Anish Kapoor: Flashback

 Anish Kapoor, untitled, detail.White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers Anish Kapoor, 1982Anish Kapoor, TurningAnish Kapoor, Her Blood

Anish Kapoor: Flashback
From the Arts Council Collection
Exhibition Guide

Anish Kapoor is one of the leading artists working in Britain today. His sculptures are characterised by his distinctive use of materials, sense of scale and an ongoing investigation into positive and negative space. He is fascinated by opposite forces: contrasts of light and dark, form and void, inside and outside, surface and depth, abstraction and figuration, reflection and absorption. Employing colour dramatically, he uses natural organic shapes and abstract forms, often with optical effects, to produce sensual and beguiling sculptures.

The Flashback series invites artists to revisit earlier works in the Arts Council Collection and use them as a starting point for reflection on their subsequent practice. This exhibition has been selected by Anish Kapoor to complement the specific architecture of each venue and he has included some important works from different points throughout his long and distinguished career. The development of his practice seen here ranges from early sculptures made using pigment, to later works employing stone and mirrored surfaces, to works that engage directly with the surrounding architecture. Finally the exhibition includes two recent works made from wax, a material he has experimented with since 2005.

Anish Kapoor was born in Bombay (Mumbai) in 1954. He came to London to study art in 1973 and has lived there ever since. He has exhibited his work in exhibitions and public spaces all over the world, produced major pieces of public sculpture including Sky Mirror 2001, Nottingham, Cloud Gate, 2004, Chicago and Temenos, 2010, Middlesbrough. He was awarded the Turner Prize in 1991 and made a CBE in 2003.


Kapoor is renowned for his unique use of colour. Early works such as White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers 1982 and Red in the Centre 1982 feature a range of ambiguous forms covered in pure coloured pigment. These works were made in the years following a visit to India in 1979 during which he saw for sale in markets mounds of raw pigment ready for use in cooking, dyes and in rituals.

The artist has talked about the “propensity of colour to induce reverie” and is interested in how different hues have different associations. For example, yellow represents desire and passion; blue evokes the sky and ocean and therefore signifies the limitless and the infinite; and red, a colour of spiritual significance, is fundamental to the artist’s work due to its powerful and emotive qualities. In more recent wax pieces like Negative Box Shadow 2005, Kapoor uses a dark red which alludes to the colour of blood and the depths of the human body.

Kapoor also employs colour in a formal sense and exploits the illusory effects of certain colours. Dark colours, like the blue used for Void 1994 and the deep Prussian blue applied to the interior of Adam 1988-89, absorb light and suggest endless caverns. In contrast lighter hues, or even mirrored surfaces devoid of colour, reflect light and produce unlimited reflections.

Mirrored surfaces

During the 1990s, Kapoor moved from matte surfaces to shiny ones. He said “the traditional sublime is the matte surface, deep and adsorbing, and .. the shiny might be a modern sublime, which is fully reflective, absolutely present, and returns the gaze.” Turning the World Inside Out 1995 is one of the first of Kapoor’s highly polished mirrored works in which we see ourselves and our surroundings reflected. These reflections are distorted, warped by the curved surface and become unreadable. Not only do we, as viewers, become part of the work but we experience a sense of disorientation due to the optical illusions. In Her Blood 1998 colour and mirrored surface come together in three huge concave mirrors, two of these are ‘clear mirrors’ and the third is stained with red.

Void spaces

The notion of the void, a state of emptiness, was one of the moments of real discovery in Kapoor’s career. He said “the idea that if I empty out all the content and just make something that is an empty form, I don’t empty out the content at all. The content is there in a way that’s more surprising than if I tried to make a content. So, therefore, … subject matter is somehow not the same as content.” There are three examples of the void in this exhibition: an early work Adam has a blue recess carved out of a large piece of freestanding sandstone; Void is a blue fibreglass bowl which sits on the wall; and in Untitled 1995 the stainless steel void penetrates the wall.

Engagement with architecture

When I am Pregnant 1992 is a key work in Kapoor’s career, as it pinpoints the moment when he moved from primarily floor-based sculptures to works which have a direct relationship with architecture. This is a playful artwork which subtly only reveals itself when we see it in profile. Whilst this work swells out, Untitled is embedded into the wall and breaks through its boundary. This piece operates like a vortex, seemingly pulling you into the dark void in its centre. The architecture writer Kurt W Forster said “what Kapoor has achieved in his installations … (is) turning space inside out, folding it in on itself and hollowing it out.”

The body

At first glance it might not appear that Kapoor’s abstract sculptures make reference to the human figure. However there are many allusions to both male and female bodies in his work. When I am Pregnant has an obvious connection to expectant mothers, the title Adam refers to the first man in the Bible and the title and colour used in Her Blood suggest menstruation. The mirrored vortex of Untitled has a push and pull effect on our bodies and this void also suggests an orifice. The wax works, Negative Box Shadow and Moon Shadow 2005 have strong bodily associations. They are made by pushing, slicing and smoothing the sticky, soft material and the effect is one of visceral lumps of flesh.


Kapoor’s works can be both mysterious and contemplative. One of Kapoor’s lifelong interests is in the spiritual function of art and the exploration of universal truths. His work is not about organised religion, but instead he is interested in belief, passion and experience. His work affords a space for silent reflection in our busy lives.

The artist’s hand

A vital strategy in Kapoor’s work is to get rid of the artists’ hand. Kapoor has said “I must say that I worked quite hard to get rid of the hand. I’ve always felt the hand of the artist is overrated.” It is important for Kapoor to remove himself from the art work - to remove any signs that he made or even conceived of the object himself. To do this he removes any physical evidence that he has constructed the artwork, unlike painters leaving brushstrokes or sculptors leaving chisel marks. This makes his works appear perfect and effortless, belying the many hours spent manufacturing them.

In the early pigment works, he flicked powder onto the sculptures leaving no trace of his hand. More recently he has worked with metals using specialist industrial processes, thereby removing himself even more from the manufacture of the artworks. Kapoor says that the mirrors “are very, very, very, difficult to make” because they have to be perfect with no aberrations which would ruin the look of the work. This idea goes much further than the ambition to remove physical evidence of the artist’s labour. For Kapoor, this process is also about the creation of art works that have come into being without his intention or control. Though obviously Kapoor can never make an object that has entirely manifested itself, he is constantly exploring ways in which he can imbue his objects with a sense of the self-made.

Anish Kapoor’s work can surprise, overwhelm and disorientate us. It can engage with all our senses, be exuberant and life-affirming and encourage us to reflect and contemplate. He has produced a distinguished and varied body of work over the last three decades and his continued explorations with materials and themes will doubtless delight visitors for many years to come.

Natasha Howes, Curator: Exhibitions, Manchester Art Gallery

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