Anish Kapoor

When people at an art party, circa 1995, asked if there were anyone working in England you did like (after you had remarked that the whole Young British Art scene reminded you of extras from a Larry Clark movie), you could still answer “Anish Kapoor” without completely embarassing yourself. At the time, Kapoor was well on his way from being an establishment-radical artist (i.e., one whose work had street credibility as well as cachet in the high-end art world) to an outright national institution, an intensely chromatic Henry Moore for the ’90s. His sculptures were gracefully elegant without being fussy, and physically impressive without resorting to outlandish scale or industrially macho manufacturing techniques. His work seemed to answer affirmatively and passionately the question, “Did contemporary sculpture give up on Minimalism too quickly?” But the restless Kapoor had said in a 1993 interview that he desired to “go beyond the object,” that in the last few years he had “been working to try and leave behind form and deal with non-form.” Now that he’s arrived at his beyond-the-object art, Kapoor has also stepped fully into the role of the UK’s unofficial artist laureate. (“Sir Anish” will probably happen around 2008.)

At least that’s the impression I got from the videotape that played nonstop in the Hayward’s coffee shop. On the screen, some stentorian cultural dignitary speaks hagiographically of Kapoor’s attitudes toward “architecture” and “space” (hey, the guy’s a sculptor, remember?) as if the artist had invented something astonishingly different in the work on view instead of merely rarifying his trademark simple, Martin Puryear-but-cleaner forms into perceptual peekaboo’s better suited to an exploratorium than an art gallery.

Here’s what I’m talking about: a smooth hemispherical bulge in a white wall that reveals only the faintest ghost of itself when viewed head-on; a couple of concavities, colored buttery yellow and deep blue-violet, respectively, that yield unbroken optical fields of each color when you get close enough so that the pieces’ edges reside outside your peripheral vision; a big mirror-surfaced bagel, on the floor, whose center seems to constitute the abyss the poet warned you never to look into. And so on.

The Hayward was majorly gutted and reconstructed to accept Kapoor’s newer work (all but four of the twenty—three pieces in the show date after 1993), and the London papers were brimming with gushy language about the sheer visual poetry of it all. True, there’s an undeniable pleasure to be got, especially not far from the cacophony of Picadilly Circus, from washing your eyeballs in something pure, bright, colorful, and utterly lacking in mannequins sporting facial genitalia. And when I was in the gallery, it was well—attended with suburban families and tatooed studenty couples alike, nudging each other and smiling and pointing to their favorite phenomenological delights.

But there doesn’t seem to be much, if any, theory behind what Kapoor’s made during the last five years. And by “theory” I don’t mean an artist’s dissertation of polysyllabic verbiage with footnotes alone weighing almost as much as the sculptor’s stainless steel, limestone, and resin; I mean, rather, some sort of gathered intellectual or emotional necessity more urgent or profound than simply (to quote Kapoor again) “[being] drawn towards some notion of fear in a very visual sense, towards sensations of falling, of being pulled inwards, of losing one’s sense of self.” What Kapoor’s statement amounts to is merely obtaining certain effects in sculpture, and contains no hint—in the way the whole show is put together—as to why the effects add up to anything more than momentary entertainment. And Kapoor’s methods of getting these effects—e.g., making big colored holes you kind of stick your head into in order to blinder yourself to the outside world—is science-fair corny.

Now if, for instance, Kapoor had taken such a monumental work as At the Edge of the World II, 1998, as far as he should have—that is, if he had built a smooth ceiling incorporating the whole roughly 25-meter circumference, instead of just suspending the giant, burgundy-lined bowler overhead so you can plainly see its irrelevant, diving bell-like exoskeleton—he might have come up with something vaguely in the same league as, say, Robert Irwin’s or James Turrell’s work. Old work, that is. As it is, all Kapoor has done at the Hayward is to create the world’s largest tchotchkes, artoids for Count Panza wannabes (or maybe for Charles Saatchi when he, shall we say, comes to his senses) still willing to build whole rooms to house pieces of sculpture. But here I’m edging into speculation as to Kapoor’s worldly motives; yes, it seems like his reputation as Britain’s sculptor numero uno has lured him into overproduced (albeit finely tuned) gigantism, but I have no way of really knowing that. So what I’ll conclude with is a step even further over the line of critical propriety: aesthetic advice. Forget the non-form crap. Get thee, Anish, immediately back to the object.

Peter Plagens is a contributing editor of Artforum.