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Artists Remember Pop Art and Soho Pioneer Ivan Karp

Roy Lichtenstein, “Portrait of Ivan Karp” (1961), oil on canvas (via artnet.com)

A significant figure in the development of Pop Art and the Soho gallery scene, Ivan Karp is dead. He died at his home in Charlotteville, New York, on Thursday, June 27 at the age of 86.

Best known as an important player in the careers of artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Tom Wesselmann and John Chamberlain, Karp was director of the Leo Castelli Gallery during the first days of Pop Art from 1959–1969, as well as one of the first dealers to make the move to Soho in the late 1960s and 1970s.  After he opening his O.K. Harris Gallery in 1969, Karp participated in the development of a new downtown arts district and scene.

Captured in Andy Warhol’s memoir POPism, Karp appears in the text as one of the first dealers to see Warhol’s Pop Art work and to offer the artist advice on how to develop his art career.

During a studio visit with Karp, who immediately recognized the similarities between Warhol and Lichtenstein, Warhol showed the dealer his Coke Bottle painting series. Developing his personal style, Warhol was making paintings both in a more dripping Abstract Expressionist manner and the cold, machine-like look that he would become known for.

As Warhol remembers in Popism:

I had a very good rapport with Ivan right away. He was young, he had an “up” attitude to everything. He was sort of dancing around to the music.

For the first fifteen minutes or so, he looked through my stuff tentatively. Then he dug in and began to sort it out. “These blunt, straightforward works are the only ones of any consequence. The others are all homage to Abstract Expressionism and are not.” He laughed and said, “Am I being arrogant?” We talked for a long time about this new subject matter of mine and he said he had intimations that something shocking was about to happen with it. I felt very good. Ivan had a way of making you feel good, so after he left, I sat down and wrapped the Little Nancy cartoon painting that he said was his favorite and sent it over to him at the gallery with a red bow on it.

After Warhol began to show with Castelli, Warhol and Karp became friends and Karp frequently visited the Factory. A YouTube video shows Karp and Warhol in all their Pop glory as Warhol slyly gives one word answers about his Brillo boxes.

After his stint as director at Castelli, Karp moved his art dealing downtown to Soho, opening O.K. Harris Gallery on West Broadway where it remains today.

Even after his move, Karp continued to support aspiring artists and even supported those in downtown Manhattan’s early punk scene, including Alan Vega of the noise/punk band Suicide, who had some of his first music performances at O.K Harris in the early 1970s.

While many people pay be aware of Ivan Karp’s support of Pop, few may be aware of how he helped out some of the first street artists.

Street artist John Fekner, who stenciled phrases such as “No Future,” “False Promises” and “Decay” all over New York from the Bowery to the Bronx, posted a tribute on his Twitter feed, stating:

Asked for a more detailed description of his interactions with Karp, Fekner explained:

 You could walk-in, stick your head in his office and show a sheet of slides to Ivan Karp. He had an open-door policy, very democratic, interested in showing new work by unknown artists who had a focus, vision and a body of work. Ivan would give three artists a one person show at the same time in his huge space.

Ivan made a studio visit in September 1973, bought a painting for a museum collection on the spot, and said he would show the work the following year. He thought my Barely Visible Portraits series needed a more intimate space and the work was shown in October 1974 across the street at Hundred Acres Gallery.

When I saw Ivan many years later at a benefit for the Drawing Center, I said, “Ivan, you remember me?” Ivan fired right back, “Yeah, you’re doing that outdoor social work” We had a good laugh.

Even though many remember him as a supporter of young artists, performance artist Martha Wilson remembers a different Karp.

Hyperallergic reached out to Wilson for comment and she recalled:

When Jacki Apple and I showed him our work in 1975 he looked at everything, then started yelling, “Why are you showing me this crap? It’s terrible! I would never show this stuff!” As a result of his diatribe, I never showed my work to another commercial dealer until Mitchell Algus asked in 2008.

No matter how Karp is remembered, there is no doubt that he was — like all successful art dealers — often able to pick a few artists who continue to be remembered as some of the best of his generation.

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