A generous concave sculpture polished to luminous perfection, Anish Kapoor’s Untitled seduces the viewer with every inch of its meticulously smooth surface. At over three feet in diameter, the work envelops the viewer with its majestic scale and continually changing visual experience. Staring into its gleaming interior, the surface appears to fluctuate and ripple with every slight movement and alteration of light. Playing with the idea of negative space, Untitled is a recessive interior that paradoxically encompasses and emphasizes what is outside of it. Reflecting back a beguiling version of the surrounding environment with a rich optical illusion, the work destabilizes the viewer’s expectations by creating an alternative reality within the confines of the sphere. This bewitching, transformative power is what first compelled Kapoor to pair the polished, mirrored surface with the concave shape. Speaking of the appealing effect of this combination, he has said “The interesting thing about a polished surface to me is that when it is really perfect enough something happens—it literally ceases to be physical; it levitates; it does something else what happens with concave surfaces is, in my view, completely beguiling. They cease to be physical and it is that ceasing to be physical that I'm after” (A. Kapoor, quoted in Anish Kapoor, exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2008, p. 53).
Executed in 2004, the work is a signature piece from a wider body of work that pairs curved structures and reflective exteriors, something which first started to fascinate Kapoor during the mid-1990s. Now forming a substantial body of work within his celebrated oeuvre, many works that explore Untitled’s nebulous qualities of distortion and reflection are on view in museums and public spaces around the world. It is the sensation of surprise engendered by the subversion of the viewer’s visual expectations that has always motivated Kapoor, and that he continues to investigate through his diverse and ambitious practice. His desire to capture the intangible sensation of being tricked by a visual illusion, such as when what appears to be a solid, physical material turns out to be nothing more than a fleeting reflection, can be seen as type of contemporary sublime. Like the Romantic painters who saw great symbolism within the intangible majesty of a dramatic landscape, Kapoor celebrates invisible sensations as if they were the material itself. Manipulating perspective and visual sensation as if was part of the physical world carves out a unique space that is original within the trajectory of art history. “If the traditional sublime is in deep space,” Kapoor has said, “then this is proposing that the contemporary sublime is in front of the picture plane, not beyond it this is a whole new spatial adventure. To make new art you have to make a new space” (Ibid.).
Born in India in 1954, and educated at art schools in London during the late 1970s, Kapoor was one of a generation of sculptors who came to international prominence in the 1980s. But he carved a distinctive path for himself, rebelling against the prevailing sculptural tradition of truth to materials – the notion that the sculptor should play to the material’s natural qualities, and not try obscure or subvert their appearance. “It seemed to me”, Kapoor has said, “that art is all about illusion and the unreal. ‘Truth to materials’ ran, and runs, contrary to everything I want to do” (A. Kapoor, quoted in ‘Kapoor on Kapoor’, The Guardian, 8 November 2008). What fascinated him instead was the opposite: the hidden, the invisible, and the mystical. He began to make sculptures using pure pigment, creating bright, halo like shapes that suggested an absent or hidden object. “There was part of it that protruded into the world but the rest was really interesting. If you look at the pigment pieces, nearly everything else I have done is set there, and I keep going back to them” (Ibid). The influence of his cosmopolitan childhood also set Kapoor apart from many of his contemporaries. Returning to India after art school, he realized that what he had absorbed from a young age growing up in an Eastern culture had affected his attitude to the object – “I was making objects that were about doing, about ritual. It was that 'doingness', that almost religious doing, that I saw everywhere ... It felt like a huge affirmation" (Ibid).
Kapoor’s respect for the agency of the creator when making sculpture also extends to the viewer, for their experience is integrated within the work itself. By creating spaces that can be seen but do not exist, Untitled plays on the felt tension between what is real and what is imagined. This paradox creates confusion between the body and the mind, defying ordinary logic and highlighting our natural desire for certainty. It privileges the viewer’s experience over the artist’s underlying intellectualised conceit, and as a result celebrates an alchemy that is specific to art. It is after all, Kapoor believes, “the artist's duty to find poetic meaning in things" (A. Kapoor, quoted in C. Higgins, ‘A Life in Art: Anish Kapoor’, The Guardian, 8 November 2008).
Jeff Koons. Rabbit. 1986.
Photograph © Louie Psihoyos/CORBIS.
Artwork: © Jeff Koons.
Anish Kapoor with Her Blood, Flashback exhibition, 2011, Manchester Art Gallery,
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.
© 2014 Anish Kapoor / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London.
Robert Smithson. Three Mirror Vortex. 1965. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
© Estate of Robert Smithson/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY.