Art 101: The juiciest art war of the 21st century
What happened when one artist helped create the blackest shade of black — and decided nobody else could use it
Let's talk about privilege. It's a huge part of our lives and a huge part of the art world.
Today we'll talk about the art war that broke out when one artist decided he owned a colour and nobody else could use it. And we'll tap into why that colour battle said something really important about the art world.
I'm Professor Lise (not really a professor) and this is Art 101 (not really a class). We're going on a deep dive into an idea, an artwork or a story from the art world that may be controversial, inexplicable, or just plain weird.
Act 1 - Colour is Important!
Lest you think it doesn't matter, take a moment to remember how much colour lets you recognize the work of your favourite artists. Like Mondrian, whose pervasive use of primary colour makes his paintings easy to spot. Or General Idea! Their vivid colour scheme is a signature element of their work, just as much as the slightly un-natural colours of any Group of Seven painting let you know you're looking at a work from your uncle's coffee-table book.
Artists have even tried to make a colour their very own: in 1960, artist Yves Klein patented International Klein Blue, or IKB, and other artists (including the Blue Man Group) still use it today, continuing his legacy. Sweet little anecdote, right?
Let's move on.
Act 2 - The Colour War
You know that big bean at Chicago's Millennium Park? It's a huge reflective satisfying shape and every single person who visits Chicago is contractually obligated to take a selfie in front of it. It's actually called Cloud Gate, and it's by British Indian artist Anish Kapoor. It was made in the mid 2000s out of 168 plates of stainless steel joined by welding, and it cost in the vicinity of 20 million dollars.
Why does the massive and expensive bean matter to our story? Because it'll give you an idea of the scale and scope of Kapoor's art — he's a huge deal, and his work costs a lot of money.
Why are we talking about Anish Kapoor? Calm down, I'm getting to it. Kapoor's gotten a ton of honours for his large-scale architectural public art. He's won the Turner Prize (the Oscars of the art world) and was even knighted in 2013. So let's agree, he's done good work and made his name.
In 2014, he started working with an entirely new material called Vantablack. It was developed in the lab of U.K.-based Surrey NanoSystems and it's the blackest paint ever made. Originally fashioned to help in optics and aerospace, Vantablack's dense black look is much easier to grasp in person than in photos and it's made possible through pretty intense chemistry. In essence, light is TRAPPED by Vantablack instead of being REFLECTED by it — creating an effect that looks a bit like what it might be like to spot a black hole in space. In effect, Vantablack is pretty special and pretty new.
How did Kapoor start working with it? Well ... he licensed it. Exclusively. That's right, uncles everywhere — Anish Kapoor is the only person in the world that can use Vantablack in art.
Hey, did I hear somebody say that's a dick move? You're not alone!
On this Instagram post, where Kapoor shows off a work featuring his exclusive black, Willsmithfresh comments, "One man owning vantiblack [sic] is truly the loneliest bean that you'll ever see." And hannahjasmin_ says, "Selfish enough to keep an entire colour all to yourself, and all you've used it for is a circle. Congratulations, you're the worst." And that's just two members of the general public — some artists were pretty upset that Kapoor took this incredible new invention and crafted a situation where he was the only person who could benefit from it.
Why'd Kapoor do it? He's said a few things on the topic, including that "it's not about possessing the stuff." He's also ascribed the response to the colour itself, saying, "The problem is that colour is so emotive — especially black ... I don't think the same response would occur if it was white."
Enter Stuart Semple, popular British multimedia artist, nice guy and ... well, for this story, let's call him a "democratist."
Semple was one of the artists aggravated by Kapoor's snatching of the black, and so he decided to invent his own radically new paint: the pinkest pink. He made it beyond vibrant, very affordable, and available to any artist in the world — except Anish Kapoor.
The resulting war raged on through the late 2010s, marked by regular skirmishes. Like when Kapoor somehow got his hands on some of Semple's pinkest pink shortly after its debut, and posted himself flipping the bird to Semple — the bird in question covered in Semple's pink paint. Classy move, Anish Kapoor.
Semple, undaunted, went on to make other paints available to the world, including his own version of the blackest black, the mirroriest mirror paint and the glitteriest glitter.
Ok, so why are we reviving this story from 2016? Well, it's fun! Artists fighting is hilarious! Uncles everywhere rejoiced. And you can find a good number of articles, explainers, and I dunno, maybe even a graphic novel about the Semple vs. Kapoor incident. But that's not really why we're here. I mean, it's part of why we're here. But there's more to it.
Act 3 - Why it Matters, or, Kill the Rich
Here's why Kapoor's hoarding of black paint points to a problem in the art world, and why Stuart Semple worked so hard to steal Kapoor's acorns.
It's about access. Let's talk about that for a minute.
When you go to your parents and say, "Uncle, I'd like to be an artist," their inevitable question is, "How will you make any money doing that?" But there's a missing question here. That is: how are you going to be able to afford to be an artist?
Let me explain: If you want to be a successful artist, you need stuff. I get it — our earliest evidence of art is with simple materials on a cave wall. But making art costs money, and if you want to make art now you need things like: a space to work in, materials, a computer, unlimited bandwidth.These things cost money. Cheap materials can, unfortunately, look like cheap materials. Expensive materials or processes can, unfortunately, look special.
Specialness and prestige are two words we don't talk enough about when we're talking about how artists get started. A painter who submits work to the gallery made on panels of stainless steel with the blackest black paint in the world is going to get some notice.
Artists level up. That Cloud Gate we talked about at the beginning? That wasn't Kapoor's first work. It's the result of fame, skill, AND MONEY — both the money he makes from the work AND the money he had to put into it. I'm not trying to suggest that you can't be an artist without money — you can AND YOU WILL. But it helps, right?
So when the rich guy snatches up the best materials and makes them exclusive to himself, he's tapping into an issue that's big in the art world: PRIVILEGE. What Stuart Semple is doing, on the other hand, is making prestige materials — the whateveriest whatever paint available to anybody who wants to use it, except Anish Kapoor. Look, it still costs money — we can't get away from that. But Semple's made a big gesture to acknowledge that artists have a rough go and gave them a little leg up.
So let's give a little shoutout to Stuart Semple, because while this may have been a fun story about artists getting real angry, it's part of something bigger. And I suspect Semple will keep doing his part to make the art world a more democratic place.
Act 4 - The End!
Thanks for listening! Especially because working from home is really lonely.
See you next time on Art 101!
Artworks featured in this video:
00:46 - Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian (1942)
00:51 - AIDS by General Idea (1988)
00:56 - Lake and Mountains by Lawren Harris (1928)
00:59 - Autumn Foliage against Grey Rock by Franklin Carmichael (1920)
01:21 - Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor (2006)
01:47 - Leviathan by Anish Kapoor (2011)
01:54 - Shooting into the Corner by Anish Kapoor (2008-2009)
02:04 - Sectional body preparing for Monadic Singularity by Anish Kapoor (2015)
06:09 - Lady Gaga ARTPOP by Jeff Koons (2013)
06:13 - End of a Century by Damien Hirst (2020)
06:15 - Eroded Delorean by Daniel Arsham (2018)
06:27 - Gathering Clouds I-IV by Anish Kapoor (2014)