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DAVID KAPP at Beitzel Gallery

David Kapp, Working the Grid, text by Robert Edelman (Hard Press Editions, 2001)

David Kapp, "Crossing the Grid," oil on linen, 72 x 72 inches. Courtesy of Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.

SoHo was like an old friend on the balmy, springlike evening of David Kapp’s opening. Kapp held court at Beitzel in a bright true blue shirt over a lively crowd of onlookers who could have been walking down his esplanades, or passing under the streetlamps in his paintings. Viewers could sense the vertigo from his vantage point at the studio window looking down at these scenes of racing vehicles or pedestrians lost in thought. The view could have been of any urban center—Hartford, with brilliant New England light on the facades, Diebenkorn’s "Ocean Park" series, or a slick Parisian street scene like Pissarro’s, with fast-moving cars and trucks instead of carriages. The vehicles are not just posing. Movement and light, the variables, are the focus.

Kapp conflates historical influences, abstraction and representation, flat and illusionistic space, artificial and natural light sources into one signature. In Working the Grid, his newly published hardbound edition, with 76 reproductions of work spanning his 30-year career, he shows both Diebenkorn and Ryman’s influence. “In search of a synthesis between abstraction and representation,” author Robert Edelman concludes, Kapp “found the solution in landscape painting.”

The new paintings employ Mondrian’s pleasing balance of primary colors, his tight compositions, and his notion of the abstract urban landscape (e.g. “Broadway Boogie Woogie”). Mondrian “distilled Vermeer’s orderly rooms into the Grid,” notes Deborah Solomon in her New York Times review of the current Vermeer exhibit at the Met. Did Mondrian see Matisse’s “The Piano Lesson”? Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” series exploits the use of the grid as the framework of the modernist, abstracted landscape and brings us logically to an appreciation of Kapp’s recent work. Kapp had paralleled the abstract notion of the gridded picture plane with street intersections. “Like Giacometti, he uses reality to test the veracity of his invention,” Edelman notes in Working the Grid. In his particular perspective, horizon line and symmetry are dispensable. Kapp traverses the grid framework with incandescent light and shadow in his new work. He celebrates daylight. An infusion of New England brilliance from summers in Maine and Stockbridge recall Hopper, and finds its way into observations of lower- and Midtown-Manhattan scenes.

In fact, Kapp’s light is so intense, so bright, that at times large areas of shadow seem to have physical mass, blocking out sections of repose. The negative space then becomes ambiguous. Though Kapp claims that the reflections are a subtext, he is facile with them. The shadows which interest him in his current work could be said to cast doubt.

In earlier dramatic nocturnes of traffic on the BQE and Manhattan Avenue, headlights are abstract marks in a composition of light and dark. Traffic flows in an oncoming direction, leading us down into the foreground and dumping is into the unknown. The pictures are eerie, nightmarish, and strangely soothing, like a long monotonous drive on a rainy night. The motorists, strangely present, though not depicted, are trapped in their cars, resigned to their fate, maybe looking to the right or left for an exit. In the more desolate, industrially polluted Greenpoint of the ‘80s, Kapp spawned this series in a studio with no natural light. “Coming Out of the Subway” describes the five-year transition out of a dark studio in Greenpoint into the daylight of lower Manhattan. A new spirituality and a celebratory quality inform the work. For one, he celebrates the “civility and congeniality” of Manhattan. The wide esplanades of Essex and Houston Streets he chooses to paint are almost interchangeable with a German autobahn. The sense of place is created with a palette of primaries that is instead emblematic of New York.

The imposing shadows are palpable in the new paintings. He works them with increased intensity, as devices in his carving of the picture plane. In the Greenpoint paintings of the ‘80s, the reflections of headlights and streetlamps on slick pavement and into the night sky lit the painting. In both bodies of work, Constable’s edict, “The sky is the source of light” rules. Edelman observes “a silent beauty in stalled traffic, a suspension of activity that can be a restful experience” for viewers. This soothing mood characterizes the newest work on exhibit at Beitzel as well as suspended activity on an urban corner awash with light. The celebratory mood differentiates a Sunday morning in Kapp’s work from Hopper’s Sunday Morning. The picture plane is traversed with cars along a horizontal axis, sometimes racing flashes of red and orange. With a two-way street it is unclear whether we are going east or west on Canal; a symmetry approaches not seen in the earlier work. In “Coming Out of the Subway,” the eye is now drawn towards an upward façade out on the street. In the subsequent streetscapes, we are looking again from a high, possibly precarious place above the lower left quadrant into a placid, centered scene.

“I like the Emersonian notion of the eye being some sort of window that God looks through in an objective manner,” says Kapp in Working the Grid's interview with Jonathon Gams and Anne Bei Reiss. Though the light is at the threshold of the sublime, detachment replaces the drama of the earlier work. The spirituality of a mature artist working intuitively and engaged in the physical act of painting can be seen in the new work. But as Dave Hickey said in a January lecture at The New School, it is the formal aspects of the painting that commit it to memory. In the pleasing compositions of the work at Beitzel, we see examples of an oeuvre that stands out in the vast and varied vernacular of the New York art world.


At Beitzel Gallery, February 23 – March 24


Lori Ortiz


The Brooklyn Rail


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