This brief essay addresses the quest for “the blackest black,” a totally absorptive, nonreflective surface—in science and engineering as much as in art and entertainment—as an occasion for conceiving difference differently. Here black is both a color and a color space in which other colors become themselves, in their specificity, through a disavowed dependency or derivation, processes whereby we can question the material and symbolic consequences of the meanings ascribed not only to the various colors of the spectrum but also to the very idea of a color spectrum itself.
In 2017 longtime art educator Stella Paul published Chromaphilia, a book-length tour de force recounting “the story of color in art” in and beyond the modern West.1 The study addresses not only the complex technical history of the evolving color palette, from the earliest ochre to the latest synthetic dye, but also the depth and diversity of its accrued meaning. Of all the colors in the rainbow, however, black is highlighted for its material and symbolic singularity. Paul makes this point succinctly in an excerpted essay, “I See a Red Door and I Want It Painted Black” (with a nod to the Rolling Stones’ psychedelic anthem), which introduces a contemporaneous book about black monochrome architecture. She writes:
You might have a love-hate relationship with black. It is the ultimate code-switcher. Asserting abject humility or the pretentions of power—sometimes concurrently—black is a brilliant communicator of values. It has always been this way. Whether it signals transgression or devotion, penury or luxury, introspection or extroversion, black is at the center of both personal and social experience. It also takes pride-of-place, with some fascinating twists, in theories about color, standing steadfast at two conflicting poles: the color that all others draw from or, conversely, not a color at all.2
What we learn here, and throughout the larger commentary in Chromaphilia, is that the experience of black—as and in relation to color, as and in relation to all colors—is as much a feat of engineering as it is one of imagination; at once scientific and philosophical, it is a matter of aesthetics and ethics, knowledge and belief, fact and fantasy. These processes seem to drive one another, mutually informing their respective protocols and productions—and not least in the present-day fascination with finding or fashioning “the new black.”
Since the development of carbon nanotube technology in the 1990s, various state agencies and corporate interests have been involved in a race to create ever-darker materials for military, commercial, and scientific purposes, from advanced cloaking for stealth aircraft to improved optical lenses for deep space telescopes. Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are microscopic filaments some ten thousand times finer than a single human hair, and they are grown in specialized laboratories at very high temperatures in order to coat small patches of metals able to withstand the intense heat.3
In 2014 a British technology start-up called Surrey NanoSystems made a breakthrough on this front, devising lower-temperature nanomaterial growth platforms that allowed for both greater practical application (because lighter substrates could be used in the process) and greater absorption of light (because a higher density of carbon tubes could be grown together). The eventual product, known as Vantablack (Vertically Aligned NanoTube Arrays), absorbed “all but 0.035% of light,” thereby breaking the previous world record of 0.040 percent (fig. 2).4 But outside the relatively small circle of material scientists and engineers and their various investors, this new “blackest black” came to the attention of the general public when the acclaimed sculptor Sir Anish Kapoor secured exclusive rights to use a spray paint version of Vantablack in his own creative endeavor.5
Kapoor's popularization of the material revealed to a range of audiences its peculiar powers. Paula Cocozza reported for the UK Guardian: “When you look at this new black, you see only a hole. If you were to wear a Little Vantablack Dress, people would see your hands poking out the ends of the sleeves, your legs below the hem, your neck and head—and the rest of you would appear two-dimensional.”6 For Kapoor, far from a curious amusement, this radical perceptual distortion held the most profound ethico-onto-epistemological implications: “It's blacker than anything you can imagine. It's so black you almost can't see it. It has a kind of unreal quality. . . . Imagine a space that's so dark that as you walk in you lose all sense of where you are, what you are, and especially all sense of time . . . something happens to your emotional self and in disorientation one has to reach in for other resources.”7
One does not, then, just lose their balance. If the where, what, and when of context are forcefully suspended, the who and why of existence are thrown into a related vertigo. Kapoor continues: “The problem is that color is so emotive—especially black. . . . I don't think the same response would occur if it was white. . . . Perhaps the darkest black is the black we carry within ourselves. It's not the night where you switch the lights off—it's the night where you close your eyes. There's a psycho side to blackness that we don't associate with other colors readily.”8
Perhaps Kapoor already had something like this in mind when crafting his 1992 work Descent into Limbo, an eight-foot-deep hole painted in uniform black located inside a free-standing twenty-foot concrete cube, a massive piece included in his 2018 survey at the Serralves Museum in Portugal (fig. 1). In fact, Kapoor cautioned spectators not to call the center of the work a hole, preferring to describe it instead as “a space full of darkness.” That said, a patron nonetheless fell in and sustained minor injuries while attempting to touch what looked like a flat black circle painted on solid ground.9
Shortly thereafter, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced “that they have cooked up a material that is ten times blacker than anything that has previously been reported,” absorbing all but 0.005 percent of light. Brian Wardle, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, while enthused about his laboratory's noteworthy achievement, acknowledged nonetheless that “the blackest black is a constantly moving target. Someone will find a blacker material and eventually we'll understand all the underlying mechanisms, and will be able to properly engineer the ultimate black.”10 Not unlike Vantablack several years prior, the scientific achievement of Wardle's lab gained wide public recognition due to an artistic collaboration, this one initiated by Diemut Strebe, Ida Ely Rubin Artist in Residence at the MIT Center for Art, Science and Technology. The exhibition, called The Redemption of Vanity, showed at the New York Stock Exchange in 2019 (fig. 3).11
In this case Strebe applied the super black material to a 16-karat natural yellow diamond provided by the jeweler L. J. West, an estimated $2 million worth of “the most brilliant material on earth covered with carbon nanotubes, the most light absorptive material (the blackest black on earth), making the diamond appear to disappear.”12 Strebe thus describes the project's aim: “The literal devaluation of a two million dollar diamond can be seen as a challenge to the art market and a statement on the arts by means of an aesthetic asceticism.”13 (The team is probably referring to figurative devaluation here, but the point is taken.)
And so we ask: Can “aesthetic asceticism” effectively resist commodification and thereby reverse the subsuming of art by capital, redeeming vanity, as it were, in the process?14 Or can it only make statements to that effect, wherein the limits to capital actually remain generative for its reproduction and the “vanity of vanities” persists between advocates and critics alike? More to the point, why does the key to this redemptive áskēsis, this struggle against global capitalism, seem to lie in the obscure quest for the ultimate black, the resistance of the blackest black on earth?15
It would seem that the devaluation of this exorbitant object is based not on its simple disappearance. After all, the object is on view, accompanied no less by armed guards as an essential part of its exhibition, and, not for nothing, the super black CNT material that covers and conceals the precious stone is worth more, ounce for ounce, than the diamond itself.16 Rather, the figurative devaluation takes place by way of a change in its appearance so fundamental that it assumes the nonvalue or, better, the antivalue of black. “It has a kind of unreal quality,” we hear repeatedly, associated with flatness, the loss of depth and distance, texture and detail, that produces, ultimately, a total loss of bearings.
What is “so emotive” about black is that when you encounter it you undergo a spatiotemporal disorientation so basic that you are forced to make a decision: you either “reach in for other resources,” toward “the black that we carry within ourselves,” as Kapoor stated, or more likely, you reach out for some value that provides a stabilizing sense of (socially legible, state-sanctioned) difference and degree. The color white would seem the most obvious job candidate, but as the researches of Paul and others make clear time and time again, the entire spectrum of color waits eagerly in line to counteract this “psycho side to blackness.” And yet, this all depends upon how we think about color as such.
As a matter of luminescence, black is a noncolor and white is the combined appearance of the entire visible spectrum. As a matter of pigmentation, though, white is the absence of color and black is the consummation of all colors. In the first scenario, where the paramount question regards structural position along a quantified array of frequencies, the divide is cut between black and nonblack in seeming permanence, marking an infinite Euclidean distance. In the second scenario, where the question of quality enters the picture, there is only the paradox of a black that is the synthesis of all colors, a black “that all other colors draw from,” a black that is inclusive and encompassing of all colors without failing to be itself, a color space in which other colors become themselves in their specificity through a disavowed dependency.
Thinking the world with black as the field and frame of reference not only decenters white as that mythic purity from which one deviates or falls short; it also opens a space of interrogation regarding the entire spectrum of color. Who or what is black? Who or what can inhabit it, embody it, understand it, enjoy it, or represent it? And who or what, if anything, is beyond it? With black, we can think about the production of color and noncolor as processes that are at once physio-optical and sociopolitical, as undoubtedly historical as they are historically irreducible, processes wherein we can question the material and symbolic consequences of the meanings ascribed not only to the various colors of the spectrum but also to the very idea of a color spectrum.
At a yet higher level of abstraction, recasting the known universe as black per se presents the challenge of addressing all difference—in the visual field as much as anywhere else—as the internal differentiation of blackness, where the substance of dark matter reaches its greatest density and yet perturbs itself and diverges from itself, disperses and scatters into the most far-ranging waves of light, from infrared to ultraviolet, no less powerful, no less black, depending on what is propagated. There is no conceptual reduction here. This is a redoubling of the richness of being, precisely because it is derived from, in relation to, and in the name of that which is so often taken to be antithetical or anathema to being as such.
Black is so basic it cannot be transcended; it cannot be created or destroyed. But because it is so basic as to be immanent, it cannot simply be encountered either internally or externally. The encounter must be invented, forged, not taken for granted, not taken or granted.
Paul, Chromaphilia and “I See a Red Door.” Paul's writing should be situated within the considerable interdisciplinary literature on the history of color. For recent examples, see Ball, Bright Earth; Finlay, Brilliant History of Color in Art; Gage, Color in Art; Loske, Color; St. Clair, Secret Lives of Color; and the multivolume work of historian Michel Pastoureau for Princeton University Press on the colors black, green, red, blue, and yellow.
David Coles, founder of Langridge Artist Colours, an independent art materials manufacturer, explains: “One square centimeter contains approximately one billion nanotubes, even though more than 99% of the material is empty space.” Coles, Chromatopia, 161.
The move set off a minor controversy in the art world, embroiling Kapoor in an ongoing feud with, among others, artist and curator Stuart Semple, who in turn created his own line of blacks—“Better Black,” “Black 2.0,” “Black 3.0”—each made available to everyone except Kapoor. Rogers, “Art Fight!”
Delaney, “‘You Could Disappear in It’ ” (emphasis added).
Strebe gained some acclaim for an earlier art-science work, Sugababe (2014), which produced a living clone of Vincent Van Gogh's severed ear in order to explore whether an object that has all of its component parts replaced remains essentially the same object, a project on the ethics of cloning and other replication technologies. Unlike Kapoor, Strebe made it a point to open-source the new material used in The Redemption of Vanity. “Professor Wardle, who has already received inquiries about CNTs from several artists in the US, praised the artist for helping push the boundaries of the technology. ‘Strebe's art-science collaboration caused us to look at the optical properties of our new CNT growth, and we discovered that these particular CNTs are blacker than all other reported materials by an order of magnitude across the visible spectrum.’ In the future, the MIT team is offering the process for any artist to use. ‘We do not believe in exclusive ownership of any material or idea for any artwork and have opened our method to any artist,’ he explained.” Kinsella, “Sorry, Anish Kapoor.”
See the artist statement on the exhibition website: https://www.the-redemption-of-vanity.com/. Host Jimmy Kimmel made a sardonic quip about the exhibit on the September 16, 2019, episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live on ABC: “They know it's the blackest color ever because when they were transporting it to the art show, it was pulled over [by the police] 14 times.”
Strebe's work could be read within the critical tendency discussed recently by Aude Launay in her essay “Art, Capital of the Twenty-First Century.”
Recall that asceticism, contrary to popular misunderstanding, is not necessarily about abstinence, restraint, or withholding, and it is not necessarily about austerity or self-mastery either. Rather the ancient Greeks had it down to a matter of exercise or studied practice or, simply, training for self-formation: an asceticism of autopoiesis. On the latter, see McGushin, Foucault's Askesis.