There's no shortage of outdoor sculpture in the U.S. Most of it just sits there sunning itself, pretty much unnoticed by the people who go by. Then there's Cloud Gate, by the artist Anish Kapoor, born in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and based in London. It's not just a work of art; it's a destination. Four years ago, it landed at Chicago's Millennium Park, where in no time it became an essential photo op. A fat, arching pillow of reflective steel, it's a giant fun-house mirror that bends people, clouds and the skyline into endlessly shifting puddles. Who can say no to something that turns the world into Silly Putty?
But Cloud Gate also distorts Kapoor a bit--at least in the U.S., where his complicated output is always in danger of being overwhelmed by this one singular sensation. You get a much firmer picture of him in "Anish Kapoor: Past, Present, Future," an indispensable show that runs through Sept. 7 at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston. Organized by Nicholas Baume, the ICA's chief curator, it brings 14 Kapoors dating from 1980 to the present into a single long gallery that's also something of a fun house, assuming that a fun house can be smart, subtle and even a little haunting.
Surprisingly, this is Kapoor's first major museum survey in the U.S. in 15 years. In that time he's become a global art-world brand and something close to a household name in Britain, where he arrived in 1973 as a 19-year-old art student. He was first noticed for works in which he covered cones, cubes and pyramids with intensely colored raw pigment to make primal objects with a radioactive intensity. Since then, he's moved on to fiberglass, resin, acrylic and stainless steel, but almost always playing with the threshold between the solid and the immaterial, the point at which a thing comes into being or dematerializes, or the ways a massive solid form, like Inwendig Volle Figur (inwardly turning full figure), can also be a giant entryway.
The paradox of Kapoor's work is that it has debts to the blunt boxes of minimalists like Donald Judd and Robert Morris as well as to the weightless atmospheres of James Turrell. But the blend of heavy and vaporous, declaring and beckoning--that's all Kapoor's. That explains S-Curve. A long wall of bending steel, it's like one of Richard Serra's hulking stretches. But because of its mirrored surface, S-Curve dematerializes, the way Cloud Gate does, into a field of runny reflections that throws the world for a loop. It's art as metaphysical jujitsu.
But as a preoccupation, immateriality can wear a little thin. So it's good that lately Kapoor has been interested in more solid realities. Past, Present, Future, the tour de force in this show, is an enormous half-hemisphere of purplish red wax and paint. Almost 30 ft. (9.1 m) wide, it bursts from a wall at one end of the gallery. A curving motorized blade rides slowly back and forth across its surface as though carving it, sending off splatters of wax along its circumference like solar flares. Wagnerian, mythic and muddy, it's something vast and strange being born, like a planet being fashioned out of primal elements and impersonal forces. Though in some ways this world is putty too, this time there's nothing silly about it.
Steady Art Beat Richard Lacayo blogs daily about art and architecture at time.com/lookingaround