If you had asked me 30 years ago what sort of career Anish Kapoor was going to have, I would have replied: a short one. Not because I am a bad caller of these things, and a lousy art critic, but because Kapoor’s early sculptures felt rather derivative. Providing you had been to India, that is.
Kapoor and I are more or less the same age. I remember his debut vividly. The first works of his to have an impact were bright heaps of unmixed pigment — red, yellow, blue — deposited on the gallery floor in Jungian clusters and looking as if they had been tipped out of giant cake moulds. The intensity of those unmixed colours gave away their Indian origins. Anyone who has ever approached a Hindu temple will recognise these startling hues from the stalls of the pigment pedlars lining the final mile. In India, temple stall after temple stall offers a Kapoor experience in miniature.
My mistake, and of course it was a huge one, was to imagine that quoting from his origins was all Kapoor would ever seek to do. It’s not that I did not respond to his unmixed pigments; the sight of them was electrifying, then and now. But, like one of those Booker Prize winners who writes a fine novel about their childhood in Calcutta, and that’s it, I thought he might not have a volume two in him, that his subtext would become his text. How wrong was I?
A selection of Kapoor’s colour shockers pops up in the first room of the Royal Academy’s impressive half-retrospective of his career so far. It’s half a retrospective because the RA is too small to accommodate the full beast, and because Kapoor is too alert and ambitious a sculptor to settle for nostalgia. When the RA invited him into its galleries, it invited him into a new range of sculptural possibilities, which he explores here with characteristic fierceness. This is a battle as much as it is a retrospective: Kapoor v the Royal Academy’s spaces. Why, there’s even a cannon in the show, firing splats of gooey Napoleonic wax at the gallery walls. Extraordinary.