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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




Like Kapsalis himself, the painting has one foot in the old world
and one foot in the new; while it demonstrates a fondness
 for Synthetic Cubism, it also shows the artist far enough
 past the movement historically to identify and capture those
qualities of Cubism of particular personal fascination so that
far from feeling like an exercise in style it becomes a meditation
 on enduring influence, personal in tone . . .

On display in the Brauer Museum of Art this past winter was a major exhibition of paintings and sculpture by the noted Chicago abstractionist Thomas H. Kapsalis.  Curated by John Corbett and Jim Dempsey, the exhibition included more than thirty pieces from all phases of the artist’s career, some drawn from significant public and private collections.  The works overall reflect the artist’s commitment to formal abstraction, demonstrating in their variety Kapsalis’s ability to find delight and challenge in exploring this style and the elements of design.
    Kapsalis’s biography is a fascinating one, and key life events had impact on his work.  A veteran of World War II, a German POW, and a soldier in the Battle of the Bulge, Kapsalis saw first hand the horrors of war and perils of captivity.  His work following his years of service began to celebrate his freedom and creative opportunities, although an awareness of war experiences and the futility of war in general informed his work to various degrees for years afterward.  His Fulbright to Stuttgart in the early 1950s further exposed him to the world of possibilities in Modern Art.  The Vietnam era and accompanying controversies led the artist to limit his palette to only black and white as a gesture of protest.  Decades of teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago combined with ongoing pictorial experimentation in color, shape, and composition resulted in Kapsalis laying the groundwork in part for stylistic directions and approaches that now seem to characterize art from Chicago.  His work today is strong in design, colorful, full of appreciation for the capabilities of artful division of the picture plane.
    Kapsalis’s interests briefly mentioned above speak to a lifelong fascination with Modernism.  While avant-garde concerns in the present day oftentimes lead to an ironic questioning of artistic enterprises and inspiration, Kapsalis reminds through his example that the arrangement of pictorial elements, the application of pigment on the surface, the juxtaposition of carefully chosen colors all continue to hold real and satisfying rewards that engage the imagination and please the eye.  His firm attachment to the world of Modernist invention itself provides an aspect of content to his work, giving viewers a sense that the artist is able to stay relevant with impressive innovations while belonging to a time largely free of irony but simultaneously eager for new visions.
    The artist’s humble and mild-mannered demeanor complements well his Modernist priorities in this day and age, as do his patient but enthusiastic discussions of Modernist evolutions.  Add to that profile a fine sense of humor, and his art then presents something that playfully questions itself as it engages fundamental artistic principles.  Formal abstraction generally is fairly cerebral in its goals, and Kapsalis’s art certainly treats issues that are intellectual in nature, but add reflexivity spiced with humor and the work moves from a pure abstraction based on systems into the realm of the surreal or fantastic.  Design enhanced by narrative, or at least the suggestion of narrative, gives depth and charm to the artist’s pieces.
    One particular painting by Kapsalis points in interesting ways to his identity and aims as an artist.  Still Life and Cloth from 1984 might not necessarily reflect in an obvious way the artist’s aforementioned sense of humor, but it does have a narrative dimension in that it refers to the many table representations Kapsalis has made during his career, and in that it frames Cubism simultaneously in its early stage of development, later pictorial stylizations, more austere styles that followed, and the artist’s own pictorial idiom.  Like Kapsalis himself, the painting has one foot in the old world and one foot in the new; while it demonstrates a fondness for Synthetic Cubism, it also shows the artist far enough past the movement historically to identify and capture those qualities of Cubism of particular personal fascination so that far from feeling like an exercise in style it becomes a meditation on enduring influence, personal in tone because the distillation of Cubism, and its most pleasing elements, is unique.
    The painting’s gray and umber tones visually are reminiscent of the severely limited palette adopted by Picasso and Braque during Cubism’s earliest Analytic phase; in analyzing the selected subjects these artists wished to focus viewer attention on the idea of multiple points of view represented on a single picture plane, with color seen as too seductive, too distracting for a proper exploration of such a concept.  Later, Synthetic Cubism offered more varied subjects and greater use of color as the goals shifted toward investigating the broad capabilities of this new pictorial language.  Kapsalis has mentioned that Still Life and Cloth was inspired by Synthetic Cubism and his fondness for the opportunities of that style.  His discussions of Cubism inevitably reach back to Cezanne and the liberties, as a father of Modernism, that he took in order to encourage or demonstrate a new way of seeing based on the act of observing as opposed to the savoring and transcribing of a particular tableau.  Perhaps the table is a subject of fond consideration for Kapsalis who saw the occasionally distorted table perspectives in Cezanne still lifes as among the first indicators of a shift of priorities from the capturing of a likeness to the self-conscious manipulating of the basic tools of art making.
    Kapsalis’s abstract works, and this painting specifically, show abstraction as an activity of simplifying through degrees.  His latest works may be the most nonobjective he has done, but these too when not manifesting or exploring in highly personal fashions various design principles are based on some lived or experienced subjects, sometimes so highly simplified that connection with a specific subject becomes more linked to the metaphorical.  The table in Still Life and Cloth is recognizable, identifiable, but specific traits that might connect the table to an actual one give way to a general configuration; the table stands as an idea, not a portrait.  The cloth atop the table contains just enough bold and stylized marks to suggest and communicate folds or wrinkles.  Planes in the background have no specificity and become paradoxically indications of spaces and spaces that have been flattened to become shapes.
    The right edge of the table exists as a dashed line dividing a tan field, challenging in its perspective and leading back to an edge not delineated and (like Cezanne’s still life example) not matching or continuing the table’s left back edge.  The left edge of the table is painted in the sense that black paint (the use of which is daring in its flouting of painterly convention) is used, but this edge is actually more drawn than painted (or realized through coloristic or gestural means).  The left front leg is bisected by a background line and is terminated by a change of color rather than an edge.
    Such details in the painting make clear that the primary subject is the act of painting itself, which itself refers to decision making and a mode of seeing that transcends mere looking and instead becomes a statement of the artist’s attitudes about his craft and the aims of art making.  The canvas for Kapsalis and other dedicated Modernists becomes a kind of arena, where through grappling with something familiar and prosaic like a table the artist is able to call into question the particular natures of drawing and painting, the points at which the identifiable departs from the specific to become symbolic, the points at which color ceases to be illustrative or defining and instead becomes yet another component to adjust for effect, and the ways that spaces can become design elements for, say, planar invention.  While Cubism saw reality as food for invention, Kapsalis sees Cubism as food as well for him to make individual choices that establish the painting as a summary statement of his interests.  The rich color of the Venetian Red rectangle moves across the idea of a cloth to connect to a shaded corner, the dimensionality of which is thrown into wonderful doubt by linear elements and scumbled color areas immediately adjacent.
    Modernism was all about questioning and the breaking of rules.  Kapsalis’s Modernism enables him to proclaim his interest in such questioning and the beneficial aspects of it.  Viewers surrender to his patient and attentive guide, where through the gentlest means he takes them on a tour of twentieth-century art.  As much as they appreciate and comprehend the developments he shares and models, they most of all recall fondly his unique artistic voice and passion for the elements of art that sustain him.

© by Gregg Hertzlieb


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