Anish Kapoor’s Sculptures: The Ingenuity of Materials, Form and Structure

Art has the capacity to draw us into mental and emotional places where we can go, let go and come back. This is often my feeling after encountering the work of Anish Kapoor, where I experience a “pull”, a force that sets me apart from everything else, suddenly feeling immersed in places where I can sense the mystery of form and meaning. Taking a short journey through Kapoor’s choice of materials, forms and structure I seek to understand the power of the pull that resides in his works.

Materials and the Boundaries of the Artwork

Kapoor has a long-lasting interest in the boundaries of the artwork, a concern manifest in his very deliberate approach to materials and colour. In early works such as 1000 Names (1980) or White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers (1982), colour pigments spread beyond the geometric bodies of mixed media sculptures, thus overflowing and dissolving the limits of geometrical shapes.

In the mid-eighties, Kapoor started working in a larger studio where he could handle bigger and heavier materials. His practice introduced sizable blocks of stone as in Adam (1988-89), a large sandstone rectangle with another smaller rectangle carved into it whose inner surfaces are polished with blue pigment. Here Kapoor’s minimal language of rectangular shapes and colour reminds of the American artist John McCraken and his signature lacquered planks. The refined simplicity of McCraken’s planks has the capacity to confront the human body with its own material being as the geometric forms are closed, making oneself feel a mere presence amongst others. The rectangular dimensions of Kapoor’s Adam are more coffin-like, and its dark cavity introduces a negative space which appears in contrast with the cold sheen of the luminous sandstone. Kapoor thus evokes the darker connotations of enclosing mortality whilst the rectangular opening pulls the viewer in through the uncanny of a coloured but difficult to ascertain darkness. Adam draws you into it, when positioned in front of it, we can feel the contradiction of inhabiting a constrained yet infinite space.

Anish Kapoor’s sculpture Adam (1988-1989) exhibited at Tate Britain in 2015. The sculpture is made from sandstone with an inner polished section pigmented in blue. Photograph by erasedculture.

Anish Kapoor’s sculpture Adam (1988-1989) exhibited at Tate Britain in 2015. The sculpture is made from sandstone with an inner polished section pigmented in blue. Photograph by erasedculture.

Stainless-Steel Discs: Mirrors and Mirages

Involving viewers and their surrounding space is the trick that Kapoor soon learned to master. He began using aluminum and stainless steel from the mid-1990s onwards, as he was interested in the mirroring effects of these materials when polished, which allowed him to conjure distorted images resulting from concave and convex bends in reflective surfaces. A simple example of this line of work is Red to Blue (2016), a set of three concave stainless-steel discs with different colour gradations. The discs are placed one next to another, attached to the wall as if floating and centered at eye level. They invite spectators to engage in exercises of exploring their own images through their actions. Moving across the three discs’ discontinuous surfaces one can journey through the continuity of the colour spectrum, from red to yellow, gradually into a green and then blue. As the discs’ surfaces bend in different directions, distorted reflections emerge, and one jumps into the rabbit hole of altered perception.

In Anish Kapoor’s  Red to Blue (2016) stainless steel discs reflect distorted and inverted images of visitors as they move through the colour spectrum. Photograph by Stefan Tribe

In Anish Kapoor’s Red to Blue (2016) stainless steel discs reflect distorted and inverted images of visitors as they move through the colour spectrum. Photograph by Stefan Tribe

Leaning forward and backward and noticing the changing size and volumes of the figures one easily becomes enthralled by the resulting mirages. These grotesque and beautiful reflections provoke dizzying and exhilarating sensations as they play with the fear of the abject self. Kapoor here is pulling us to reach the edge of reason and then safely takes us back to the room, having become a little more knowing.

Red to Blue is a small-scale work which evidences two key lines of Kapoor’s approach: chromatism and how changing forms can produce powerful sensations. These interests reappear in some of Kapoor’s larger scale works, which have become more emblematic pieces by taking full advantage of the resourcefulness of engineering.

Marsyas: Finding a Steel Structure for Indeterminate Form

Colour and fluid lines characterised Marsyas (2002), the giant red PVC and steel sculpture which temporarily filled Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall as part of the Unilever Series commissions. The project was inspired by the Greek myth of Marsyas, a faun who challenged the God Apollo to perform the most beautiful music and as a punishment for his pretentiousness, had his skin flayed alive. Previous representations of the myth in Western art, especially Baroque, concentrated on the faun’s body and expression of pain as he is flayed, as in José Ribera’s painting Apollo and Marsyas (1637) or Balthasar Permozer’s marble sculpture Marsyas (1680). Kapoor connects with the Baroque sensibility in the way that he seeks extremes of feeling to address issues such as embodiment. In his Marsyas, he does so through abstraction and scale, obliterating the figurative representation of the body to concentrate on the skin, which becomes a 2mm-thick red PVC membrane 150-metre long and 35-metre high. Without a doubt, the PVC’s colour and elasticity resembles the indeterminate form of animal hide.

Marsyas (2002) by Anish Kapoor. The scale and shape of its form means it is not possible to see the whole sculpture at one time, a metaphor for life. Photograph by Public Delivery.

Marsyas (2002) by Anish Kapoor. The scale and shape of its form means it is not possible to see the whole sculpture at one time, a metaphor for life. Photograph by Public Delivery.

To find Marsyas’ form, Kapoor collaborated with Cecil Balmond of the structural engineering firm Arup. Balmond reprogrammed the firm’s in-house software to seek non-linear forms and thus ascertain how the skin-like material could be shaped[1]. In order to stretch it, the membrane was passed through three suspended steel circles, two vertically placed at both extremes and one horizontal suspended in mid-air half-way through. The result was a giant body which bifurcates from the centre as if pulled from the two opposing extremes. Yet the whole installation could not be viewed from a single standpoint, instead requiring to be explored from different viewpoints across the Turbine Hall. This exploration made the perception of the object pull into different and surprising directions, creating new shapes at every turn and blurring the distinction between the inside and outside of the membrane and evoking anatomical shapes. It is remarkable how questions of structural engineering and embodiment are intertwined in this work. Balmond has talked about how Marsyas’ form invokes “the action of arch, wall, slab, even that of column and massive beam[2].” It is a single object with a fluid, astonishing form, able to express all these archetypes of structure at the same time that resonates with different bodily parts, thus bringing into play the determinations and indeterminations of bodies and constructions.

The work of Anish Kapoor makes space and colour interact, drawing you in and out of illusion, surprisingly treating materials and making you ponder at ever-changing forms. By adopting that playful and serious stance, one feels pulled closer to the ingenuity of life as it adopts the most alluring and terrifying forms.

1. Neil A. Dodgson (2016) “Engineering Art and Telling Tales: Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy,” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, vol 41, no. 4, 281-296.

2. Cecil Balmond, “Skinning the Imagination” in Anish Kapoor: Marsyas (London: Tate Publishing, 2002), 66.

By Gracia Ramírez is a lecturer and researcher at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. Gracia researches in History of Film and Visual Arts.