Everyone knows The Bean—that giant silver sculpture in downtown Chicago that's featured in all the travel brochures. But few visitors know that it's actually called Cloud Gate. In fact, practically no one except Anish Kapoor, mastermind of The Bean, has ever called it that. (Though he allegedly wishes we would.)
Every year, The Bean finds its way into new memes and public happenings. In 2018, over 1000 people joined forces for a Facebook event encouraging the public to “kiss The Bean for Anish’s birthday.” What may appear as a thoughtful nod to an iconic artist and his work, however, turned out to be a carefully-orchestrated slight facilitated by Kapoor’s most notorious rival.
Our story begins in 2014, with the release of Vantablack, a coating developed by Surrey NanoSystems, a British tech company, that absorbs 99.96% of light (far more than any other black paints available on the market). With practically no light bouncing off the material, Vantablack makes it nearly impossible for the human eye to detect the shape or texture of the object it’s applied to, creating the effect of staring into a black hole. It was, at the time, the blackest black on the market. In 2016, Kapoor struck an expensive deal with Surrey NanoSystems to gain exclusive rights to Vantablack as an artistic material.
Image courtesy of KnowYourMeme.
The outrage was swift: Why should Kapoor be allowed to own a color—a color he didn’t even invent? Artist Christian Furr, whose plans to use Vantablack in a new series were thwarted by the deal, told The Daily Mail, “I've never heard of an artist monopolising a material...It isn't right that it belongs to one man.” Equating Kapoor’s exclusive access with outright theft appeared to be the consensus in the art world.
Of course, the art world struck back. The painter Stuart Semple unveiled a new pigment called the “Pinkest Pink,” available online to anyone who wanted to use it—except Kapoor. At checkout, buyers were required to check a box confirming 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. To the best of your knowledge, information and belief, this paint will not make its way into the hands of Anish Kapoor.”
What was initially meant as a sort of performance piece became a booming business. As thousands of orders flooded in, Semple's small act of protest was recast as a high-profile publicity stunt. The artists traded jabs online for a while, but things kicked off in earnest when, in a fateful Instagram post, Kapoor revealed that he had gotten his hands—or rather, his middle finger—on the Pinkest Pink.
In response, Semple developed Black 2.0, which closely mimicked the effect of Vantablack. After that came an even darker Black 3.0, the world’s most glittery glitter, the world’s mirroriest mirror chrome paint, and more. Most products fell under the $30 mark. In 2018, Semple introduced his fateful Bean-kissing scheme, urging participants via Facebook to wear their pinkest lipstick for the occasion.
After a brief stint using Vantablack to sell luxury watches in 2017, Kapoor finally debuted his blackest-black artwork, a series of void-like objects, at the 2022 Venice Biennale. “It’s too stupid for words,” he told The Guardian of the color controversy. “This is not something that comes out of a tube. It’s incredibly complicated.” Kapoor, as always, appears unamused by the commotion.