Can MIT's Latest Blackest Black End an Artist Feud?
Nov 6, 2019
The race towards total blackness has hit another milestone: in collaboration with the MIT Center for Art, Science and Technology, German-born conceptual artist Diemut Strebe has created the blackest black artwork ever up to this point. “The Redemption of Vanity” (2019) consists of a 16.78 carat natural yellow diamond (value US $2,000,000) that has been covered in a carbon nanotube forest capable of absorbing 99.995 percent of all visible light. The “paint” was developed at MIT at the same time Strebe was an artist in residence there. The collaboration between MIT scientists and Strebe was unplanned, however. It grew naturally when researchers accidentally developed the surface coating and then realized Strebe, who has long worked at the intersection of science and art, was in residence at the institute. The color black is an achromatic visual phenomenon caused by the absence of light. The less light that is perceptible, the blacker the black becomes. Carbon nanotube paint traps all incoming light in a forest of micro-fine tubes, which do not allow light particles to escape until the surface is disturbed, for example by touching it with bare hands. “The Redemption of Vanity” went on view in September at the New York Stock Exchange, which may seem like a strange place for a contemporary art exhibition. However, as Strebe points out, “The project explores how material and immaterial value is attached to objects and concepts in reference to luxury, society and to art.” When coated in the ultra black paint, the diamond becomes completely flattened and invisible to the naked eye as anything more than a void. This symbolic erasure of value is meant to raise questions about the value of art. It also raises questions about the status of the long raging war between scientists and artists as they try to one up each other in the quest for ultimate blackness.
Fight for Your Right to Color
The first shot in the black paint war was fired back in 2003. That’s when the science media reported that researchers at the National Physical Laboratory in the United Kingdom had developed a substance called Super Black, which was capable of absorbing 99.6 percent of visible light at certain angles of incidence. The substance absorbed even more visible light—as much as 99.9 percent—if something painted in Super Black was struck with light at a 45 degree angle of incidence. For reference, normal black paint from the art store absorbs about 97.5 percent of visible light, which is plenty for a work of art. However, the quest for total blackness is driven by the military industrial complex, which aims to use it in their stealth technologies, and the space science industry, which hopes to use it in the development of more effective telescopes. Super Black was a breakthrough, and it cornered the market until 2009, when researchers at another British company, Surrey NanoSystems, created Vantablack (VANTA for vertically aligned carbon nanotube arrays), which increased the level of light absorption at all angles by .005 percent.
In addition to absorbing slightly more light, Vantablack could be manufactured at a lower temperature, which meant the carbon nanotube forest could be grown on a wider variety of surfaces. Vantablack was also more stable and durable—important factors when using it for things like war planes and telescopes that need to be launched into space. It was nonetheless hard to make in large quantities, which meant Vantablack did not become commercially available until 2014. British artist Anish Kapoor was an early adopter. Among his first Vantablack projects was a painting of a black circle on the floor—roughly what Wile E. Coyote might have done with the paint. But the attempt impressed Surrey NanoSystems, which promptly licensed Kapoor as the only artist in the world who could use Vantablack for the creation of art. Ben Jensen, Surrey NanoSystems CTO, told WIRED magazine at the time that they could only license the product to one artist because it was hard to produce in large quantities, so they did not “have the bandwidth to work with more than one” artist. He explained that they chose Kapoor because his work has always “revolved around light reflection and voids.”
To Absurdity and Beyond
As sensible as the Surrey NanoSystems explanation sounds, outrage amongst other artists towards Kapoor was immediate. British artist Stuart Semple, whose work has always attacked cultural absurdity head on, was the loudest voice condemning Kapoor for accepting the exclusive rights to use Vantablack. Semple promptly launched a Kickstarter campaign to make Black 2.0, an even blacker black. Though it did not out-black Vantablack, Semple did manage to draw a lot of attention to himself, which he used to launch a complete line of other super paints, such as the pinkest pink, the yellowest yellow, and the glitteriest glitter, which he sells on his appropriately named website Culture Hustle. Semple makes his paints available to everyone in the world “except Anish Kapoor.” However, in 2016, Kapoor got hold of some Pinkest Pink and Instagrammed a photo of his middle finger dipped in the pigment and extended to Semple.
All this while, Yves Klein must be laughing in his grave. In 1960, the French Nouveau Realist became perhaps the first artist to claim exclusive ownership over a hue when he registered International Klein Blue (IKB), a particularly blue shade of aquamarine that he helped develop, at the Institut national de la propriété industrielle. He did not trademark IKB, he only registered it in France, and the original notice that he mailed to himself was lost. But Klein, who also famously once sold certificates of ownership to “zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility” (nothing, in other words), was obviously poking fun at the notion that anything can be owned. Hopefully, Kapoor and Semple are also more amused than they let on. For their part, MIT and Strebe are taking a definitive stance of neutrality in the black paint war. They state clearly on the project website for “The Redemption of Vanity” that their product “can be used by any artist. We do not believe in exclusive ownership of concepts, ideas or materials in the arts.”
Featured image: Diemut Strebe - The Redemption of Vanity. Left: 16.78 carat natural yellow diamond, Right: The diamond covered with the blackest black on earth. Exclusive Image Copyright: Diemut Strebe.
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio