New American Paintings Remembers Ivan Karp

Legendary New York art dealer, Ivan Karp, has passed away at age 86. Ivan has the distinction of being the only gallerist to ever juror an edition of New American Paintings – all other jurors have been curators. He did so in early 1997, and the result was Issue #10, which is the only issue we ever published that was solely dedicated to New York City (the city subsequently became a part of our annual Northeast issue). Ivan is also the only juror that I have sat with through the entire jurying process; it was a long, cigar-smoke filled afternoon in the offices of his SOHO-based gallery, O.K. Harris Works of Art, that I will never forget. My introduction for Issue #10 talks about Ivan’s career, and gives some insight into what it was like looking at art with him. It is reproduced in its entirety below. Steven Zevitas, President/Publisher

Andy Warhol Painting of Ivan Karp

New American Paintings #10, June 1997
Editor’s Comments: Ivan Karp

Past editions of Paintings have been juried exclusively by museum curators. For this edition, I chose to work with the director of a commercial gallery. By doing so, I knew the jurying would be done through a different lens – a commercial lens. This competition, I thought, deserved a unique juror. Ideally, I wanted an individual who was intimately familiar withNew York’s art scene – past and present – and whose taste was not constrained by the shackles of any style or movement. I found that person in Ivan Karp, the owner and director of O.K. Harris Works of Art.

Ivan Karp has seen the evolution of New York’s art world from a special vantage point: the inside. Indeed, Karp has been witness to, if not provocateur of, many of the events that have shaped the art world in the last forty years. The first art critic of the Village Voice, Karp turned from art writer to art dealer in 1956 when he joined the staff o the then cutting-edge Hansa Gallery.

In 1959, after brief stints with Hansa and then theMarthaJacksonGallery, Karp began working for the now legendary art dealer, Leo Castelli. It was an exciting time forNew York’s burgeoning art scene. Although the legacy of Abstract Expressionism still permeated the consciousness of New York artists, things were about to take a radical turn. “You could feel a tangible pulse in the air,” Karp recalled. “Things were changing. Artists began to be concerned with things outside of themselves.” Within the first years of the 1960’s Pop Art – equally a reaction against the metaphysical polemics of AbEx and an acknowledgement of post-War mass culture and consumerism – exploded onto the scene. As representational imagery made its return, hostile camps of proponents and detractors formed, and droves of nascent enthusiasts and collectors flooded a once exclusive art world. Modernism’s end was visible for the first time as high-culture became a commodity. Castelli and Karp sat at the center of the maelstrom.

In 1969, Karp was the first to open an art gallery on West Broadway. Along with a handful of other pioneering art dealers, such as Paula Cooper and Mary Boone, Karp helped draw attention to what has now becomeNew York’s principal gallery district:SoHo. Since 1978, the area has seen a dramatic amount of development. The galleries were followed by trendy restaurants, clothing boutiques and furniture stores, and many now seeSoHoas little more than a “luxury compound.” Ironically, commercial interest in the area has pushed rents to the point where those responsible for its rise, the galleries, are being forced to abandon the district. They can’t compete for square footage with the likes of J. Crew and the Gap. Karp is staying; he owns the building in which his gallery is housed.

O.K. Harris Works of Art is directed like no other gallery. According to Karp, “The gallery is run like a museum.” With an average of four solo exhibitions showing simultaneously, and school groups continually marching through its multiple spaces, the comparison seems apt. Unlike most commercial galleries, which operate with a stable of artists that generally does not vary from year to year, O.K. Harris invariably represents the work of new talent. Karp is one of the few dealers who will take the time to view the slides of an artists walking in off the street. It is a practice borne out of necessity and curiosity. He is keenly aware of the fickleness of the art market. A constant supply of new talent hopefully keeps him one step ahead of the next trend. It is a sort of esthetic insurance policy.

I met Karp at his gallery to conduct the jurying for this book. I was late, as he was quick to remind me. Karp is direct, if not curt. He has a sardonic sense of humor. He is capable of deftly handling a cigar in one hand and a phone, which does not seem to stop ringing, in the other. He is a true New Yorker and a deadly serious art dealer.

After a brief scavenger hunt to find a projector bulb, we began looking at the work of over 500 painters from his city. As we started, he looked me in the eye and assured me that he was “the best in the business.”

Looking at slides with Karp is a dizzying, rapid-fire experience. He is a man who over the years has learned to trust his eye completely. As he looked, he actively referenced a vast mental database of images, and often related projected works to other artists’ work – “Good Rosenquist”; “Bad Johns”. If a work caught his eye, Karp was likely to hum approval in between puffs on his cigar. In the best of cases, he would stop on a particular image and exclaim, “Now that is a prize winner!” (Alice Dalton Brown’s work [pp. 20-21] captured such praise). In the worst, he would advance the slide carousel with vigorous disdain, as if chastising the artist.

My only preconceived notion of Karp’s taste was that he had a penchant for photorealism. When I asked him if my assumption was accurate, Karp winced and responded, “That’s a tag that got thrown on me and the gallery in the 1970s. It is how we have been labeled by the art community. We show a lot more than photorealism.” It is hard to label Karp’s aesthetic, but his stable of artists seems to share a common dedication to the craft of painting. Whether abstract of representational, the work you will find on the walls of O.K. Harris is always distinguished by superb technique.

The work toward which Karp seemed to gravitate during the jurying process was similarly well-crafted, and it was clear that his appreciation of technique transcends stylistic bounds. Karp was equally excited by the work of realists such as Rose Weinstock (pp. 104-105) and Leigh Behnke (pp. 14-15) – work whose content is derived from recognizable subject matter – and the abstractions of artists such as Martha Keller (pp. 44-45) and Hester Simpson (pp. 94-95) – work which demands a heightened sensitivity to painting’s formal elements. “Style is not particularly important to me,” Karp offered, “I am more concerned with execution.”

About half way through the jurying, Karp observed that we were looking at an inordinately high percentage of realist work, especially cityscapes (there are fourteen painters of cityscapes in this book, including critically heralded Doug Safranek [pp. 88-89]), as well as a lot of paired-down abstraction. “There doesn’t seem to be much in between,” he joked. And he was right.

The final “exhibition” represents a number of currents in contemporary painting. From the gestural abstractions of John Berens (pp. 16-17) to the figurative expressionism of Karin Batten (pp. 10-11); from the Pop-inspired canvases of cover artist Nadia Klionsky (pp. 50-51) to the intentionally naïve pastiches of Michael Eastman (pp. 24-25), there is much to consider. The book is, however, largely defined by the aforementioned poles. It is ironic that a city from which countless styles have emerged should end up so narrowly represented in this case. As with any juried exhibition, Paintings inevitably reflects the range of artist submissions.

It was my hope that theNew York Cityedition of Paintings would shed light on new talent and, perhaps, uncover some artists whose work had slipped between the gears ofNew York’s capricious art machine. I was particularly impressed by the wide range of career levels that submitted work for this competition. There is a strong group of younger painters, who find themselves in the company of more established painters such as Ralph Wickiser (pp. 108-109), Bruce Dorfman (pp. 22-23), Joe Stefanelli (pp. 96-97), Arnold Mesches (pp. 68-69), Idelle Weber (pp. 100-101), and others.

Karp recognized some of the entrants, but that certainly did not guarantee their inclusion. As the lights came on and the smoke – literally and figuratively – cleared, he mused on the current state of the art world, “It is a difficult time to be an art dealer. There was a lot of excitement after the Scull auction [the auction of Robert Scull’s contemporary art collection in 1973 marked the beginning of the go-go years for contemporary art], but many people who speculated in the 1980’s are paying for it now. A generation of mature collectors has diminished and their children are not as interested. I’ve been in the business for over forty years though and I love it.”

While the children of collectors may be less interested, Karp’s own son is heir apparent to O.K. Harris Works of Art. He joined us for part of the jurying and I later commented to Karp that he and his son had remarkably similar taste. “It’s not taste kid,” he chimed, “We both have good eyes.” Of that I have no doubt.

Steven T. Zevitas


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