Bombay-born, London-based sculptor Anish Kapoor is frequently called a magician or an illusionist because of the way his art plays with perception, capturing reflected environments in highly polished surfaces, distorting them like funhouse mirrors, inferring unseen volumes and negative spaces with works built into floor and walls, performing sleight-of-form acts with huge objects that function almost as visual wormholes in the fabric of existence.
Kapoor’s best-known work is “Cloud Gate,” a monumental bean-shaped sculpture installed in 2005 in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Inspired by the slippery silver mobility of a bead of liquid mercury, the 110-ton “Cloud Gate” is constructed of polished steel plates that reflect the Chicago skyline and the sky above AT&T Plaza. The concavity of the base enables pedestrians to walk beneath the 33-foot high sculpture, which is generally considered one of the most successful works of public art in the United States.
In 2002, Kapoor attracted international attention with “Marsyas,” a huge, 150-meter sculptural installation in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London. To fill the vast former industrial space, Kapoor stretched a taut, blood red membrane of PVC over three giant metal rings, creating a trumpet-like form viscerally inspired by the myth of a satyr flayed alive by the God Apollo. “Marsyas” was so large that it could not be seen all at once, which, of course, is the very nature of all three-dimensional art.
In 2006, New York’s Public Art Fund commissioned Kapoor to install “Sky Mirror” in Rockefeller Plaza. The 35-foot concave mirror not only reflected the New York City sky and skyline but also performed the illusion of bringing a circle of sky down to ground level.
Currently (through September 7), New England art lovers can catch a glimpse of Anish Kapoor’s mercurial art in an exhibition entitled Anish Kapoor: Past, Present, Future at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston’s South End. Billed as the first museum of retrospective of Kapoor’s work in 15 years and the first ever on the East Coast, Past, Present, Future features 14 works created between 1980 and the present.
“Whether using the materials of classical sculpture like stone and bronze or newly applied forms of aluminum, pigment, enamel, resin, polymer, and PVC,” states the ICA press release, “Kapoor’s sculpture seems to disappear, dissolve, levitate, or extend beyond a space the viewer can perceive.”
The earliest work in the show, for example, is a multiple piece entitled “1000 Names” that Kapoor created in 1979-80 after finishing art school and returning to his native India. Inspired by conical piles of raw, red powdered pigment Kapoor saw in Indian markets and taking its title from the 1,000 names of Indian gods and goddesses, “1000 Names” consists of a series of shapes on the floor dusted in pigment. The most dramatic of these shapes appears to be a drill bit boring up through the gallery floor. Indeed, Kapoor loves to subvert the sense of containment in a gallery. “When I Was Pregnant,” for instance, is a simple bump on the white gallery wall that creates the illusion that something is pushing in from the other side.
The title piece in the ICA show is a 30-foot half hemisphere of deep red wax protruding from a gallery wall and constantly being shaped by a mechanical scraper that both alters and maintains the soft, rounded contours. Art, suggests “Past, Present, Future” is not an object but a process.
While Anish Kapoor, 54, is generally considered a post-modern sculptor following on the heels of minimalists such as Carl Andre, Donald Judd, and Richard Serra, this Boston mini-retrospective makes a visual case that he is actually a throwback to modernist sculptors such as Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, and Henry Moore. His best trick seems to be turning the elegant organic forms of his venerable predecessors inside out, conjuring the possibilities of void where they explored the plasticity of volumes.
Anish Kapoor: Past, Present, Future, Institute of Contemporary Art, 100 Northern Ave., Boston, MA. 617-478-3100.