PRINT October 2012


Ivan Karp

Ivan Karp at OK Harris, New York, ca. 1970.

BRONX-BORN, Brooklyn-bred, Depression-formed, Ivan Karp—much loved, underappreciated—died in June of this year at the age of eighty-six in Charlotteville, New York, a fading Catskills town that he and his wife, the sculptor and educator Marilynn Gelfman-Karp, virtually saved from extinction. Ivan was a prince of a fellow who played a memorable role in the postwar New York art world. He began to make his mark shortly after his honorable discharge from the wartime US Army and a brief sojourn in the still-grim Paris of 1949, where he wrote occasional art reviews for small publications. Returning to the States the following year, Ivan realized that his calling was to be neither writer nor artist but enabler of the arts.

One of Ivan’s first jobs in this line of work was as codirector of an early artists’ cooperative, the Hansa Gallery, organized by alumni of the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts. There, he shared Hansa’s custodial burdens with Richard Bellamy in a run-down brownstone overlooking Central Park South. In 1957, Leo Castelli opened shop at 4 East Seventy-Seventh Street, and Ivan joined the legendary gallery two years later. Droll, brash, cigar-smoking, the young Ivan was the ideal foil to the courtly Castelli, his pronounced tummler style putting one in mind of a borscht-belt emcee.

Ivan’s stewardship of the Castelli Gallery coincided with the most investigative years of its history. Roy Lichtenstein’s invitation to join the gallery, like that of Andy Warhol, to cite but two famous instances, was largely Ivan’s doing. Castelli owed his continuing preeminence as a dealer to maintaining, decade after decade, a roster of recognized masters—Johns, Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, Stella, et al.—often the result of Ivan’s ongoing and preternatural enthusiasm for their work.

Ivan’s generosity became as much legend as his verbal gymnastics. Stray visitors, after being greeted with undisguised gusto, often received, as gifts, sheets culled from the limitless editions of offset Lichtenstein lithographs that, years later, would sell in the thousands. In the early 1960s, when I sought to find my place once more in my native city, Ivan and Marilynn invited me to their home each weekend, creating a delicious Sabbath dish that we came to call Chicken Pincus, its recipe still secret.

Responsive to the promptings of artists he seemed to discover daily, Ivan opened the OK Harris gallery in 1969, eventually moving with Marilynn into a SoHo loft that quickly became a salon, and raising among the earliest of the SoHo families. If Ivan can be said to have sponsored a new direction in his role as gallery proprietor, it was that of Photorealism. He gave a home to artists such as John Clem Clarke, John De Andrea, Ralph Goings, and Duane Hanson, among many others. Academic reductivism and airy Conceptualism held scant appeal for him; he always believed in fundamental journeyman standards, preferring works that reveal a modicum of inarguable technique. Clearly, the virtuosity of the Photorealists amply answered this basic requirement, as did its considerable focus on urban, automotive life rather than abstruse theories of high-modernist abstraction. In a certain sense, this complex taste goes far in explaining why the OK Harris gallery-cum–cigar emporium rarely attracted speculative critical comment despite the hundreds of exhibitions mounted there, sometimes three or four at a time. Certainly, Artforum maintained a cool distance, as Ivan grew inured to the deafening silence that tended to greet his ambitious efforts.

Ivan’s catholicity of taste also manifested itself in the collection and preservation of naive and anonymous art. He would lead expeditions through the demolition sites of buildings reduced to rubble to make way for the moribund white-brick apartment houses typical of broad stretches of New York City in the latter decades of the twentieth century. Team Karp—calling itself the Anonymous Arts Recovery Society—was a loosely knit crew that might or might not show up on a weekend to sort through the piles of brick in the hopes of excavating the corbels, ornamental keystones, and spiteful caricatures carved by Italian-immigrant stonemasons that once lent piquant charm to dwellings that were often little more than slum tenements. In measure, Ivan’s desire to preserve this material was also an aspect of the range of his eye, his acute grasp of the distinction between deadening toil and honest labor, a view congruent with his support for the Photorealists and their celebration of craftsmanship and technique. These ornamental stones were given to the collections of the Brooklyn Museum and Ivan’s own museum in Charlotteville.

The rubble site was not the only place of discovery. Back then, demolition debris was regularly trucked out to New Jersey, where it was set aglow on mounds of slow-burning garbage in the Secaucus flats. Once, when I accompanied Ivan on an expedition there, we found a smoldering doll’s head made, as was usual, of sawdust and a composite binder. It was patinated in an exquisite coat of delicate ash. Years later, I saw the head loaned to an exhibition of antique artifacts; its tongue-in-cheek provenance read “Secaucasian.”

Robert Pincus-Witten is a contributing editor of Artforum.