On a cloudy Saturday last weekend before the opening of his sixth solo show at Regen Projects, which has worked with the Indian-born, British artist since 1992, Anish Kapoor was upbeat, even boisterous. The artist was performing a walkthrough of his eponymous exhibition that featured nothing but monumentally scaled, materially dense paintings attempting to capture the emotional, spiritual and phenomenological qualities of blood, viscera and ritual sacrifice. These viscous revelations have become his subject of choice, like a gag-reflexing version of Morandi’s vessels, for more than four decades.
“For whatever reason and it’s hard for me to properly understand what that is, red has always been at the center, I keep coming back to it all the time,” says Kapoor who famously shot 20-pound plugs of waxy red paint into the corners of galleries with a canon for his beloved Shooting into the Corner (2008-2099) installations. For his 2009 piece Svayambh (2009), which means “self-manifested” in Sanskrit, the 68 year-old artist loaded the same paint on a 30-ton train and ran it through five galleries, smudging the arched doorways like a crime scene, at London’s Royal Academy.
“It’s deeply sexual, it’s like shit, and because it’s red it becomes this train to Auschwitz. Hundreds of things emerged out of this straightforward process,” says Kapoor, who is dressed in a gray linen blazer, navy polo, and black trousers with matching trainers, giving him more the air of off-duty classics professor rather than bête noire of the art world.
Kapoor is known primarily for his sculptures, which range from the ethereal (architectonic forms and stones drenched in raw white, black, red, yellow and blue pigments) to the ontological (countless works in various colors, form, and materials invoking the void) and the populist (his iconic polished steel works including rainbow hued or disco ball invoking parabolic mirrors and the world famous, selfie-instigating Cloud Gate, aka “The Bean”, which reflects the Chicago Skyline from the McCormick Tribune Plaza in Millenium Park).
A great many of these works have become controversial. A smaller version of Cloud Gate—or “the mini-Bean”—wedged under the Herzog & de Meuron-designed Jenga Tower, where he owns an apartment, has been called everything from “an eyesore that no one asked for” (ArtNews) to “a giant dollop of mercury spilling out of the base of a 60-story luxury high rise” (Chicago Sun-Times).
Kapoor himself scandalized his Dirty Corner, a 200-foot long COR-TEN steel sculpture that he installed at Versailles in 2015, with a glancing reference comparing it to Marie Antoinette’s vagina. That loose talk, especially in the wake of Paul McCarthy’s giant green butt plug sculpture causing a stir outside the FIAC fair, engendered enough backlash that vandals tagged it with yellow paint. Kapoor responded: “I never said ‘The Queen. I referred to ‘her’ or ‘she,’ to describe a form that could be feminine, lying on the grass like an Egyptian queen or a sphinx…
“Labeling Dirty Corner ‘Vagina Queen’ is a way to belittle my work, to insult my art, and smear my work… I do not seek provocation,” he added.
Perhaps. But whether Kapoor intends to provoke or not, his practice has become a political lightning rod. Before the “mini-Bean” he was in hot water after the British tech company Surrey NanoSystems gave Kapoor exclusive artistic use of its Vantablack coating, which the company calls “the darkest man-made substance” which is comprised of carbon nanotubes that essentially absorb all the light around them.
Now known as Kapoor Black (the aforementioned bloody paint is called Kapoor Red), the technology and its ties to Kapoor caused the artist and pigment maker Stuart Semple, who created what he calls the world’s “pinkest pink” to forbid Kapoor or anyone working for him from acquiring it. Kapoor trolls have even taunted him online about painting Cloud Gate with Semple’s pink just to annoy him. To be fair, Kapoor didn’t go and raid a paint store of all the world’s Vantablack, which is also quite dangerous and toxic, so when I ribbed him about why he thinks he’s so controversial he just laughed.
“Oh, am I?” he said, adding. “People just don’t understand, it’s not a paint, it’s a deeply complicated bloody technical process. It’s really a nightmare to work with.”
For Kapoor, who recently employed Vantablack on a series of sculptures at a two-venue retrospective during last year’s Venice Biennale to great acclaim, this is more about getting at what Kazimir Malevich called the “four-dimensional object”; code for the spiritual.
“The weird thing about this black material is that when you put it on a fold and you look at it at 90 degrees you can’t see it. It’s an illusion, but what art isn’t?” asks Kapoor. When I tell him that Vantablack made an appearance in the Hulu series Fleishman is in Trouble, popping up in a fictional exhibition that troubles the fragile psyche of the show’s recently divorced protagonist father (played by Jesse Eisenberg), Kapoor perks up and says, “I’m going to watch this.”
Painting, by contrast, seems like a space, perhaps the only space, where Kapoor is not courting too much controversy. It’s a practice he does alone, in a section of his vast London studio—he also lives in a Venetian palazzo—where he works solo.
“I’ve made paintings for 30, 40 years—a long time, but I’ve hardly ever shown them. When I have, I’ve then done this intermediary step where I’ve only shown paintings and sculptures. And now I feel that I need to give them a voice of their own,” says Kapoor of the Regen Projects show, which is the first exhibition devoted solely to his paintings.
In the gallery, Kapoor has removed the dividing wall inside the main exhibition space, turning it into a vast kunsthalle where he’s installed a dozen canvases, some stretching 10 feet tall, and all featuring his bloody Kapoor Red. Kapoor’s extruding red masses are painted at a distance with sticks, while his lush, sometimes ethereal backgrounds are made very intimately by his hand and the edges of his fist. They investigate everything from a handful of astral skies bursting forth with wound-like crimson supernovas to a pair of gored female forms titled Dead Mother and Dead Mother II.
When asked about his sustained focus with all the death and destruction, especially the works invoking the maternal figure, Kapoor answers in a lilting singsong; “Am I fucked up? Is that what you’re asking?” He asks with a laugh. Then in a sobering voice, adds: “Andre Green wrote a great book called The Dead Mother, which is all about the child and the post-Lacanian idea of the child consuming the mother. There are all kinds of references in art history and religious history of the eviscerated male body. But what happens to the woman? She gets raped, she gets put down, but she’s never allowed to be in dead glory.”
While Kapoor said during his walkthrough that he thinks we are living through perhaps the most violent period in human history, when asked if these paintings weren’t some mirror for the current moment, he said he thought it was a gamble to make work that responds to any particular political moment or identity politics, which he called “tedious.”
“Woe betide the artist who seeks to look at the historical moment. Disaster. Don’t do it. In Buddhism they say all willful acts miss the mark,” says Kapoor, who is currently planning another painting show in New York. Though that might seem like a willful act, he says he just wants to see if these new paintings, which swallow up the viewer with their epically-scaled phantasmagorical gore, hold up on their own without “fudging the issue” and “making excuses” for them with other objects in the gallery as anchors.
“As an artist, what’s the point of doing what we do if we can’t be vulnerable? It’s not to prove how great I am,” he says. “Who cares in the end?”
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