It may only have been a couple days since word leaked out that a long-awaited Anish Kapoor sculpture in New York was finally complete, but already, crowds have begun to form on a previously unremarkable corner on Leonard Street in Tribeca to see it. They’re there to greet a 19-foot-tall sculpture that resembles a legume being squashed by a luxury building, its steel form appearing to bulge out beneath the weight of a sleek outcropping.
The New Yorker once termed the sculpture, which is not yet titled, “the mini-Bean,” a reference to the nickname given to Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, the work this piece is loosely based upon. That Chicago sculpture, which debuted in 2006, is well-loved, both by locals and tourists, and its following may explain why this new Kapoor work has attracted so many influencers and curious onlookers already.
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Yet this sculpture is no Cloud Gate, and personally, I wouldn’t mind if the building above it made good on its promise and crushed the thing altogether. Kapoor’s latest is a big, shiny, reflective object that feels like the final boss of ugly public art in New York—not that that will stop people from flocking to it.
In some ways, it feels like a mistake to call Kapoor’s sculpture public art, however, since the structure above it is about as private as it gets. Designed by the starchitect firm Herzog & de Meuron, the building, known as the Jenga Tower, contains 60 stories of luxury condominiums, some of which even overlook the mini-Bean. (Kapoor bought one of those units for more than $13.5 million.) The tower rises so high, you can’t see its uppermost floors from the street, but if you were in an airplane, you’d notice that portions of them jut outward, like unevenly laid blocks.
This new sculpture, which may have cost as much as $10 million to build, had always been a part of the plan for the tower, making appearances in reporting on the Herzog & de Meuron building as early as 2008. (The building itself was completed more than five years ago.) Manufacturing difficulties and the pandemic caused the piece’s years-long delay, and for a while, the mini-Bean existed only as a partially empty shell New Yorkers could see from the street. In 2021, Curbed New York made a plea for the piece to remain that way, arguing that Chicago’s Bean should be allowed to retain its glory, but alas, that was not to be.
Much has been made of this new work’s technical qualities—a typical focal point when discussing Kapoor’s art, which has previously included a permanently churning whirlpool and pieces made from the world’s blackest black. There’s little to fawn over with this new mini-Bean, however, which is nowhere near as elegantly fashioned as the rest of Kapoor’s work.
Cloud Gate was fabricated in such a way where its enormous steel plates were welded together seamlessly, so that the sculpture appeared endless and smooth, even otherworldly. With the mini-Bean, however, there are places where the borders of some of the plates are nakedly visible. Upon a close look, one may notice that there are several long, thin slits running across the piece; only from afar do they disappear. The sculpture comes off as the tacky fast-fashion cousin of its couture Chicago counterpart.
In renderings, this new Kapoor sculpture gleams like a freshly buffed car. In reality, it’s a lot less exciting. The steel plates are already flecked with water stains (will they survive a winter blizzard or a summer downpour?), and on a recent afternoon, I watched as a small group of workers study how best to squeegee the sculpture so it remained clean. One got to work, then let the soap dry, only to find, minutes later, that the suds hadn’t left the work spotless after all.
The technical fetishism even extends to the area around the mini-Bean. According to the Tribeca Citizen, the sculpture is “suspended with a system of cables and spring members so that it will be able to move slightly with changes of temperature and wind and snow loads.” Yet the other day, as frigid gusts blew past, Kapoor’s sculpture hardly budged in a noticeable way.
On Thursday, portions of the mini-Bean were barricaded, possibly so that troublemakers can’t slip under or around it and get into its crevices. These blockades were makeshift—they seem to be crafted from plastic construction materials crudely placed around its corners—and they accidentally undid the glossiness Kapoor is trying to evoke. It’s not clear whether they’ll permanently be there. Whatever the case may be, the niche given to the mini-Bean provides viewers with less freedom than they have with Cloud Gate, which can be walked under and around in its entirety.
I must give Kapoor this: his mini-Bean does mess with the mind a little. Standing before it, staring at the distorted images of Tribeca stretching across its surface, I began to wonder if the sidewalk below was caving a little, buckling beneath its weight. He’s crafted something which seems to suck in its surroundings and spit them back out, warped and stranger than they once were.
But no one I observed seemed much interested in any of that. A man filmed himself walking up to the sculpture, muttering something as he did so, then played back the footage and, seemingly unsatisfied with it, shot it all over again. A child rolled over on a scooter, nearly put his face to the sculpture, and then stepped backward, perhaps afraid of how cold the mini-Bean would be to the touch. Wielding a selfie stick, a woman stood with her back to Kapoor’s sculpture and went on a photography spree. Two people mugged for each other’s cameras, switching positions constantly in an attempt to get the best angle. A mass of tourists herded before the sculpture, briefly blocking foot traffic and irking the selfie taker.
None of these people, it seemed, were there to admire the mini-Bean. They were there mainly to see themselves reflected in it.
But who really gets a complete view of the mini-Bean, anyway? It’s not the people on the street level, who must genuflect before this monstrosity that looms over them, but the residents of the Jenga Tower, who can step out onto their pristine balconies and gaze downward, like royalty making an appearance before the masses. Whatever these residents may see in the mini-Bean from this perspective remains a mystery because almost no one who passes before Kapoor’s sculpture will be able to visit these apartments.
And then there’s another curious detail that the people viewing the mini-Bean seemed not to notice: a security camera mounted to the ceiling above. Someone, somewhere, could see every inch of the mini-Bean—even behind its barricades—while almost everyone else was given a partial view that left them stranded on the corner of Leonard and Church Street.
There’s something far more insidious about the mini-Bean than initially meets the eye. The sculpture reminded me of what the art historian Anna Chave, in a famed essay from 1990, once termed Minimalism’s “valorization of power,” the potentially dangerous choice to wield influence over viewers by way of big, beautiful, spare objects. No, Kapoor is not a Minimalist—his work is far less severe than that of Richard Serra, Donald Judd, or others associated with that movement. He does, however, seem to thrive on the idea that most should feel dominated by his art and that those who paid for it should feel mightier than the rest.
The mini-Bean earns the name the New Yorker gave it—it is indeed mini, at 12 feet shorter than its Chicago counterpart. Yet looking into its mirrored surfaces, it still feels grand and discomfiting, even in some ways dangerous. While the sculpture may be positioned in such a way where it appears to be ceding victory to the skyscraper, it’s actually viewers who are losing the battle to the building and Kapoor’s statement piece. We shouldn’t be so willing to give up that easily.