In the race to commit the most blatant display of selfishness in the art world, there is stiff competition. After all, it’s preview week of the Venice Biennale art extravaganza, which, despite a host of female artists and curators, marks its return after an extended Covid-induced absence with a celebratory meeting of two hulking male egos, Anselm Kiefer and Anish Kapoor.
Kiefer’s spectacular, magnificent creation in the Palazzo Ducale might just steal the show (it’s the first time a single artist has taken up the space, showcasing works by masters, including Tintoretto. And Kiefer has gone big, with 14 epic paintings in which lead, real gold, clothing – and pieces of shopping cart). But Kapoor’s double bill at the Galerie dell’Accademia, and in his own home, Palazzo Manfrin, contains something even Kiefer can’t match: his own, blackest of all black blacks.
Kapoor Black, as it’s now called, began life as Vanta Black, a space-age material — not technically a pigment because it’s grown from carbon nanotubes — developed in 2014 by specialist engineering firm Surrey NanoSystems.
Crucially, Vanta Black absorbs more than 99.9 percent of visible light, allegedly making it blacker than a black hole, so that a wristwatch covered with the material simply looks like a void.
For Kapoor, this super black, designed for use in precision optical instruments, was pure catnip: the ability to appear both completely flat and infinitely deep, the perfect material for a sculptor whose interest in the elision of surface and depth characterized his work for years. .
Kapoor’s claims about the blackest black are typically bombastic: in his new show at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, he proposes that by allowing shapes to appear and disappear at the same time, Kapoor Black offers nothing less than the ability to to go beyond being.
It’s the kind of thing where ancient armies went to war, so it’s fitting that Kapoor threw an exploratory hand grenade at his fellow artists in 2016 when he acquired the exclusive rights to use Vanta Black as an art material.
For the painter Christian Furr, Kapoor’s action was symbolic in his offensiveness: “I have 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’s not right that it belongs to one man.”
Retaliation was inevitable and came from another artist, Stuart Semple, whose latest offering, Black 3.0, marketed as “the blackest and most matte acrylic paint in the world” is available to everyone, as long as their name isn’t Anish Kapoor. Before that, he had produced the world’s Pinkest Pink, again available to all artists except Kapoor.
When Kapoor got his hands on an illegal party and shot his Ever So Pink middle finger on behalf of Semple, a truce seemed inevitable — even little kids would certainly have felt the need to move on now.
But to misquote Picasso, “Every artist is a child,” and the feud has erupted again with Kapoor’s latest body of work, with its liberal uses of Kapoor Black. The argument is a “ridiculous controversy,” he says, but maybe he should be less coy. After all, he’s just the latest in a long line of artists doing everything they can to gain the upper hand.
Before Kapoor Black, there was Yves Klein Blue, and before that, the old masters all had their secret recipes for varnishes and paints. And of all the places to revive this wonderfully entertaining art scene, Venice has a pleasing circularity – after all, it was in this great trading city that the Venetians got their hands on the very best pigments from around the world. Ultramarine Blue – priceless, but available here in abundance, the Vanta Black could be of its time. Though I’ll bet my last nanotube it wasn’t that entertaining.