Anish Kapoor creates odd shapes that seem unafraid of their own mystery, or at times of their own perfection. He is not an artist who seeks to make the world in his own likeness. Rather he is someone who becomes excited by what happens if the ego is stripped away and the unconscious allowed to make sculptures that have a life force and a dynamic strength all of their own. He makes work which seems to stretch from the time before we set foot on the earth or look to the time when we might no longer be needed here.
In doing this work, he has used everything - such as symbols, colours, a deep spiritual sense - available to him from his Indian background (he was born in Mumbai in 1954) but added a sort of coldness and rigour and interest in abstraction one might associate with Modernist English sculpture (he has lived in England since 1972). In other words, the pieces Kapoor makes combine a sense of transcendence with something earthy and filled with material. Happy with both pure pigment and polished steel, he manages to be sublime and cold all at the same time.
Perhaps it is too easy to use his backgrounds as a way of explaining Kapoor. He could easily be an American artist in the tradition of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, interested in images of purity and spiritual grandeur, making the world in the light of the very first dawn or the very last night, using colour and shape to suggest primary and almost privately philosophical matters, using sculptural surface to suggest what the world looked like in the first calm moment after the great big bang.
Whereas Newman and Rothko moved towards a set of signature gestures, setting limits, narrowing a style towards an exploratory perfection and an enduring mystery, Kapoor is more restless, more clearly interested in the effects he can achieve. He is thus sometimes more bloated in his rhetoric and more obviously cosmic and metaphysical and less subtle. He is, in many ways, a crowd pleaser, and maybe this is no bad thing; crowds, after all, need art too. Some of Kapoor’s work would look good as part of the decoration by a brilliant designer in the window of an up-market store. The work is somehow not as satisfying when you are alone with it.
But then when you see Kapoor’s drawings, especially the ones in which the vagina or the penis, or shapes which approximate to them, figure least prominently, when you look at the drawings which are most spare and spiritual, you realize his essential questing seriousness and inwardness as an artist, even if the results might seem at times too crudely philosophical or too emptily decorative.
As with the drawings of many artists, the drawings of Kapoor help us to look more closely and sympathetically at the large monuments he has made, such as the massive structures in playful steel which are currently on show as part of the Tees Valley Giants Project, or such as ‘Cloud Gate’ for the Millennium Park in Chicago, which is a sort of womb or a mirror or a piece of public fun, like something dropped from another planet. Or ‘Marsyas’, the big red stretched membrane installed in the Tate Modern in 2002. Or the strange steel platform moving at one revolution per hour on a circular track, ‘My Red Homeland’ from 2003. The more we read these objects as entirely private and poetic, as images produced with fear and uncertainty by a well-stocked unconscious, the better we see them.