Ivan Karp: A powerful force in the American Art world

by Kim Steele

Ivan Karp, theessentialvermeer.com


I had the rich opportunity to have two, one-man shows at his esteemed gallery, OK Harris in SoHo, in the eighties. He was the first dealer to move into the ‘below Houston’ corridor (SoHo) and establish a beachhead on what would become in the eighties, the mecca for gallery goers. His  humor is exhibited in the sign under the gallery entrance “Established in 1492.” Everyone who was anyone was down there until the migration to the current hot spot — Chelsea.  He was a character and pioneer.  The most esteemed dealer for thirty years, Leo Castelli acknowledged that Ivan had introduced him to the most monumental artists of the last century, including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and the list goes on.


Portrait of Ivan Karp, by Roy Lichtenstein, hyperallergic.com


Not a tall man, but a formidable figure he cut.  Starting with the ever-present unlit cigar and dark sunglasses, he was fast-talking and straight shooting.  He selected work to show there that he believed in and provided strong support to his gallery artists.  Although his gallery was ‘labeled’ Photo Realist because of painters like Ralph Goings, he denied this categorization.  He had a very broad taste pallette.

The late fifties and early sixties was a very special time in the New York art world with Pop rising up from the ashes of Abstract Expressionism. “You could feel a tangible pulse in the air,” Karp recalled. “Things were changing. Artists began to be concerned with things outside of themselves.”  Until his dying day, he was open to looking at artist’s work and interested in new artists.  An anomaly now — this is contrary to any major gallery procedure today, which has become a formidable wall to young artists.


Ivan Karp with Leo Castelli and Andy Warhol in 1966, photograph by Sam Falk/The New York Times

Ivan Karp, theartworlddaily.com


Ivan Karp at Silver Factory with Warhol works, newyorker


Despite the recession rocking the world, the auction houses are crackling with record high prices on Modern Art, the recent world record for a piece at auction was set by “The Scream.” The Gagosian Empire spans twelve galleries around the world and feature extravaganzas, like Damien Hirst being shown in each gallery simultaneously. Selling a polka dot image to visitors as memorials. There is certainly a facileness in the art world today and artist like Jeff Koons play that keyboard very deftly.  Ivan was a man of the world and streets — not the rarefied air of Madison Avenue galleries.

The eighties were a special time in New York City.  Tony Shafrazi started his gallery in the basement around the corner from my studio and I can distinctly remember an opening of Keith Haring’s with him break dancing on the floor with a boom box blaring, dancing with Jean-Michel Basquait. Shafrazi was arrested for splashing acid at MoMa on Guernica (Picasso) in a political statement. The vivacious and fashionista, Holly Soloman, captured the spirit of the era with her artists and her personal style-she is also missed. (Memorialized in a Warhol silkscreen alongside Marilyn and Jackie). The Mud Club had eclipsed the raging madness of Studio 54.  Art was everywhere and accessible to many more people than today.  We just left the sanctum of art heroes and busted in another area that messed up the lines between art and commerce that Andy Warhol had crossed so successfully. Graffiti, Cindy Sherman’s  ‘Movie Series,’ Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexual imagery rocked the house and was even shut down in Cincinnati!  Karp stepped up to the revolution, with Duane Hanson and other ‘out of the box’ artists.

Karp indeed moved on from his ‘discoveries,’ which to this day command the art world’s attention and the skyrocketing prices! As the self-described “rubble-rouser,” he created he Arts Recovery Society where he salvaged architectural details from around Manhattan. He even briefly opened a cigar shop on West Broadway, where by this time, it was the epic-center of the art world with 420 West B’Way holding down the fort with Castelli, Cowles and Sonnabend.  He retired briefly to Arizona but soon returned to Manhattan.


Ivan Karp, by Andywarhol.artnet.com




Ivan was one of a kind, supportive arts dealer,

and will be deeply missed…





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