Anish Kapoor – The Vantablack Feud

The origin of the world - Anish Kapoor. Image credit: tonykuoli via Flickr. The origin of the world - Anish Kapoor. Image credit: tonykuoli via Flickr.

It’s not often that colors are at the heart of controversies, however famous Indian-born British artist, Anish Kapoor managed to do exactly that. His studio purchased the exclusive rights to the artistic use of Surrey NanoSystem’s “blackest black”, Vantablack coating. It’s safe to say the art world did not sit idly by. At the heart of the feud is the notion of exclusivity, and not necessarily exclusivity in appearance, but specifically the exclusivity of a color. So who is Anish Kapoor and what happened?

Born in Mumbai in 1954, Anish Kapoor is a British sculptor known for his use of abstract forms, and his love for rich colors and polished surfaces. Upon leaving school, Kapoor spent a few years on a Kibbutz in Israel, where he decided to stay and train to become an engineer. Within 6 months, the realization that life as an engineer wasn’t for him had dawned and he decided to pursue a career in art, in London instead. After completing his studies in art, the young artist returned to his native India for a visit. On this trip, he gained a new perspective on the country, finding a new appreciation for its colors, shapes and textures. 

Kapoor’s Notable Works

1000 Names

As a result of his newfound inspiration, he created 1000 Names, a series of vividly colored abstract structures that are reminiscent of the ancient pyramids, modern skyscrapers and church spires.

According to the artist, “1000 Names implies that the objects are part of a much bigger whole. The objects seem to be coming out of the ground or the wall, the powder defining a surface, implying that there is something below the surface, like an iceberg poking out of the subconscious.”  Whilst 1000 Names might be small in comparison to some of his later works, Kapoor consistently investigates and interrogates form, material and space. Other works include Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

Cloud Gate

Anish Kapoor - Cloud Gate is the centerpiece of AT&T Plaza at Millennium Park in Chicago.

Anish Kapoor – Cloud Gate is the centerpiece of AT&T Plaza at Millennium Park in Chicago. Image credit: Mariano Mantel via Flickr.

This 110-ton archway is an oval-shaped structure made of highly polished stainless steel. It’s been nicknamed “The Bean” due to its shape, and is also Kapoor’s first permanent installation in the US.

ArcelorMittal Orbit

ArcelorMittal Orbit was completed in 2011. Standing at 377ft tall, it is the UK’s tallest sculpture. ArcelorMittal Orbit consists of two parts (a central “trunk” and a winding red tube that snakes around the outside), both clad in a red lattice made of tubular steel. It was designed by Kapoor along with the artist Cecil Balmond and the engineering firm, Arup Group by commission as part of the landscape of the Queen Elizabeth Park in Stratford (created for the 2012 London Olympics). The name is a combination of that of the sponsor, the ArcelorMittal steel company, and Orbit – the original working title for Kapoor and Balmond’s design. 

The ArcelorMittal Orbit tower, London. Image credit: Gary Campbell-Hall via Flickr. 

The ArcelorMittal Orbit tower, London. Image credit: Gary Campbell-Hall via Flickr.

In an effort to continue to attract crowds after the buzz of the Olympics had died down, designers came up with new ways for visitors to interact with the sculpture: they can either abseil down the tower, or enjoy a ride down the world’s longest and tallest tunnel slide (measuring 584ft, it is longer than the combined length of six basketball courts). The tunnel slide also incorporates transparent sections to allow for a “different perspective” of the tower and its surrounds.

Vantablack – What is it?

Anish Kapoor - Untitled. Sold for $110,000 via Sotheby's (May 2017)

Anish Kapoor – Untitled. Sold for $110,000 via Sotheby’s (May 2017).

So how did such a reputable and recognized artist stir up such controversy around Vantablack? Before delving into the feud, understanding the context is important. So what exactly is Vantablack? Simply put, Vantablack is a brand name for an extremely black carbon coating which was developed by a company called NanoSystems.  

Invented by Ben Jensen, chief technology officer at Surrey based technology company, NanoSystems, Vantablack is a coating that absorbs almost all light and reflects almost none back. This makes anything covered in Vantablack appear eerily flat, empty and void of texture. This coating consists of microscopic stems of carbon which are 300 times as tall as they are wide, trapping much more light than it reflects. This is what gives Vantablack its almost unnatural looking tone.

This initial coating was transformed into Vantablack S-VIS, a sprayable paint. Kapoor’s studio acquired the exclusive rights to the paint, and specifically for it to be used as an artistic material.

Fallout From the Artistic Community

As a result, a number of artists have expressed their discontent with the idea that exclusivity over a material or tone should be granted to any one artist. The painter, Christian Furr, said “[I have] never heard of an artist monopolising 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.” 

However the most notable opposition to Kapoor’s license was British artist, Stuart Semple. Semple was one of the first to experiment on the internet with digital art. He is a firm believer that art should be accessible to everyone and that anyone should have access to materials. Semple took a very public moral stance against Kapoor’s purchase of the exclusive rights to Vantablack in 2016, finding it contrary to his belief that accessibility in art is essential.

Stuart Semple’s Retaliation to Vantablack

Semple had always mixed his own paints and pigments. But when Kapoor purchased the rights to Vantablack, Semple launched his own online store.

Rather than hoard these amazing creations to use all for himself, so that he and he alone could wield the power of the colouriest colours, Stuart Semple made to share these potent concoctions of his with all artists (except one – his arch nemesis Kapoor the colour hoarder).

Quote from Semple’s website,

The first of his paints to launch was the “Pinkest Pink”. Semple made this available to anyone who wished to buy it. Except for Anish Kapoor. Or someone not purchasing it on behalf of Anish Kapoor. Or an associate of Anish Kapoor. This is conveyed across the website in countless notices, cookie confirmation notifications, and check out messages. In an interview with Wired, Semple said “that was it. That was the point. 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.”

Kapoor responded with an Instagram post, middle finger covered in Semple’s ‘Pinkest Pink’ powder and the simple caption: “Up yours”.

Semple wasn’t happy that Kapoor had got his hands on the paint, so he made a new color. This time it was his own take on the “blackest black”. Since then, the black paint has undergone a number of iterations. The latest, “Black 3.0,” absorbs 99.9% of light, and handles like an acrylic paint. Since “Black 3.0” was released in 2019, there’s been no response from Kapoor, and Semple has continued to release new colors and finishes. Among them, the brightest white, and TIFF BLUE, Semple’s own take on Tiffany & Co.’s iconic turquoise blue. It’s worth noting that none of these colors are available to buy if you are Anish Kapoor, associated with Anish Kapoor or plan on letting the paint make its way into the hands of Anish Kapoor.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that exclusivity of a color has ruffled feathers. In 1959, Yves Klein developed International Klein Blue, or IKB, and with it created a signature series of monochrome paintings. Of course, Semple developed a response in the form of Easy Klein: IKB (which in this case stands for Incredibly Kleinish Blue).

Kapoor has always maintained the same stance when questioned about his actions: “Why exclusive? Because it’s a collaboration, because I am wanting to push them [NanoSystems] to a certain use for it. I’ve collaborated with people who make things out of stainless steel for years and that’s exclusive”.

Regardless of which side of the fence you find yourself on, it’s safe to say that when it comes to colors, sharing and collaborating, the art world can still be extremely competitive, petty and downright hilarious. But it also begs an audience to reflect on the materials used as well as the subject of an artwork. Should artists be able to have access to exclusive colors? Does it make a difference if the artists mixed it themselves? The answers to the above might not be a simple right or wrong, it certainly is something that adds yet another consideration to the act of admiring artwork.