy Anish Kapoor's Instagram: Instagram.com/dirty_corner)

Anish Kapoor has everyone grumbling these days.

The knighted artist is known for his intellectual preoccupation with blood, female anatomy, nothingness, and obtuse-yet-high-drama installations—like his 2017 piece Descension in Brooklyn, an infinitely spinning whirlpool. Descension explores, Kapoor said, “negative space,” a concept which is arguably the crux of his work. His pieces can, on one hand, appear benign and purely decorative, like Blood Mirror (a concave bowl of arresting, reflective red) while some are severe in their violent ugliness, like Internal Object in Three Parts (a series of three meat-textured reliefs that, some would argue, are disarming in their vulgarity). Much of that vulgarity comes from his dogged pursuit of extreme materiality: he strokes his whimsy by making art that is desperately large in scope and overwhelming in its concentration of color. His work also often inevitably segues into his favorite topic: The Void.

A post shared by Anish Kapoor (@dirty_corner) on

Enter Vantablack: the blackest synthetic material on Earth. It absorbs almost all the light and radiation that hits its surface (99.96 percent of it) and was originally developed by British researchers in 2014 for aerospace, engineering, and optics. Vantablack, which is a substance made of “vertically aligned carbon nanotube arrays” (hence, “Vanta”), is “grown in a forest” of carbon nanotubes and is hydrophobic—absorbing no water. It makes everything around it look cartoonish against its unsettling lack of dimension. When sprayed on, it causes an optical illusion that flattens features and forms to render objects into a two-dimensional void. It’s so black that Surrey NanoSystems (the company that manufactures Vantablack) notes on its website that “it is often described as the closest thing to a black hole we’ll ever see.”



If there is any living artist with the clout, savvy, and the Nietzschean impulse to monopolize the closest incarnation of a black hole, it’s to no one’s surprise (and to many people’s chagrin) that the person would be Kapoor. He bought an exclusive license to use the material—making it impossible for other artists to access and experiment with it. Immediately, painter Christian Furr told the Daily Mail, “I’ve never heard of an artist monopolizing a material. This black is like dynamite in the art world…. It isn’t right that it belongs to one man.”

But it is not, as Wired notes, the first time an artist claimed rights on a color (artist Yves Klein famously patented his own hue of blue), nor did Kapoor actually create anything himself. Technically speaking, Kapoor did not monopolize the color black. Vantablack is not a paint or a color. It’s a material. It’s commercially unavailable. It’s engineered. It’s untouchable; the surface fades away when those microscopic nanotubes are disturbed. And it can only be applied by professionals. Surrey NanoSystems chose Kapoor as their highest-value bidder “because we didn’t have the bandwidth to work with more than one—we’re an engineering company—we decided Anish would be perfect,” Ben Jensen, the CTO at Surrey NanoSystems, told Wired. “His life’s work had revolved around light reflection and voids.”

Up yours #pink

A post shared by Anish Kapoor (@dirty_corner) on

All this caused a visceral irritation in the art world, at least on social media, and something else was afoot. Amid the high tempers over the ethics of access arrived Stuart Semple, a British artist nearly half Kapoor’s age who had a real problem with this whole situation. Semple, who creates and sells pigments on his website, showed up with his little bottle of fluorescent pink—or as he labeled it, The Pinkest Pink. Semple called Kapoor a “rotter” in a YouTube video because he refused to “share the black” and thus inspired social media warfare with its seminal tool: the hashtag #Sharetheblack became a trending topic. So did Stuart Semple’s website, which disparagingly addresses Kapoor’s monopoly and also states a legal caveat about The Pinkest Pink’s purchase:

Purchasers of PINK will be required to make a legal declaration during the online checkout process though, confirming 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 that hands of Anish Kapoor.

If you order some I hope you love it. And please if you get a chance tell @anishkapoor_art to #ShareTheBlack

Semple bagged both empathy and sales. If Twitter and Instagram commentaries were any indication of the general feeling of discontent, they also mobilized a marketing campaign for Semple, who sold not only oodles of color but perhaps a philosophy—or maybe a protest against monopoly.

Painting atom bombs – photo: Nadia Amura, 2014

A post shared by Stuart Semple (@stuartsemple) on

It would make sense that an artist with the fame, street cred, and agency of Kapoor would be the first to get his hands on Vantablack. And it’s little surprise that Kapoor got his hands (or, more precisely, his middle finger) on something else, despite the ban against him: Semple’s Pinkest Pink. He proceeded to post an image on Instagram with his middle finger dipped in the powder with a caption “up yours #pink,” sparking outrage. It probably doesn’t help that, aside from his Instagram post, Kapoor has remained mum on the topic. When asked for comment, his representatives responded with scientific information on Vantablack—deftly stating that “Vantablack is not a paint, it’s a material.” (Fair. Point noted.)

On Semple and Kapoor’s Instagram accounts, users provide support and drama, respectively. Comments on Semple’s Instagram read generally like this:

Comments on Kapoor’s Instagram, on the other hand, are far less wholesome. Here are some PG examples:

  • Pine_straw_mtn: “You bought exclusive rights to this paint, and the only thing you did with it is make a hole? The guy who invented this stuff literally has an example of a hole illusion in the tests, and you just copied that? You couldn’t think of anything more creative? You are the cancer of the art world.”
  • mcd: “A real artist would not need a color or lack thereof all to them selfs you are far from a true artist”
  • io: “Capitalist scum”
  • Awkwardjosie: “You’re not a bad artist, but you’re a shitty person. Imagine how your fan base and exposure could grow if you have up the rights. Just a thought.”

It’s unclear what Kapoor will try to do with Vantablack, aside from post on Instagram and create a predictable circle on the floor. It’s also unclear why Kapoor won’t talk about any of this, especially if—given his pink-dipped finger—he knows what’s happening.

A post shared by Anish Kapoor (@dirty_corner) on

Is the reactionary conversation surrounding this—which many may call petty and some may call productive and ethical—exactly the point? Did Kapoor play his cards this way on purpose as a piece of performance art? Or was that Semple’s idea in using Kapoor’s name and a philosophy of artistic access as “brand” for his product?

You’d think the beef would die down after Semple got his big boost, but just last week, the drama once again reignited with Semple’s release of Phaze, a color changing paint that goes from purple to The Pinkest Pink, and Shift, a color-changing rainbow paint. His video posts on Instagram included a link to buy the products, and of course, the hashtag #sharetheblack. One wonders whether those involved in this conversation speak out of moral obligation, or from a place of altruism, or whether this whole thing is really a matter of attacking the Kapoor and his power.

By the way, not only has Kapoor ticked off artists, it seems, but also his neighbors. His recent decision to add a floor extension to his London home caused his neighbors to create a petition to “to help try to stop Anish Kapoor [from] blocking our precious light & view, a valuable thing in our crowded city.”

The plea continues: “You’d think Anish Kapoor would understand the value of light, colour, and social responsibility.”

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