David Kapp, "Recent Work," Nov. 21, 2002-Jan. 4, 2003, at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10019
David Kapp has for some time now found his subject matter just outside his downtown studio window: a bird's eye view of the perpetual reality show of traffic and urban life on Canal Street. The random but somehow geometric arrangement of wide avenue, cars and pedestrians are for Kapp what the thoroughbreds at the races were for Degas -- an opportunity to study the social theater of people in motion. However, Kapp is less interested in the drivers (as Degas was with the jockeys) than in the complex rhythms that are played out in the streets below.
City dwellers generally take it for granted, but crossing a street in New York can be a risky business. Everything is in transition, distractions abound and drivers are always trying to beat the light. In The Bend in Houston Street (2000), Kapp finds order in the seeming arbitrariness of cars stopped at various intersections. Like a giant board game, tiny animated figures dart across the broad street, mid-block and between cars.
Looking west across Sixth Avenue from a nearby building roof, Kapp depicts the deepening shadows of late afternoon, in sharp contrast with the sunlight that glances off, and bleaches out, the tops of the cars. The bending street in the foreground makes for a compositional shift that creates the painting's dynamism, as cars cross and turn onto the avenue. In Houston and Lafayette, the high vantage point makes the painting surface resemble a foreshortened late Mondrian in motion, with geometric elements shifting positions at various speeds.
If a photo were taken of one of these scenes (Kapp does use photography occasionally for compositional purposes), few would notice the telling details that Kapp picks up in paint. In Chinatown II (2001), for example, the lines of colored awnings are luminous even in shadow, and the painter makes careful observations of reflected light, the rich, warm tones of building facades suffused with bright and indirect sunlight. Kapp employs shifting camera angles and cropping in paintings like Canal Street West, in which the sharp slant of the street makes the army of crossing figures appear in immanent danger of falling of the canvas. In contrast, the casual strollers between sidewalks in Crossing are in total harmony with their surroundings and each other, their limbs and faces illuminated by summer's light and heat.
As Stephen Westfall accurately points out in his catalogue essay, "Kapp has always given credit to the Bay Area Figurative School, particularly Richard Diebenkorn and David Park, for mentoring his bold attack and stark lighting effects, an homage that generously expands the clear New York School resonances which range from Franz Kline to Martha Diamond."
My own reflections on these recent paintings, however, called to mind the carefully wrought still lifes of Giorgio Morandi, their painterly refinement and subtle tonality, somehow combined with the starkness and shadowed world of dreamlike, deserted village squares of (the other Giorgio) de Chirico. These kinds of associations derive, in part, from Kapp's cogent meditations on the vitality of life in the city.
A good example of this is Crossing the Grid (2001), a large work of people traversing a crosswalk, their cast shadows like gaunt Giacometti sculptures, mimicking their individual stride and posture. The street is a sky blue, and reflecting city buildings from an earlier rainfall. Kapp supplies just enough paint and information to give the viewer something quintessential about pedestrians in a crosswalk; we're in this together, despite our obliviousness.