David Kapp: Painted Streets/Urban Grids
by Robert G. Edelman
David Kapp has been painting the urban landscape, in particular New York City, in all its relentless pace, irresistible dynamism and precarious balance of order and chaos, for some twenty years. As his powerfully wrought paintings attest, through their gradual and distinct evolution over two decades, his subject matter has grown with him, that is to say, his familiarity with this formidable city is reflected in the clarity and accuracy of his vision. Yet one cannot call his paintings realist (as in the work of Photorealists like Richard Estes) because Kapp has invested a great deal of his time trying to get to the essence of the urban experience by way of his medium; paint and its unique ability to capture light and space. And that is one of the essential ingredients of Kapp's paintings, his use of paint to convey the particular combination of light, color, structure, movement and shadow that together make up the place where all urbanites must be if they want to go anywhere: the city street.
To find the beautiful in a scene of congested traffic, of mammoth trucks maneuvering a narrow passage, or of a pattern of shadows cast by looming buildings and lines of cars on Canal or Houston Street, is a challenge that Kapp apparently relishes. Clearly Kapp regards these streets, the complex choreography of vehicles, pedestrians (what we all become when we take leave of the apartment, office, store and health club) and the dramatic play of light, shadow and color, as constituting the urban experience we all recognize and take for granted. Standing in front of his paintings, one is made aware of the fact, for better or worse, that the urban dweller is more at home on asphalt and surrounded by metal, glass and concrete than wandering through a forest. Not that one won't still dream of or indulge in such things, but then again, isn't nature all the lovelier by contrast?
Like Corot's silvery forest at dawn, Turner's golden haze on the Thames, Church's Catskill mountains or Marsden Hartley's beloved Mt. Katahdin, Kapp has sought out an urban landscape that is emblematic and quintessential. To observe the stylistic transitions in Kapp's paintings is to witness his profound curiosity about the way we choose to live. An examination of his work over the last twenty years affords the observant and curious viewer the opportunity to discover, through the painter's eye and touch, how rich and varied the urban experience can be. Kapp's struggle to get at what is essential to and in our collective environment and make it palpable (the slight of hand of the painter), is the magic that underlies these otherwise familiar city scenes. The urban landscape seen as a microcosm of human endeavor, ambition, frustration and hope, but also as the stuff for a painter to explore the nuances of his medium, his ability to translate and transform his world into paint.
The Urban Scene: A Brief Historical Overview
As a vehicle for the contemplation of nature and beauty, piety or sensuality, painting in the Western tradition since the 15th century generally relegated the village or town to a role of backdrop, suggesting that the earthy matters of city life were antithetical to the aspirations of art. The venality and material preoccupation of city life seemed to provide the threat against which the painter could counterpoise his version of purity and redemption. Jan Van Eyck painted some of the most beautiful cities ever rendered, but they were invariably a mere location indicator for more important matters taking place in the foreground; the devout patron kneeling in prayer before the holy mother and child.
The Netherlandish painter Pieter Brueghel portrayed the everyday village life beyond the morality-based restrictions on the art of 16th century Europe, to a point where it became the subject of his work. The art historian Carel van Mander saw him as "basically a peasant painter among peasants", but in fact Brueghel was more likely "a city dweller conscious of the burning theological and humanistic problems of his time." Brueghel's preoccupation with the human condition, however, did not distract him from such modern pictorial devices as dramatic lighting and perspective, complex spatial and asymmetrical compositions, and elevated viewpoints.
Not until the late 19th century and the advent of German Expressionism in particular did the city once again play a critical role as subject matter in painting. Well know are Monet's views of Paris from a terrace above Boulevard de Capucines, but more challenging are the aerial of the same city by Gustave Caillebotte, whose best pictures are more rigorous in their formal structure and far less sentimentalized than Monet's. The Expressionists (or Die Brücke), including E.L. Kirchner and Erich Heckel, took the Fauvist color to an extreme, using distortion and angularity to emphasize a new, near violent image of the city.
In America, the so-called Ash Can School, including George Bellows and William Glackens, painted city life as directly and unsentimentally as possible, albeit colored by a decidedly French sensibility. Influenced by photographic realism, the Precisionists Charleses, Sheeler and Demuth, simplified the urban landscape to the point of cubist abstraction. Stuart Davis also explored the cityscape as abstract construction, leading to a highly sophisticated pictorial style. Edward Hopper's Night Hawks, among other similarly dark and moody pictures, are unique expressions of American ambivalence toward urban life that simultaneously romanticize its tough exterior in the manner of Noir fiction writers like Dashell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The themes of alienation and anonymity in American urban centers is fairly common in works from the 30's to the 50's, exemplified by such disparate artists as Joseph Stella, Romare Bearden, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, and many of the WPA artists.
Abstract Expressionism brought other issues to the fore, urban subject matter was more obliquely present (though certainly not eliminated) in the appropriately heroic-scaled, black and white paintings of Franz Kline. Pop Art brought the fragmentary urban collages of Robert Rauschenberg, the news-clipped car crashes of Warhol, Oldenburg's cityscape cardboard cutouts and Christo's wrapped storefronts. All were focusing on elements of the urban experience, locating iconic images from the collective urban vocabulary. Photorealists Richard Estes and Ralph Goings brought back urban scene painting to a new audience, one that was weaned on photography, and John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha glorified the American car and the gas station, respectively. More recently, Martha Diamond and Alex Katz have reduced city buildings to their basic geometry, using paint to convey a more poetic reality. Painters John Button and Robert Birmelin employed urban motifs throughout their careers, the latter portraying the anonymous rush of people on New York City streets. The implication is that the city as subject has continued to challenge contemporary artists, both painters and those who work in other media.
A Tendency Toward Abstraction: Early Career Influences and Artistic Environment
"When I was a kid I had this scrapbook, I was eight or nine, and from my parents magazines, I would take these car ads, cut the cars out and paste them in my scrapbook. I cut out the '63 Lincoln, I used to know these cars so well, and it occurred to me, about 15 years ago, I realized that I was so into these things even then..."
Kapp began his life as an artist, as a painter, at the precocious age of twelve. Kapp did the European tour with his family in the summer of 1965, visiting ancient sites and museums, with all that a first experience of this kind would imply. The young artist was energized by the Robert Motherwell show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965, and, using his parents' attic for his studio in their Riverdale home, began making his own black and white abstractions, a la Motherwell and Franz Kline. His personal study of Abstract Expressionism lead Kapp back to its sources, Surrealism and Cubism. Upon entering Walden High School, Kapp began to paint figuratively, influenced by the Bay Area School work of David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and most significantly, Richard Diebenkorn. Kapp spent as much time in galleries and museums as possible in his teenage years, absorbed the energy of the New York School, gradually shaping his own approach to painting.
At Windham College in Vermont, Kapp worked with sculptors Charles Ginnever and Peter Forakis, former members of the Park Place Group, a loosely knit group of artists in the New York area. Through Ginnever, Kapp met several New York artists at Wyndham, including Conceptualists and Minimalists Lawrence Weiner, Carl Andre and Robert Barry, who built site-specific works at the college. Kapp was also assisting Ginnever in the fabrication of large-scale outdoor sculpture and installations in New York City. Working with a sculptor afforded Kapp the opportunity to absorb critical information that did not conflict with his commitment painting. As for his own efforts, Kapp was painting geometric abstractions on the grand scale, responding to the minimalist atmosphere of the time, as well as to his immediate surroundings, the Vermont landscape.
After graduating from Windham, Kapp drove to Texas to see Robert Smithson's Amarillo Ramp, and then to the Salt Lake Flats of Utah to see the sculptor's legendary Spiral Jetty (which was under water at the time). After a sojourn in Italy, Kapp entered the MFA program at Queens College, studying painting with Louis Finkelstein, and art history with Robert Pincus-Witten. The environment was conducive to dialogue, to meeting other artists, and to pushing his work in new directions.
At this juncture, however, Kapp was going through a crisis with abstraction, as his work had begun to seem to him too preconceived. The problem was with the process; the inherent difference between the execution of painting versus sculpture (as it was practiced by the Minimalists, where the emphasis was on idea and a clean and spare fabrication), was now all too apparent to Kapp. Doubtless this went against Kapp's innate sense of what painting was, one of a process of discovery. Kapp would have to come to terms with his own aspirations as a painter, despite his enthusiasm for the austere work of Robert Ryman (whose retrospective exhibition Kapp had recently seen), among others, in order to continue working in the medium. Kapp was in search of a synthesis between abstraction and representation, and found the solution in landscape painting, at the time much debased and all but ignored mode of pictorial content.
On his painting teacher's suggestion, Kapp studied the work of the 20th century French painter Albert Marquet, focusing on Finkelstein's own theory concerning, by his description, "pictorial movement into deep space carrying a powerful emotional charge". The message was about the articulation of space in painting (something that Frank Stella would promote in his Norton Lectures "Working Space" at Harvard some six years later, but to very different ends), a groundbreaking concept for Kapp, whose paintings had recently been paeans to flatness. Marquet's painting (described by Kapp as "the perfect box of air") was a liberating factor for the young artist, both his aerial views and his subtle, naturalistic use of color and light. In addition, Kapp had also encountered the work of artist Jane Irish, whose surreal nocturnal paintings of the Long Island Expressway, with "these big, long, skinny, snakelike shapes", as well as Marquet's nocturnes, influenced his thinking about the larger potential within the urban landscape. Kapp took a studio in Long Island City, and began a series of paintings of the outlying areas of Queens, the start of a thematic journey that has continued to the present.
Having graduated from Queens in 1977, Kapp moved his studio from Tribeca to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where he executed large, seven-foot square paintings of cityscapes, combining his enthusiasm for the New York and Paris Schools of painting. Kapp, in yet another studio in Greenpoint in 1979, a very isolating but stimulating environment, commenced his series of dramatic night studies of cars and traffic in Brooklyn, taking his work into an entirely new arena.
The Car: Mobility and the Tedium of the Commute
"When I started really working from the cityscape as opposed to landscape, what got me was something I'd read in the John Constable diaries (you glean all these wonderful aphorisms from various painters over the year); Constable said, in terms of landscape, that the sky was the source of light, which is an interesting idea...so when I started doing this work, I was always terribly conscious of what the source of light was, and the source of light is unbelievably complex when it comes to painting the city, because it bounces off everything. The nocturnes were wild in this respect, because there were headlights, light from windows, streetlights, and light from the sky, artificial and natural all at once; that was wild stuff..."
The motor vehicle, the car, bus or truck, as unpromising a leitmotif for painting as Cezanne's apples or Morandi's bottles and jars, seems for the Kapp the most intriguing of subjects. One might not be inclined to consider cars and urban traffic as appropriate subject matter for the landscape painter, yet it is, perhaps, the closest we can get to the way that contemporary society chooses to organize itself. The urban planner Robert Moses was a visionary who applied common sense and a missionary zeal to the realization of traffic flow in and around the city of New York. Kapp's initial attraction to the subject was based on the immediacy, the availability of the scenes he chose to paint. Over time, however, the potential of these scenes, the inherent metaphorical content to be found in the images of cars at rest and in motion, led to major developments in his work.
During the early 80's, the New York art world was assaulted by a new, dynamic group of artists practicing what came to be known as Neo-Expressionism. After at least a decade of minimalist and conceptual art, painting was again back in the forefront, albeit heavily influenced by the original Expressionist period of some fifty years before. Bold, post-modern, and unabashedly figurative was the prevailing style for painters, including Americans Julian Schnabel and David Salle, the Germans Baselitz and Keifer, and Italians, Clemente, Chia and Cucchi, among many others. In addition, there were the rebellious Graffiti artists, led by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, whose hit-and-run tactics on subway platforms made their work a veritable public challenge to younger New York painters. Into this mix came a group of unaffiliated painters, including David Kapp (whom Robert Pincus-Witten described as having "the emphatic reflection of a Whitman-like independence") who were determinedly figurative, but not beholden to the expressionist mantra. That said, the energy and exchange of ideas during the early 80's was palpable, and no painter (especially one as conscious of the artscene as Kapp) could afford to ignore the Renaissance atmosphere that painting itself had been experiencing.
Kapp's paintings from the early 80's are indeed expressionistic, but it can be argued, far more informed by the Die Brücke group than by his contemporaries. The emphasis for Kapp was on direct application of paint, and the immediacy, the directness, of the image. Of the few paintings extant from this period, it is clear that Kapp was still searching for the balance between image and abstraction, finding structure in the highways, tunnel entrances and bridges of his Queens neighborhood. Kapp, in conversation, expresses the pull of abstraction at this point in his career, combined with a curiosity about this marginalized part of the city. The environment was conducive to Kapp's development in a variety of ways; the discovery of untapped thematic resources in the vicinity of his studio, the painter's method of making things familiar and knowable through their apprehension, the notion that the unique strangeness of a place can work in an artist's favor, if such a thing can be captured in paint.
Kapp's early city scenes have a raw, immutable power. The paintings are made with speed, and express speed. In fact, the vehicles careening through the streets of Queens, entering its tunnels, seem to be flirting with danger, even courting it. At the same time, these cars and trucks also appear to be familiar with the territory, as if they drive this way all the time, habitually. The threat of an accident, of a collision, is part of what make these paintings vital, suggesting lives lived in constant motion.
Color, at this stage in Kapp's work, is kept to a minimum; just enough is used to provide a sense of place, of moment. Or, as non-descriptive in its general tonality, to give the sensation of a light or heat; dim street illumination or the lingering warmth of a summer night. Compositions are spare and graphic, perspective (as was the case with the original Expressionists) is exaggerated, drastically foreshortened, giving the viewer an uncomfortable feeling of vertigo. Kapp also employs the diagonal, often bisecting his painting to dramatic effect; a compositional device carried over from his days as an abstractionist.
Kapp uses drawing to give structure, lines are thick and fluid, defining or dividing form and space. One immediately senses the importance of drawing to Kapp's process; it has been, from the beginning, at the foundation of his work. As has been noted by several writers, Kapp worked directly from the site. Standing "in the middle of these crazy medians, like Turner lashing himself to the mast", sketching the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge or the Pulaski Bridge at night], Kapp later translated the sketches into paintings in the studio, maintaining the sensation of place as much as possible. Kapp had immersed himself in his subject, traversing "a God-forsaken landscape...but with terrific content", among drug-dealers and prostitutes, in pursuit of the motif.
Works such as Midtown Tunnel], Cars (both from 1983) and Billboards (1984) have a powerful, graphic quality. The surfaces of these paintings are dry, rough, heavily pigmented. The views are from above, but close to the action, as from an overpass or a third story window. The diagonal composition in the latter two works (one Theo van Doesburg would doubtless approve) plays dramatically with the square format of the painting. Kapp indulges the viewer in the specificity of the moment (cars passing in the street) while seducing the eye with the alluring tactility of boldly applied paint. Add to this the melodrama of New York streets at night and all the associations that go with it; adventure and danger commingled. Kapp's Lincoln Tunnel (1985)] is at once both nightmarish and soothing, depending on how one interprets the funneling of multiple lines of cars into a maw under the Hudson River. The cars glow in an eerie illumination, otherworldly, or rather, under-worldly. The shape of the entrance drive (which Pincus-Witten described as resembling Bosch's Earthly Delights bagpipe) suggests a large vessel through which the cars pass like droplets of an irradiated substance. Like insects suspended in amber, these motorists are resigned to their fate, the traffic congestion that is a constant in New York City.
Oncoming Car (1985) was one of a series of paintings that constitute some of Kapp's most mysterious and compelling work during the 80's. The car emerges out of a murky darkness, with its headlights on highbeam, catching the viewer by surprise. With impressive dexterity, he smears and drags paint across the linen surface, capturing the effect of raking and reflected light on the wet street and car windshield. Kapp has executed many variations on this ominous vision of contemporary anxiety, one the viewer is forced to confront and react to as the image of the car emerges from the gloom. These paintings veer toward portraiture: our vehicles as extensions of our personalities, albeit a dark, brooding one.
Traffic Patterns and The Urban Circulatory System
There is a threatening element to the nocturnes, particularly the oncoming car, but I never viewed it that way at all. I was fascinated by the lights, the artificiality of the light, and the simplicity of the image, the fact that the thing was in motion. It was as if the painting had a face, two eyes that could stare back at the viewer, it was an Abstract Expressionist notion, that a good New York School painting should be alive and look back at you, then it's not a picture of something, the thing is something, it comes alive. But I never thought of them as being threatening...
By the late 80's and early 90's, Kapp's painting process had coalesced in several critical areas; drawing and painting had become more integrated, compositions more sophisticated in form and space, and color took on a more dominant role. Kapp had also begun to use photography (in the late 80's) as a method of recording a particular place at a particular moment, a means of framing his subject that was reflected in his compositional strategies. Moreover, Kapp's application of paint had become more confident, bolder, particularly when applied to the difficulties of rendering effects of light or the dramatic contrasts of light and shadow.
Kapp quickly acknowledges that the vision of Edward Hopper was always there, a presence, even if in the back of his mind. As a younger artist, Kapp noted that Hopper "was too literal, a bit sentimental", but grew to admire the work over time. He owns a print of Hopper's Night Shadows, a man seen from above, caught in lamplight, a long black shadow cutting across his path, a working model for some of Kapp's recent overhead views of city streets such as Walker by the Fence (1998)], or Walker in Queens (1999). Hopper's use of light, for compositional and emotional effect, have not been lost on Kapp, who emulates the clarity and sound construction of this idiosyncratic American artist. Despite Hopper's need for "content", that is, narrative subject matter, the formal sophistication of paintings such as the Whitney's Early Sunday Morning make his work a crucial precedent for Kapp. It is this combination in Hopper's work of architectonic fabrication, illumination and moment that appeals so much to Kapp, elements that are all integral to his own painting. Despite their clear differences, no other painter (with the exception, perhaps, of Diebenkorn) has had as profound an effect on the look and feel of Kapp's cityscapes.
Kapp now employed light in various ways, either to energize form or to define a space. In paintings such as Intersection II from 1991, the aerial view of the street describes a cruciform in the center of the painting, with the corners of the composition cast in shadow. Suggesting the vertical structure of a Mondrian, the painting is bisected in an almost blatant way, as a kind of challenge for Kapp to see if he can make it work (and he does). Similarly, in Crossing the Grid (1990)], a single car is subsumed by light and shadow, the vehicle nearly disappearing in the complexity of street grid.
Again, Kapp plays with the image of cars stuck in heavy traffic as a minimalist device in The Hill] and Gray Hill, both from 1990. In the former, cars are lined up haphazardly, seemingly motionless, caught in a late afternoon twilight, brake lights glowing, their rooftops reflecting the last light of day. These paintings, with their low, intimate viewpoint, are ruminations on city life, offering an almost mesmeric, steady beat. Perhaps Kapp is suggesting that there is a silent beauty in this stalled traffic, a suspension of activity that for a viewer at least, can be a restful experience.
Ascending (1991)] is a big homage to abstract painting, displaying a bold colorism that threatens to dissolve the dwarfed cars waiting at an intersection. Like a Clyfford Still, areas of red and blue-black are locked in place, the few details of the white street grid and the burnished cars giving form to the vast, vertically propelled space. Having located and defined his subject, Kapp was now focusing in on the painterly options within his chosen demesne.
The Painted City: TV, the Movies and Photography
Black and white, we grew up on it; black and white TV, film and photography, but none of it came close to the experience of looking at paintings. In high school, when I would come down and go to the Met, seeing the huge Hofmann show and the Still show, in the late 60's, nothing took the place of seeing those paintings, and it still doesn't, because when I see something fabulous, I've got to come back to the studio and paint...I never go to the movies and want to come back to paint...
Kapp's admiration for the precision of photography, and the work of Steichen, Steiglitz and Strand, for example, is evident even if it has not had what the artist would consider a direct influence on his painting. As previously stated, Kapp has used the camera since the late 80's as a tool for capturing a particular moment, a scene that encapsulated his curiosity about the intersection of the formal with the accidental. The dramatic shots of New York by Strand (his Wall Street photograph in particular) lead Kapp to look at others, including work by Bernice Abbott, Lee Friedlander, Harry Callahan, Gary Winogrand and Rudy Burkhardt, but Kapp points out that it was more of a correspondence with their work than an influence, since "I was already doing my thing.".
Kapp does not ascribe to a particular influence from the movies, per se, despite the cinematic aspects of his skewed viewpoints or carefully framed cropping of an image. Not even Welles or Hitchcock? Perhaps the early Ingmar Bergman, because of the light, which Kapp credits mostly to the great cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. Kapp recalls, however, during the opening credits for the late Million Dollar Movie, the black and white images of cars driving through a dazzling New York at night (probably Broadway) accompanied by the schmaltzy theme from Gone With the Wind, creating the proper movie watching mood. This image is quintessential Kapp, appearing every weeknight on television for many years; "Not a huge influence, but it's in there", he admits with a laugh.
It is hard to imagine that Kapp has not been affected, at least in passing, by such purveyors of New York City imagery as Hitchcock (Saboteur), Kazan (On the Waterfront), Scorsese (Taxi Driver) or Woody Allen (Manhattan, etc.). Yet Kapp maintains that there is for him rather an affinity with film than an influence; his work is more about recording a moment in the life of the city than in telling a story. That is why the medium is so important to the effect he is after, for Kapp the paint is the vehicle of expression and content, it is all that he needs to create the atmosphere of the city that he is after. One can't look at recent paintings such as Looking Up Broadway and Houston Street East (both from 1999) without being aware of the implied (yes, cinematic) camera angles, but Kapp's deft handling of paint brings the viewer's attention back to the surface of the canvas. That is why Kapp is so adamant about his marginal connection to film and photography; it is painters and painting that provoke, intrigue and challenge him. Kapp mentions, in conversation about painting, the Baselitz show at the Guggenheim a few years ago, "kind of got me going", the sheer painterliness of the work, or "a good de Kooning or a Thiebaud"; nothing can compare, says Kapp, to "this incredibly rich thing that can move you".
In this vein, it is easy to see Kapp's connection with other painters who have used city imagery as a vehicle of expression. De Chirico "aesthetic synthesis" of the metaphysical period comes to mind, especially his poetic use of light and shadow, and a seemingly arbitrary, quirky use of viewpoint and perspective. Again, Alex Katz's recent series of large-scale city views at night have a magical, timeless quality, verging on abstraction in their reductive simplicity. Yet the painter with whom Kapp's work can be most directly compared is that of Richard Diebenkorn, a traditionalist who steered a lifetime course between abstraction and representation. In fact, Diebenkorn's paintings dwell so comfortably between the two (something like Rauschenberg's bon mot of working between art and life) that he appeared not to have the creative turmoil, say, of a Jackson Pollock. Yet that would seem to deny the "equivocal nature" of his working process over his career, what Jack Flam describes "as a model of constructive ambivalence." Kapp shares with Diebenkorn a strong connection to the New York School, but also to Matisse's paintings from 1913 to 1917, when the French master experimented with "the methods of Modern construction." Both painters avoid any semblance of symmetry, and eschew any indication of a horizon line, resorting to it only when necessary. Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series represents a culminating point in the development of landscape painting, as well as a pinnacle in the history of American abstraction. Kapp has clearly absorbed Diebenkorn's example, and has derived his own, cumulative vocabulary for interpreting and structuring the urban landscape. As in Diebenkorn's work, Kapp does not allow reality to stifle invention, nor does he permit the vicissitudes of abstraction to preordain structure or composition. One feeds and nourishes the other. The process is reminiscent of that of Giacometti (another artist Kapp deeply admires), who used reality, in his case a model, to check the veracity of his invention. For Kapp, these are lessons derived from his own experience, and his recent paintings are illustrations of that personal journey.
Color and Light: Images of a City in Perpetual Motion
At this stage, the streets, the city itself is an unbelievably rich subject matter. What I've done recently, which occurred to me just in terms of spatial orientation, just in view of changing things around a little bit, instead of always looking down at something, I began to look up; let me do the antithesis or the opposite of it. Coming Out of the Subway came out that way. The city really affords a lot of dynamic aspects to look at it from. There's a lot yet to come; it keeps opening itself up to me...
The cars pick up the light like a string of colored glass beads on a necklace. The street is a bleached gray; the deep blue shadows are sharply delineated, cast by the heavy industrial buildings of lower Manhattan. We see the light traffic from a distance, perhaps a block, maybe two, five to six stories above street level; one can almost hear the muffled sounds of traffic, near and far. A single figure appears to contemplate crossing the wide thoroughfare, and a cab tentatively pulls away from the curb. The traffic flows like a river, somewhere in a gorge or deep canyon, and the steadiness of its movement is hypnotic. Looking inside of Kapp's The Bend in Houston Street (1998), a work typical of the latter 90's, is to be transported to the artist's world. The maturity of approach, in both the treatment of subject and in technical execution, is clearly evident in this new body of work.
The structure of Chelsea (1999)] is immediately reminiscent of a Mondrian from the 20's, a tightly organized composition in a nearly square format. From a view directly above the street, two cars, (one white, one green), line up along the center of the painting, one moving, the other parked. Both are caught in an intense mid-day light, strong enough to cast an imposing shadow across the left quadrant of the painting. In the shadow, two more cars are discernable, their fenders picking up shards of reflected light. Two people are attempting to cross the street, seemingly in mid-block. The sidewalk holds the bottom of the painting steady, the painted yellow street divider holds the top. Taken in altogether, it actually resembles a Mondrian in motion, or a Calder mobile caught in a sudden breeze. Everything is in flux, but in slow motion (since it remains a painting), by implication.
Composition has become an increasingly important factor in Kapp's recent paintings. October (1999)] is orchestrated with minimlist precision; four cars are arranged (or so it would seem, since one assumes they are positioned by chance) in a horizontal diamond, viewed from almost directly above. Actually, on second thought, there is only a cast shadow of the car on the left, but its presence is manifest. On the sidewalk below, four figures are evenly spaced in a similar diamond pattern, casting long shadows. The element, however, that introduces spatial complexity to the whole is a streetlight that arcs gracefully from the lower right corner to the upper central section of the canvas. Kapp allows the viewer to "feel" the space, offering a subtle clue to gauge our distance from the street. Again, it is the portrayal of a random moment, one that most people would miss or ignore, had we come upon it ourselves.
Yet it is always the paint, the liquid pleasure of it, that catches and holds our attention. West-East (1999) is a tour de force of painterly gesture and nuance. Kapp conveys the essential information with least amount of paint necessary, for example, to make a car hold the road, or to give volume to a building. One immediately notices the variations in warm tawny and cool grays of brick and window, real city color, and the shades of dark blue and violet to gray-black in the cast shadows along the wide avenue. It looks so familiar, but we're caught up in the reality of the moment, the trueness of Kapp's vision. Here vision must be stressed, as Kapp is offering his version of what he sees. As Matisse noted, "Exactitude is not truth", and I believe Kapp would wholeheartedly agree; the painter must interpret the subject, transform the experience into what we have come to know, through its long history, as painting. Kapp's early career immersion into the New York School, and abstraction in general, has served him well. His recent paintings, taking into consideration their embrace of the visible world, have the look and feel of a late 40's Reinhardt, a 50's Kline, or a 60's Motherwell. It's as though Kapp had to discover his subject so that he could fully absorb what the painters of the New York School were after: freeing painting from any and all external restraints. It is really all an artist can ask, that their process be a dialogue with their chosen subject, a give and take, so that the act of painting remains as fresh as possible. Or, as de Kooning is purported to have said to Philip Guston at his opening at Marlborough Gallery of his strange, iconoclastic figurative paintings in 1970, "It's about freedom..." Painting can and should be a process of discovery, for both painter and audience.
David Kapp has observed, sketched and painted his way around New York for more than twenty years, and as the work continues, the artist comes to know his subject intimately. As his painting Coming Out of the Subway] amply displays, one can approach the city with trepidation and anticipation simultaneously. But as we look up the subway stairs, slightly dizzy from the climb, the light above is celestial, and we look forward to what lies just beyond the edge of darkness. Kapp challenges us to emerge into the light, not looking back, as did Orpheus, but fully expecting to take on the city, in all its glorious confusion.
Robert G. Edelman