Ivan Karp, the art dealer who died last month, is the kind of salesperson who makes culture happen. He was the rambunctious, Brooklyn-born foil to the smooth Leo Castelli, whom he worked with for many years. I wrote about Castelli in The Art of the Sale. Karp was similarly consumed by the desire to find artistic geniuses and spread the word of their greatness.
Van Gogh may have died unknown and unappreciated. But Karp, according to his obituary in The New York Times, made it his mission to avoid such tragic waste. “No genius should go undiscovered,” he said.
Long after he had helped the launch and nurture the careers of Warhol, Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg, he remained diligent about looking at every submission, every slide and drawing sent in by an artist seeking representation, terrified another genius would pass unseen in the slush pile. He didn’t languish behind a desk, but scoured the city for interesting artists and their work.
According to Steven Zevitas, writing in the New American Paintings blog, this rampant curiosity also served a commercial purpose:
“Karp is one of the few dealers who will take the time to view the slides of an artists walking in off the street. It is a practice borne out of necessity and curiosity. He is keenly aware of the fickleness of the art market. A constant supply of new talent hopefully keeps him one step ahead of the next trend. It is a sort of esthetic insurance policy.”
Karp’s father sold hats in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Karp, said The Times in 1968, was “New York’s deftest and most enthusiastic salesman of the new art.”
Like many of the greatest salespeople, he wasn’t just into art for the money. He loved it, whether it was valuable or not. He collected everything from washboards to misspelled restaurant menus. A particular passion was driving round New York in an old jeep salvaging architectural curiosities, such as gargoyles and cornices, from demolished buildings.
But my favorite passage from his obituary was this:
“In 1967, Mr. Karp published a comic novel, “Doobie Doo,” about love between Pop artists. The next year, he yearned to start his own gallery at the “outposts of civilization” and headed for SoHo. He named the enterprise — big enough to hold five one-man shows at once — OK Harris because it was “a tough, American name that sounded like that of a riverboat gambler.”
Salespeople are often urged to stick to a strict routine of behaviors. Karp thrived as an original.