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Harvard Adds the Blackest Black to Its Historical Pigment Collection

Harvard Art Museums acquired a sample of Vantablack, a material that absorbs almost 100% of light.

The Forbes Pigment Collection at the Harvard Art Museums is an evolving archive of synthetic and natural pigments — each year brings additions representing innovations in color. One of the newest acquisitions is a sample of Vantablack, a superblack material which absorbs 99.965% of light.

Senior Conservation Scientist Narayan Khandekar discusses the sample in the video above from Harvard University. Back in 2014, when Hyperallergic reported on the opening of the Straus Center for Conservation at the Harvard Art Museums, which made the pigment library freshly visible through glass, Khandekar said that the collection “was put together by Edward Forbes in an attempt to understand the material nature of works of art, and that approach to understanding art had not been taken before.” He added that it “was the beginning of the scientific approach for conservation in the United States.”

The Forbes Pigment Collection at Harvard Art Museums (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The Forbes Pigment Collection at the Harvard Art Museums (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Colleen Walsh at the Harvard Gazette reported that the Harvard sample of Vantablack is on a piece of crumpled aluminum, yet when seen through a protective box, the black appears like a flat void. It’s important to point out that while Vantablack is part of the Forbes Pigment Collection, it’s not accurate to call it a pigment. Its developer, Surrey NanoSystems, describes it as a “super-black coating that holds the world record as the darkest man-made substance,” noting that it was initially created for “satellite-borne blackbody calibration systems.” Claims have been made about even blacker materials, but it’s pretty darn dark, composed of vertical tubes that trap and deflect light and must be grown in situ.

And it may have a role in art — although at this moment, the role is limited. Earlier this year, Claire Voon reported for Hyperallergic that Anish Kapoor had acquired the rights to Vantablack’s exclusive usage in art. Sadly, he has not chosen to coat his mirrored “Cloud Gate” with it in order to reflect the dystopic national mood (that was just an April Fool’s joke). Now at Harvard, nestled among the roughly 2,500 rare and historic colors like lapis lazuli and arsenic-based greens, Vantablack will at least be on hand for students who want to research this darkest of synthetic materials. Perhaps in some future setting, they will consider its influence on art.

The Forbes Pigment Collection at Harvard Art Museums (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The Forbes Pigment Collection at the Harvard Art Museums (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
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