October 31 - December 20, 2019
By RAPHY SARKISSIAN, November 2019
Painting shows; the mirror demonstrates.1 –Hubert Damisch
The seductive, shimmering, stainless-steel surfaces of Newborn of Anish Kapoor reflect their surrounding space, generating upon a spherical support aberrant imagery of the gallery’s interior architecture, the other four sculptures on view and the passersby. Two symmetrically interjected, concave insets formulate the upper hemisphere of this freestanding, sculptural mirror. As the four other glowing sculptures in turn reflect Newborn that contains their own reflections, the visitor is inundated with an epiphany of reflectivity.
As the observer rotates around this nearly ten-foot high edifice in order to absorb the provocative, ever-shifting imageries of the self and its milieu, generated through the lustrous surfaces of the work, from two diametrically opposite perspectives the sculpture becomes transfigured into a virtually triangular form nesting atop a spherical plinth. The proliferation of chimerical imagery upon Newborn epitomizes the lyricism of the work, while simultaneously conjuring up the thoughts of the phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty on visuality, perception and lived experiences: “A shape is nothing but a sum of limited views, and the consciousness of a shape is a collective entity. The sensible elements of which it is made up cannot lose the opacity which defines them as sensory given, and open themselves to some intrinsic connection, to some law of conformation governing them all.”2
While Newborn comes across as a reformulated resurgence of The Newborn (1920) of Constantin Brancusi of the Museum of Modern Art, it concurrently lends itself as an allegory of the retina. A colossal instance of mimicry of the optical organ through which surfaces of the exterior world become mirrored and subsequently grasped within the cognitive realm of the observer, Newborn of Kapoor artfully integrates sculpture’s abstract autonomy and its temporal pictorialness.
With its reflective surfaces and boxlike structure of stainless steel, Non-Object (Sphere) of Kapoor recalls Untitled (1964, 1972) of Robert Morris, a seminal work of Minimalism currently housed at the Tate. Yet the magnified peephole at eye-level of the viewer here reformulates the poetic suggestions of the work. From the window to the frame to the mirror to the camera to the living eye as a corporeal camera: such are a few extrapolations of this reflective sculpture, whose interior channel appears to be reduplicating itself and the imagery it may capture ad infinitum. While peeking through one side of the hollow of this work, one may likely encounter others peeking through the alternate side of the hollow, fashioning an unforeseen pas de deux, whereby the self and other are rendered exchangeable.
Upon the mirror surface of a given side of the circular opening, the viewer’s body is reflected with supreme clarity, except for the omission of the head that in turn may become replaced by the head of the participant on the opposite side of the object. Hereby imagery and reality become illusively interchanged, in constant flux, casting momentary doubts upon the realities of opticality and tactility. “He who doubts cannot, while doubting, doubt that he doubts,” ruminates Merleau-Ponty tersely.3
Like a magician, Kapoor contorts the wonted reality of his audience buoyantly, while alluding to the mechanical apparatuses utilized in painting or photography since the sixteenth century. Despite its purely geometricized and sleek contrivance of concentric cylinders encased within a cubic stand, Non-Object (Sphere) brings to mind the camera obscura of the mid-sixteenth century or the column stereoscope of the mid-nineteenth century.
Crafted in gleaming steel, whereby a circular form has redefined an hourglass design, Tsunami registers as soaring, flaring, vacant, shielded and monumental, recalling the artist’s astounding Cloud Gate (2006) of Chicago. Just about twelve feet high, this large-scale sculpture makes contact with the ground at two seemingly infinitesimal points, as if its reflective luminosity has rendered the reality of gravity nominal. The visual dialogue that takes place between the itinerant spectator and her/his reflections comprises temporal images that dilate, broaden, protract, diminish and disappear, only to reappear with alternative contortions due to shifts of the viewer’s position.
Although Tsunami is as an abstract sculpture par excellence, due to its function as a mirror it ties itself to the Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi’s ingenious experiment of the early 1400s. Based upon Antonio Manetti’s account of the experiment, the art historian Martin Kemp describes Brunelleschi’s perspective demonstration of the Florentine Baptistery by writing, “Having painted the vivid patterns of the inlaid marble of the Baptistery in such a way that ‘no miniaturist could have done better’, Brunelleschi constructed a form of peepshow to heighten its illusion. He drilled a small hole in the panel at a point equivalent to that which his line of sight had struck the Baptistery along a perpendicular axis. The spectator was required to peer through the hole from the back of the panel at a mirror held in such a way as to reflect the painted surface. To increase the effect of a magic glimpse of reality ‘he placed burnished silver where the sky would be shown’ so that the real sky and clouds would have heightened the optical illusion.”4
While that experiment would succeed in laying the foundation of geometric perspective, Brunelleschi’s use of silver leaf to encompass the reflection of the sky upon his panel would transgress the epistemological underpinning of the medium of painting, for the very stability of the depicted architecture would be coalesced with a surface echoing the movement of the clouds. Through its mathematically devised structure and reflective surfaces, Tsunami brilliantly evokes Brunelleschi’s intriguing method of demonstration of perspectival representation.
It is through such a visual rhetoric that Concave Convex Mirror (Square) and Two Mirrors within the gallery space on West 24th Street evocatively expand the definition of abstract sculpture as an autonomous entity, now having been equipped with the function of the mirror that renders the surface as a means of transient, optical enactment.
The visual narrative of Kapoor takes an alternate route within the gallery’s Tenth Avenue space, where the four circular, concave sculptures mounted on the walls are abstract paintings rather than mirrors. While approaching a given relief sculpture here, the concavity of the surface becomes spasmodically transformed into illusory convexity within the subject’s optical field, usurping knowledge and experience through the stimulatory properties of shape, surface, pigment, space and light operating within the realm of vision.
Both the reflective and painterly sculptures of Kapoor palpably heighten the participant’s consciousness of visuality, thawing the divisions of the epistemological and experiential. WM
1. Hubert Damisch, The Origin or Perspective (1987), trans. John Goodman (1994; reprint, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000), p. 98.
2. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception (1945), trans. Colin Smith (1962; reprint, London: Routledge, 1995), p. 14.
3. Merleau-Ponty, p. 399.
4. Martin Kemp, The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), pp. 12-13.
Thumbnail credit: Anish Kapoor, October 31—December 20, 2019 at Lisson Gallery on West 24th Street, New York. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.
Raphy Sarkissian is an artist, writer, curator and art historian currently teaching theory and praxis at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He received his MA from New York University and an MFA from SVA. Sarkissian lives and works in New York and can be followed on Instagram @raphy_sarkisssian.view all articles from this author