As far as art feuds go, the fight between Anish Kapoor and Stuart Semple is unusual—the two British artists are feuding over a color. But, this isn’t just any color. It’s the blackest black in the world, a shade so dark that it absorbs almost all the light that hits it. Dubbed Vantablack, the darkest color in the world absorbs 99.96% of the light hitting it, making any surface it’s coated with look like a totally flat black hole. Although Vantablack was developed with military uses in mind, Anish Kapoor acquired exclusive rights to it in 2016. Although he’s not the creator of Vantablack, nobody can use it but him.
Artists everywhere were outraged, and took to social media to voice their concerns. Kapoor, who is one of the wealthiest artists in the world, declined to engage. “He’s got like 40,000 Instagram followers, doesn’t follow anybody back, doesn’t write back to anybody,” Semple says. “It’s the equivalent of walking into a house party and just shouting about yourself and not having a conversation with anybody. You’d look like an idiot.”
Semple is known for his colorful paintings, which frequently make use of pop culture references. He’d been making his own pigments for years, and decided to release one to the public as a protest against Kapoor’s refusal to share Vantablack. Semple put out a pigment he called the World’s Pinkest Pink, available for just £3.99 to anyone who wanted it… except Kapoor. A legal disclaimer on Semple’s online store made this clear: “By adding this product to your cart you confirm that you are not Anish Kapoor, you are in no way affiliated to Anish Kapoor, you are not purchasing this item on behalf of Anish Kapoor or an associate of Anish Kapoor.”
But Lisson Gallery, Kapoor’s London representative, violated Semple’s terms of service to purchase the Pinkest Pink. Then Kapoor shared a photo on Instagram featuring him flipping a pink-dipped middle finger to the camera. Caption: “Up yours.” And so the feud began.
Semple was outraged that Kapoor had gotten ahold of the pink, but their disagreement goes far beyond paint colors. For Semple, Kapoor represents an unchecked art world elitism that has finally gone too far.
“I think their generation is all about selling something for as much as possible, to as few elite people as possible,” Semple says. By contrast, Semple doesn’t make any money from selling the pigments he makes. “It’s about getting the colors out there and making them available.” He eventually decided to create his own super black. It would be crowdsourced, affordable, and available to everyone (except, of course, Anish Kapoor). It also smells like black cherries.
The demand for Semple’s Black 2.0 has been huge, and his online store quickly sold out. “My son’s sticking labels on,” Semple admits, laughing. We talked to Semple to find out more about this new, affordable blackest black, and what it’s been like to find out that one of the richest artists in the world might be suing you.
Format: Could you tell me a bit about the process for making Black 2.0? How did this project come about?
Stuart Semple: I’ve been making my own colors for about fifteen years, my own paints, to use in my work. As part of that I got really into how acrylic paints are made, and that lead me into making my own acrylic base that could hold pigment. Basically every time I’ve made an exhibition or made some new work, I tweaked the recipe of my paint, and that’s been going on for ten, fifteen years.
With the whole Anish Kapoor thing, everyone was writing to me, saying: can you make a super black? I was like, I don’t know! Probably not. Then eventually I was like, alright, I’ll have a go, I’ll try to make a super black. And I did my best and it was quite good, and that was Black 1.0. I shared it for beta testing, for artists around the world to basically tell me what they thought of it and how I could improve it. It was awesome, there were thousands of emails coming in from all these people with amazing ideas of different pigments, different chemicals. So I put all that together very quickly, and we made Black 2.0. It wasn’t really me. It was everyone who made it, all together.
What makes Black 2.0 different from Vantablack?
Vantablack is a process—it’s not really a material. Vantablack is grown on something, normally in an antigravity chamber. And the thing it grows on gets very hot because it absorbs so much light. It can go up to about 300C. They’ve made a new one now that only goes up to 150C, and they can spray it on things rather than having to grow it in the vacuum chamber. It’s still a very difficult process to apply Vantablack, and you can only coat things up to about a meter, because you have to do it in a spray booth. And then after you’ve coated them you have to bind it, so it’s a really complicated process to seal it on.
It’s also very toxic, it’s really bad for you. You can’t really export it because of military controls and stuff. So you can’t really use it in other countries. And also it’s extremely expensive. These are the things that are problematic with it. But the main thing about it is just how much light it absorbs. It’s absolutely awesome stuff, it’s wicked.
The other pigments you have for sale are also pretty interesting. What’s the story behind the Pinkest Pink?
Well, as I said, I was making my own powders for a long time. And the pink was particularly special. It just is like nothing else, it’s so vibrant. You can’t photograph it. It’s nuts. Like, the pinkest pink thing ever. When everybody started complaining that Anish Kapoor wouldn’t share Vantablack, he had the exclusivity, there was quite a big movement around that. Loads of artists kicking off, and a lot in the press over here in England about it.
I thought it was a really bad thing for him to be doing, and I was upset by it as well. And I thought, ‘Wait, hang on, if you’re upset about it, you’ve got all this awesome stuff that you’ve been making, all these colors, you should be sharing them. It’s wrong to be criticizing him and not sharing them.’
So I put the pink out, because I thought it was a real contrast to the black. It was quite political. It’s a potent color, there’s something aggressive about it. It’s a quite violent pink. I thought it made sense conceptually. I just kind of put it out as a joke, and I thought I’d sell, like, one. Then it just went completely mad! I spent about four months shoveling pink into jars. It just took on a complete life of its own.
And then obviously Anish Kapoor stole the pink, got the pink, shouldn’t have had the pink, and then posted the picture of him dipping his finger in it. Which I thought was a bit rude. So I thought it would make sense to release the glitter, which is my Diamond Dust. It’s made of glass shards, but very special glass shards. They’re so clear that if you encrust your work with it you can still see your work through it. It’s cut in a special way so it reflects light at loads and loads of angles. So it’s like, hang on, let’s have the most reflective thing, then, that’s kind of the opposite of black.
After that, everyone was like, ‘I don’t think they’re ever going to give us access to this black. You should have a go at making a black.’
Did you ever reach out to Anish Kapoor personally about this, to ask him why he wouldn’t share?
I saw the picture of him dipping his finger in it, a few journalists have spoken to me about it… They’ve tried to speak to him and he’s just refusing to say anything about it at all. The other day his studio told BuzzFeed that he’s suing me. That’s kind of all I’ve heard! I wrote to them and said, ‘Look, it’d be really nice if we could just be friends, and he could say sorry for taking the pink, and give me the £3.99 back that it costs. And then we can just call it quits and it’ll all be fine.’ But they just ignored it and said they were suing me. So I don’t know. I’ve tried to be friendly with them.
His studio told BuzzFeed that he’s suing you—but he hasn’t told you?
No! Every day I wake up and go downstairs thinking I’m going to get some a scary letter. But nothing’s come yet. So I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t actually know what he’s going to sue me for. I think it’s damage to reputation, that’s what people say. I’m really scared about it, because obviously he’s really big and has got loads of money and stuff, and I don’t. I can’t really afford a lawyer or anything. I’m just going to have to do it on my own.
The whole thing is so bizarre, it seems like such a funny reason to sue someone.
If he’s suing me for damaging his reputation, suing me damages his reputation! He’s doing it to himself.
Do you think Anish Kapoor is going to respond to this new color? Or maybe try to get ahold of some?
I don’t want him to have it. I think the way he’s been acting is really dodgy. And all the time and effort that’s gone into Black 2.0, and how much everyone cares about it, it would just be a real downer if he got it. What I really like is the fact that loads of us can make really cool black things, and he’s stuck in his science lab, paying gazillions of pounds to get quite a similar thing. I think that’s so cool! Yeah, I don’t want him to have it. It would upset me if he got it.