Commentary - World Art
Ivan C. Karp 1926-2012
Written by Curt Barnes © 2012
The family of Ivan C. Karp and the staff of OK Harris
convened in celebration of his life
at The Great Hall Foundation Building,
Cooper Union on Tuesday, October 16th, 2012
His public persona reflected an exuberant nature, an interest in connecting with the world around him and a receptivity to art world gossip and information. Yet I think it was a persona well and deliberately crafted, too, as ably as any politician's, because Ivan managed to be not only accessible and down-to-earth but dignified and somewhat formal, carefully calibrating the distance between himself and the person confronting him so as not to be seen as too self-abasing, too familiar. Friendly but not too friendly. And always in command.
Most dealers of any importance (and many of the other kind) have their imperious, autocratic sides, and Ivan was no exception. If you caught him on a bad day or if he misjudged your intentions he could be brusque or dismissive. What was noteworthy was his usual good humor, which might have reflected an essentially comic vision of the world, and his willingness to share it. Rather than hole up in some inner sanctum in his gallery like the majority of dealers, he was almost always behind the front desk, easily available to everyone.
His approachability was partly strategic. I first met him in the late sixties when he was leaving Castelli to start OK Harris. While with Leo he had championed Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Chamberlain, Wesselman, Oldenberg and Warhol. I was introduced by a friend as an abstract painter, and I asked Ivan if he planned to include abstractionists along with the younger pop artists everyone expected to be on board. He pretended to be affronted by the notion that his tastes could be so easily circumscribed or that he had such parochial limitations. He looked at my slides and made an appointment to visit my studio.
Just like that. No pussyfooting, no tease, no call-me-later-and-we'll-see.
For me that first encounter was, and is forever, the essential Ivan Karp. Many if not most dealers have better ears than eyes, or at least trust them more. They need to know who's respected, what trends are being talked about, what is reputedly selling. Yet with Ivan it was all about seeing and reacting. He trusted his eye; he had immediate reactions; he was passionate about contemporary art. He had an appetite for excellence and created a situation—that museum-sized gallery—in which he could champion all the excellence he found.
Both in group and solo shows, I exhibited eight times with Ivan over the years, yet we hardly talked, and I never really tried to sustain a conversation. Certainly his abrupt declarations and rapid-fire delivery made it difficult for me personally. Moreover I got the impression that chit-chat was fine, but ultimately irrelevant to looking at work, which was what he really loved to do, at least when it was good. And when he found it good enough, he was disarmed: honestly and confessedly moved and impressed, beyond wit or irony or affect. The discovery of something he admired—the magic that is art when it hits on all cylinders—seemed to be where he really lived.
It might have been a mistake not to force some discussion of my work, however. Once when he was taking a group of high schoolers on a tour of the gallery, and my work was on view, I heard him describe it in terms of "Euclidian geometry," a concept totally alien to anything I was doing. So he had his limitations; I was content to accept that his grasp of many kinds of work was more intuitive than reasoned or truly penetrating. Hardly a problem: great collections (Sergei Shchukin's comes to mind) have been built on intuition. And after all, intuition can instantly seize what reason takes years to understand.
Ivan Karp must have been a hero to every gifted, hard-working stiff who lacked connections or instincts for self-promotion. You could walk in and show him slides, plausibly have a show with him a few months later. There have been very few art dealers with that level of self-confidence and generosity of spirit and passion for what they were doing who even approached Ivan's open door policy. There have been none that I know of in recent years, and there are not likely to be in the future.
The list of name artists who had their first show at OK Harris, or who were helped with shows along the trajectories of their careers, is an impressive one. Duane Hanson, Deborah Butterfield, Manny Farber, Richard Pettibone, Robert Cottingham, Robert Bechtle, Marilyn Levine, Nancy Rubins, Malcolm Morley, Luis Jiminez, Jake Berthot, Jack Goldstein, Porfirio DiDonna, Al Souza and Arman all showed with Ivan. John Salt and Ralph Goings are still with the gallery. And there are many more, as they say, too numerous to mention.
Ivan, withal, was one of a kind, sui generis. We won't find his like again, his decisiveness, his trust in his instincts and his reactions, his unflinching idealism. What he liked, he liked, and he was known to shed artists who no longer did work he could stand behind. More than anything else, he seemed to love launching careers, and usually one or more of the five OK Harris gallery spaces (sometimes counted as six) were devoted to a debut show by an unknown. The work was "ripe," it was "achieved," and it "deserved to be seen," he would say, never mind that the artist had no resumé, or was tottering in her twilight years, or had driven paintings down from Vermont in a pickup.
With Ivan's death, that storybook scenario is likely a thing of the past. The gallery may strive to continue the open policy, but who could provide the instantaneous, while-you-wait response? And the good humor and kindness while at it? As I said, he was sui generis; no one seriously believes there will be anyone else remotely like him. Not in this art world.
Written by Curt Barnes © 2012
NEW YORK ART WORLD.COM
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