Studio visit: Anish Kapoor’s Venetian palace
After a gruelling two years, Anish Kapoor is nearly ready to unveil his foundation’s new home: a freshly restored palazzo in Venice. Ahead of its launch in April 2022 — and a solo exhibition at the Accademia — he invited Christie’s to his London studio for a glimpse of what’s in store
Pulling back the door of a nondescript warehouse opposite a school playground in south London, the sculptor Anish Kapoor reveals his latest work: a huge mound of red and black acrylic that looks like a violently erupting volcano.
It’s been 10 weeks in the making and weighs two and a half tonnes — and it’s still not finished. This month, it’ll be installed upside down in the entrance hall of a Venetian palazzo recently acquired by Kapoor. ‘I told you I’m a mad fool!’ he laughs.
Kapoor has strong emotional ties to Venice. He says that the city’s ‘dark, maternal waters’ call to him.
He first found fame there in 1990, when he was selected to represent Great Britain at the Biennale. His work Void Field, comprising 16 giant sandstone blocks, set an early precedent for his ambitions of scale — the pavilion’s floor had to be reinforced to support their gargantuan weight. But his efforts paid off: he was awarded the Premio Duemila, intended to honour the work of an artist under the age of 35, despite the fact that he was 36.
Three decades later, Kapoor, now in his sixties, purchased Palazzo Manfrin, a derelict Neoclassical residence on the waterfront, which he says could generously have been described at the time as ‘crumbling’.
‘It had been empty for years and years, and like an idiot I decided to go for it,’ he says. After an extensive renovation project, the four-storey building will now house the foundation he established in 2017.
The palazzo was once the seat of the prominent Priuli family, who provided the city with several doges. In 1788 it passed into the hands of Count Girolamo Manfrin, a shrewd tobacco merchant from Croatia, who transformed the first floor into a picture gallery.
Manfrin’s vast collection of paintings became one of the city’s primary tourist attractions, visited by Antonio Canova, Lord Byron, John Ruskin and Edouard Manet, among others. After his death, 21 of his masterpieces, including Giorgione’s The Tempest, became part of the holdings of Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia, where Kapoor is about to become the first British artist to stage a solo show.
Curated by Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits, this retrospective is scheduled to open on 20 April 2022, the same day Kapoor’s palazzo is unveiled to the public. Alongside early pigment sculptures and void works will be new pieces, including a site-specific inflatable work titled HOWL and Pregnant White Within Me, a giant bulge that distends the architecture of the gallery.
Back in London, Kapoor’s labyrinthine studio is a hive of activity in preparation for Venice. Each room has its own distinct focus, and the whole place is teeming with assistants in white overalls who polish and paint his latest works. The artist, meanwhile, holds court like Willy Wonka in his chocolate factory.
One cavernous space contains a selection of his reflective metal discs and beans — miniature versions of his famous 66-foot-wide public sculpture Cloud Gate, in Chicago’s Millennium Park. ‘I am interested in this confused double space between the image and concavity,’ he says, peering into their reflective surfaces.
Another room is hung with works reflecting a newer preoccupation: painted canvases that look like spilled intestines. In the middle of the space is a single chair and a pair of Prada loafers caked in red paint. On the walls Kapoor has scrawled ominous notes in black chalk, among them ‘wounds that speak’ and ‘war is won not by pain inflicted, but by the pain that can be suffered’.
‘They’re a diary that I see out of the corner of my eye whilst I paint,’ he says. ‘I have done 25 years or more of psychoanalysis of my inner conversations. I reflect on what may be nonsensical or fragile, half solved or resolved. That’s the way it is.’
A third space contains sculptures covered in Kapoor’s signature deep-blue and red pigments. ‘I work with very dark blue, like Prussian blue. Yves Klein blue is too light,’ he remarks. ‘Blue has this ethereal otherness, and your eyes can’t quite focus on it.’
It was his deep-blue sculpture A Wing at the Heart of Things that won him the Turner Prize in 1991.
Red, on the other hand, represents the terrifying interior of the body and Earth. It was the colour Kapoor chose for the wax missiles fired from a cannon at a wall in his 2009 solo show at London’s Royal Academy — the first awarded to a living artist.
That work, Shooting into the Corner (above), became the exhibition’s star attraction, with a record-breaking 250,000 people queuing to see it in action. The museum’s then chief executive, Sir Charles Saumarez Smith, said it changed the game for experiential exhibitions.
Four years later, Kapoor was knighted for his services to the visual arts.
So was Kapoor influenced by the great Venetian colourists, like Titian, Bellini and Tintoretto, who famously believed in the superiority of colour over line? ‘Definitely, definitely,’ he says. ‘Especially Titian, who I feel is one of the true greats.’
Those painters had a monopoly on brilliant and bold pigments such as azurite, realgar and orpiment, thanks to Venice’s powerful grip on trade. Similarly, in 2016, Kapoor controversially acquired the exclusive rights to Vantablack, the ‘blackest black’ known to man. When pushed on the connection, he chuckles and says it hadn’t occurred to him. ‘I like that, I like that,’ he adds, wagging a finger.
Vantablack — now known as ‘Kapoor Black’ — was created by scientists in 2014 and originally developed for its stealth properties and potential military uses.
Its application involves a secret nanotechnological process that takes place inside a reactor. Once activated, the surface absorbs more than 99 per cent of light, which it converts into heat. ‘These objects are all slightly warmer than the space around them,’ says Kapoor. ‘They’re blacker than a black hole!’
The result is a three-dimensional object that appears completely flat — and looking at it is like gazing into an endless, dizzying abyss.
Kapoor compares his use of the technology to Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 work Black Square. ‘His proposition, radical as it was, is based on the idea that art can go to other dimensions. All these objects are playing with this idea. You think it’s a black square, but then look again and you’ll see it’s not. It’s a game, a trick. Malevich pushed this idea that objects can disappear.’
Kapoor admits that his visual trickery is slightly diminished by the fact that the sculptures require glass boxes, which sometimes reflect the artworks’ true three-dimensional shape. ‘I hate the cases, and I wish we didn’t need them, but the substance is very fragile and incredibly toxic,’ he says.
Until now, he has been reluctant to show off his new black. Instead, he has spent years refining it and finding ways to apply it to larger objects. Its unveiling to the public during the Biennale is eagerly anticipated.
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When he first became an artist (after a nervous breakdown on a kibbutz in his teens), Kapoor never dreamt of being able to afford a comfortable living from it — let alone a Venetian palazzo.
But success hasn’t come without its stresses. At times he refers to the palazzo as ‘a stone around my neck’ and says making site-specific works for a building still under construction 700 miles away — and only accessible by water — has been a logistical nightmare. All the more so as he wants to alter its original features as little as possible.
‘Getting accurate measurements and installing the works is one thing, but I also have to try and put myself in the space of what the work can do. It’s not good enough for it to be interesting, it has to hold some sort of mythological, psychic tension.
‘That’s the hard thing for artists — we conduct our education in public,’ he says, adding that under normal circumstances he would let a work sit with him in his studio for at least six months before anyone else would get to see it.
‘But this is my risk, I suppose. That’s the challenge I gave myself and nobody gave it to me, so I have to jump to it.’
Palazzo Manfrin opens on 20 April 2022