Ivan Karp: An Eye for Talent

by Kim Steele

Ivan Karp Polaroids, photographs by Andy Warhol


Wearing sunglasses indoors is a pretense. Except if you are Ivan Karp. He paired this affectation, which he pulled off with aplomb, with an unlit cigar clenched in his teeth all day long. Ivan Karp lorded over one of the most prestigious and long lasting galleries in New York, situated in SoHo before it became chic, in the early 1970’s where only Paula Cooper had a gallery as well. There was a sign on the front of the all black cast iron façade below the name: OK Harris, that stated, “Founded in 1492.”  Karp chose the fictitious OK Harris name as it “sounded like the name of an American riverboat gambler.” His irony informed his choice of artists as well.


NEW YORK CITY – FEBRUARY 1970: Art dealer and Director of OK Harris Gallery Ivan Karp poses with OK Harris artists in front of OK Harris Gallery in Soho, New York City, New York (starting second from left is artist Duane Hanson, Mrs. Marilyn Karp, and gallerist Ivan Karp), photograph by David Gahr/Getty Images


At his new gallery, Karp was the first to show then unexhibited Duane Hanson and Robert Betchtle, and the supreme photo realist, Mark Goings (said to influence the wave of extreme realism photographers Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky, but this is a stretch for this writer) who influenced me significantly, and with whom I showed in one of my two shows at OK Harris.


Leo Castelli, Ivan Karp, Andy Wahol in 1966, photograph by Sam Falk, The New York Times



Karp had been the gallery director at the most powerful gallery in the U.S. for ten years, Leo Castelli Gallery, really the granddad of post-Modern art movement.  It is widely acknowledged that he introduced Leo, as was noted in the seminal profile of Leo in The New Yorker, in 1980, to the most influential artists in the U.S. of the last century: Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist, and Roy Lichtenstein. Several of these artists lived in the same walk-up tenement, near Wall Street, across from the Brooklyn Bridge.


Ivan Karp with work by Andy Warhol


Ivan was revered by both collectors and artists. He exuded a confidence and clarity that was renowned. West Broadway began to populate with galleries in the 1970’s, with the renowned 420 Building, which housed both Castelli and his wife Illeana Sonnobend (whom he had divorced by this time), and an another powerful figure in the art world, Charles Cowles. Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker in 2010, “The Times did run a piece that year, which probed Castelli’s handling of his thoroughbred stable: Johns, Rauschenberg, Twombly, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Oldenburg, Kelly, Stella, Judd, Flavin, Morris, Nauman, Serra, Ruscha, et al. It reported that he gave special consideration to favored collectors and might refuse to sell anything significant to others, and that he cultivated a network of cooperating galleries in other cities, which showed works by his artists and split the commissions on sales with him. No scandal there.” Castelli was “da mahn!” The important critic Clement Greenberg had paved the way, introducing Castelli to the earlier generation of artists, including Klee, Mondrian, Gorky, Pollack and Kandinsky.


Ivan Karp with Andy Warhol


Ivan Karp to Leo Castelli: “We should discover a genius! It’s been two weeks since we last discovered a genius!” Castelli, who held on to his artists, paid them regular stipends, on a scale unheard of in America, whether their work sold or not. This harkens back to the Renaissance times of sponsoring an house artist. I was offered an exhibition at Castelli by his print curator, Marvin Hiefferman. I turned down the offer because there was not promise of an exhibition, a grave mistake on my part. Both Castelli & Karp had an undeniable artistic eye. Karp was an appreciator of art on many levels. Later in his career, he opened a cigar store next door to the galley on West Broadway, and collected antiques for his store in New Mexico, where he had a summer home.


Ivan Karp in cigar shop, New York City




Karp (who had converted his gallery storage room into smoking room/cigar shop called OK Cigars) also had a unique business rescuing architectural artifacts from demolition buildings around New York. He quietly began a museum in a small town in upstate New York, Charlotteville, west of Albany, named the Anonymous Arts Museum (formerly the Anonymous Arts Recovery Society). He called himself a “rubble rouser.” Ivan drove around in his beat up Jeep, starting in the 1950’s, and cajoled site managers with a tip to rescues architectural artifacts from being demolished. Mayor Lindsay gave him a letter of ‘permission’ to show if he were stopped by police that allowed him to save the ornamentation before being smashed willy-nilly. A cease and desist type of notice. Mrs. Marilyn Karp stated that then, “they were not saving anything of the Pre-World War I buildings.” The museum is open three hours each week, from noon to 3PM on Sundays.



Arriving as a naïve artist, though having had several shows in my hometown of Seattle, and the last one at the most prestigious, FOSTER/WHITE GALLERY, I was seeking exposure in New York. I had two acquaintances at OK Harris Gallery in SoHo, one from high school, Carol Ann who worked there. As they say, it’s not what you know but who…I ventured into the gallery with an appointment to see Ivan Karp. There he was in his full regalia-cigar and sunglasses. I was intimidated. I brought in the biggies-forty inch square silver prints of my industrial landscapes from the West Coast which I printed on the floor of my studio in Seattle, in large trays I made myself. He was taken with them as I laid them out on the floor of the cavernous multi-roomed gallery. After some discussion, he offered me a show. I was so moved by this opportunity, I screamed outside the gallery on the street. This was a validation of my statues as an artist. I was overwhelmed with joy – it was so difficult and even much more so now, to get a show at a major gallery in New York…Ivan Karp gave me two shows.

This was a springboard for me to enter major collections in the U.S. First was the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  I had the honor to meet with the renowned John Szarkowski, the Director of the Department of Photography. He chose to purchase, a very different status than a ‘gift’ from the artist, a large industrial print from my American Industrial series. I was in seventh heaven, and upon receiving the check copied and framed it! Szarkowski exhibited it in 1985 in an exhibition titled “Big Pictures.” I had arrived.


Ivan Karp (behind Andy Warhol) universe: Gerard Malanga, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Leo Castelli



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