Thank You, Ivan

Ivan Karp 1926-2012
Photo by Algis Kemezys, taken 1995; courtesy of the gallery

SoHo in the Seventies and Eighties was the center of the art universe, and OK Harris on West Broadway was the center of the center. Actually, Ivan Karp, who sat at a desk in the back gallery, was the center of it all, the Higgs boson particle of the art world.
Ivan was legendary for his accessibility. Artists walked in with their slides and he would actually take the time to look at them. I never had the courage to approach him.
So you can imagine my surprise in 1994 when I got into my Union Square studio and heard this message on my answering machine:  “Hello, this is Ivan Karp [he pronounced it Oivan Kop]. I saw your work at the Small Works Show and I’d like to make a studio visit.”  I don’t remember the exact words—I should have, because I played the message dozens of times—but that was the gist.
The Small Works show was an annual event that took place at New York University’s 80 Washington Square East Galleries, a sprawling exhibition that drew hundreds of artists from New York City and the region (at the time, the work had to be hand delivered).
Alba, 1994, encaustic, 10"x10"

 A different dealer, critic or curator juried it each year. I entered three 10-by-10-inch paintings, reductive compositions in encaustic, a medium I felt I was finally getting control of. The juror that year was Jacquie Littlejohn, who had a gallery on 57th Street. Earlier in the day, when I was at my day job, I’d received a phone call from NYU congratulating me on having been selected for a Juror’s Award. I walked on air to the studio.
But the message from Ivan sent me soaring. It turns out that Marilynn Gelfman Karp—sculptor, NYU faculty member, and former curator of the 80 Washington Square East Galleries, who just happened to be married to Ivan—had a tradition with him that continued even after she’d relinquished the gallery. They went together to preview the show, with Ivan casting an eye for new artists and new work.
Ivan came to the studio on a Saturday Morning a few weeks later. I was listening for him to come down the hall, but it turns out I smelled his cigar before he knocked.
I’d laid out a selection of breakfast food--coffee, tea, bagels, croissants, fruit—and beckoned. He chuckled and said by way of no-thanks, “You think dealers don’t eat breakfast before they leave home?”
OK, then. I showed him my work. He looked. Asked questions. Puffed. Looked some more. At the end of a long silence he said, “I’m going to give you a show.” 
My solo took place in January, 1996, and from that time I have felt like a relative of the gallery family, which includes Ethan Karp, Ivan's son; Suzanne Kreps, Rick Witter, Ana Menezes, Christine Adapon, and Amy Fishman. I went on to have another solo at the gallery in 2007, during which time I worked with Ethan, but Ivan continued to oversee it all. With Ivan it was not about age or gender, or who you knew but by how he responded to your work. Somewhere there’s a quote from him saying that if you’re beautiful or rich, you will have no trouble finding a place for yourself in the art world, otherwise you will have to depend on talent and hard work.
I believe my career was helped immeasurably by Ivan’s interest in my work, and I'm sure my story can be repeated in some form or other by countless other artists who have been touched by his generosity.
If you have a story about Ivan Karp please share it here. I will make sure the family sees what you write. But equally important, I’d like this post to honor, via all of our stories, the generosity of someone who had a legendary "eye" and a great deal of power and used them in a way that supported artists in a business that has lasted well over 40 years.
The gallery plans a memorial service for Ivan in the fall. And, says gallery manager Suzanne Kreps, "The gallery will be continuing with vigor."  

Read obituaries in Gallerist NY and The New York Times


lxv said...

Ivan took the trouble to hike out to the wilds of Jersey City to visit my studio. He never gave me a show, but we had sporadic correspondence over 30 years and he was always interested/interesting and supportive. "Oivan Kop" indeed!

Oriane Stender said...

Joanne, what a lovely anecdote. I was one of those who walked in with a page of slides to show him. I was out of school about a year. He looked at the slides and the first thing he asked was, "where is this work?" I said I lived in San Francisco and the work was there. He said, "well, first thing you have to do is get the work to New York. You'll be able to get something going if it's here," or something to that effect. I was, like you, ecstatic that he seemed to take me seriously enough to give me that feedback. Such a great down-to-earth guy.

Julian Jackson said...

I talked to Nr. Karp in the summer of 2011 when OK Harris hosted the American Abstract Artists' 75th anniversary show. He couldn't have been more enthusiastic or generous. A gentleman. I was very glad that I was brave enough to reach over the desk and address a legend.

Kesha Bruce said...

I never met Ivan, but now I wish I had.

He sounds like a delightful human being. A real champion and supporter of artists.

I'm sure he will be missed by many.

Paula Roland said...

I visited him in the 80's and again in the 90's. Both times I left encouraged, pumped-up, and ready to conquer the art world. I will never forget him asking, after I told him I lived in Santa Fe, "Do ya wanna live in a beautiful place with great weather, or do ya wanna have a ca-reeeeeeer?" Memorable words from a generous soul.

Louise P. Sloane said...

There's too much to write and remember over the last 40+ years of my relationship with Ivan. We were never personal friends, but his impact upon me and my career runs deep. His studio visits were legendary - the cigar smoke lingered in the air far longer than the time spent to survey and select work. His comments were always supportive and if you were having a show, or if he sent a collector there was no need for a contract. He was honest to his core. I will deeply miss seeing him there at the gallery, notebook and cigar in hand, always always accessible, available and charming. Ivan's passing is a huge loss for those of us who knew him and for the legions of artists who had hoped to meet him and perhaps be cast under his spell, even if just for a moment.

annell said...

Your story sounds like a fairy story for artists, beautiful! And just as it should be.

Astrid Fitzgerald said...

Ivan came to my studio around 1975 after I had walked into his office with some slides in a photo sleeve. When he called ahead to say he was coming I almost freaked out. He patiently looked at the paintings and works on paper I pulled out and nodded here an there. He flicked the ash off his cigar and I pretended not to see it. After all, there was no ashtray in my studio. He then walked into the living room and suggested that because of the large size of my paintings I should make that room my studio. I kept Ivan up-to-date sending slides to his gallery and paying a visit about once a year. I never got a show, but he was always friendly and remembered me and asked how I was doing. Sad to see him go.

bonny leibowitz said...

Joanne, that is a wonderful story and amazing history to have had.I enjoyed his memorable words to Paula as well...they certainly hit home!
Thank you for sharing this, Bonny

ted larsen said...

In the winter of 2007 one of Ivan's friends, Lewis Pollock saw an exhibition of my work in New Mexico and recommended it to Ivan. I was driving my car when Ivan called. At first I could hardly understand him with his thick accent, and then I was just stunned that he would call me, out of the blue! He asked me to come to NYC with work for him to see in person. He said I would have to get a viewing/gallery/exhibition room for him to see it in. I came, got an extra hotel room, removed everything to the bathroom, made a nice space to look at work. I called him and he said to come to the gallery with the work! He asked to place the work down the hallway so he could look it over. I carefully arranged five or six along the hallway floor. He came over to the end of the hallway, studied them from that vantage point, thought to himself for several moments and then offered me an exhibition in 2008. He said he wanted the work on the spot. I was speechless, thrilled, excited, relieved. You get the point. He sold several pieces, some to good collectors like Edward Albee and in fact he even acquired one for his personal collection. I spent several days with him smoking cigars during that exhibition. We had great conversations and he left me thinking a good deal about my practice. This past March I had my second exhibition with OK Harris. This time Ethan worked with me primarily on this show. It was a different experience, but every bit as pleasurable. Ivan, Ethan, Suzanne, and Rick took very good care of me. In the four years since the first time I met Ivan, he slowed noticeably. But his spirit did not. Ivan built an empire. His legacy will remain.

Larry Schulte said...


I never had the nerve to walk in with slides. I did, however, mail some to him in the late 1980s. He wrote a great letter to me, praising the work -- but ending with he would not be able to represent me because the work was in a vein similar to one of his current artists. And that he would do a disservice to us both to carry my work.
Over the years, he selected my work multiple times to be included in group exhibits -- I always entered exhibits where he was the juror, knowing that he responded to my work.
He was very generous.

Joanne Mattera said...

Thank you, everyone, for responding. I hope others will respond as well.

Ted, your comment allows me to add that the gallery plans to continue, and to acknowledge as you did the ongoing work of Suzanne Kreps and Rick Witter--I'd add Ana and Christine--and of course, Ethan Karp, who has been on top of things for a good long time.

I will add that Ivan was interviewed on several occasions for the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, a series of recorded oral histories. I plan to spend some time this summer with them. Google "Ivan Karp, Smithsonian" for links.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this beautiful story - a prime example of the proper way to behave.

Jason Hoelscher said...

The cliche that a person is one-of-a-kind, they broke the mold after, etc., is applied to lots of people (oddly enough), but for Ivan it was true. He was a great, generous and enthusiastic person.

I showed Ivan my slides back in 1997 (nervous as all-get-out), and he was encouraging enough that I went to see him about every three months for the next year or so.

Finally he asked to visit my studio, which was then in Denver. I drove four paintings to NYC in a pickup truck and, lacking a space to show them, propped them up against the truck right there on West Broadway.
Long story short, I had my first NYC solo show in his front gallery in January-February 1999. The after-opening dinner was great: Ivan and Marilyn were amazing conversationalists: Ivan in particular was a fount of enthusiasm, puns and double-entendres.
Other than a group show that was my only exhibition there, but I'll always cherish my various interactions with Ivan over the years. An old-school, one-of-a-kind straight-shooter of a guy: the art world would be a better place if there were more people like him.

Bernard Klevickas said...

Great Post Joanne!

I called the gallery one day because I heard from a friend that Ivan would still look at artists work (it probably need not be said, but most galleries don't anymore). I was told to stop in on a certain day. Ivan was very down to earth. I brought my laptop computer to show images (I do sculpture of varying scale) and a couple of actual small pieces. He liked my more rusted, rough type work and said he would pencil me in for a group show. I was hesitant to make more of that type of art at the time as I was focused on a different body of work and I never followed-up with him. He was very open and straight-forward and I greatly appreciated the brief connection I had with him.

Daniel Calder said...

I had the pleasure of meeting Ivan and showing him my work. He had a way of making you feel good about yourself and what you were doing. He was so incredibly perceptive and let's face it - he'd seen it all. I'm going to miss knowing that he is there.

Unknown said...

In 2004 I had an interview with Mr.Karp.I was very nervous.I walk down the long hallway and Ivan was sitting by the counter.I introduced my.I'm Harold Zabady I have an interview....Ivan interrupted me mid-sentence.How do I know your Harold Zabady I need some identification as I reached for my wallet he laughed breaking the ice.
He review my work and gave me some suggestions.I took his suggestion to heart which was to paint the urban landscape.A few months later I sent a digital image.Ivan called me that same day.He love the painting Of "Delancey Street".He ask me to ship it to the Gallery.A week later the painting was sold.During the months that it took to paint Delancey street Ivan would call a few times each month to see how the painting was coming along.
Ivan gave me a direction and encouragement along the way.He will be missed by all those he touched with his compassion for Artist.

Harold Zabady-hzabady@comcast.net

Joanne Mattera said...

Your post made me laugh out loud. Ivan asking you for identification was classic. Funny. Thanks.

Sydney Cash said...

I had my first show in NYC, with Ivan in 1972, at his Hundred Acres Gallery on West Broadway across from the original OK Harris Gallery. I was intimidated by his bluster. But I really respected his willingness look at a walk-in artist’s slides and honestly speak about the work. There was no other gallery director that I knew of, who was ballsy enough to do that.
In 1986, he arranged a show of my optical sculptures at his son Ethan’s gallery in Florida. That led to two exhibitions at NYU’s Broadway Windows Gallery. Marilynn Gelfman Karp was the director of that gallery.
I had my first show of optical sculptures at OK Harris, in 1989.
Last year I showed Ivan my current light sculptures. He liked them, and I’m honored to say that this is the final week of a seven-week exhibition of that work at his gallery.

Phil Ralston said...

Thanksgiving week of 2008 I visited Mr. Karp at OK Harris, and showed him 4 or 5 drawings on paper. He was very complimentary. He was also a crack-up, as I found out even more in September 2011, when I again visited OK Harris on the occassion of my 1st solo NYC show. His son Ethan had called me in Atlanta 2 years after my first visit to offer me the show; Ivan had remembered my stuff, apparently. I'm honored to have met him, and to have shared a couple laughs. I'll never forget him. A class act.

india flint said...

i've loved reading all these stories.


I brought my work to Ivan in the 70's. He was generous with his comments and though he did not show my work, he suggested galleries that would be a better fit. Artists could alway approach him with their work. He was a mensch.


I brought my work to Ivan in the 70's. He was always willing to look and comment. Though he did not show my work, he suggested galleries that would be a better fit.
Artists could alway approach Ivan as he was generous and helpful. He was a mensch.

Linda, Fine Art Appraiser said...

I met Ivan Back in the early 1970s when I was having a show at a gallery on Prince Street. Being a Karp myself and having a sister Iris Karp on Bleeker Street who used to get alot of Ivan's mail ;-)and who also went out at one time with his wife's brother, we had something in common. He was so nice, warm, and friendly. Don't know if he ever made it to my show, but it didn't matter, I was so thrilled to have met this wonderful man!

Anonymous said...

Joanne....I stumbled across your blog about Ivan Karp. Back in the 70s I spent a little time with him, far too little, and it was all so clear after all these years. Experience with him was like a conceptual work of art or a happening. Normally I don't access blogs etc. but while reading yours on Ivan I noticed what you said about exhibiting at the NY Univ. small works show. If I'm not mistaken Ivan was the juror and I also exhibited in that show.

Michelle Rogers said...

I just saw this today so forgive me for being late.
Ivan and his lovely wife came to my studio in Rome in 2000 for a studio visit while they were on vacation. He was wonderful and generous man whose encouragement I will always treasure. He loved artists and we loved him. Soho feels empty without him, his spirit filled those streets for me, made it magic. Rest in peace Ivan and thank YOU!