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. …