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An Interview with Ivan Karp

Ivan C. Karp was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1926. After his high school education, he served in the United States Air Force from 1944–1947. During the mid-fifties he was an art critic for The Village Voice newspaper. His art gallery experience began in 1956–1958 at The Hansa Gallery where he was Co-Director. From 1958–1959 he worked as an art dealer for the Martha Jackson Gallery. He was Assistant Director of the Leo Castelli Gallery from 1959–1969. In 1969 he opened the OK Harris Gallery. Mr. Karp currently holds two honorary doctorates, one in Humane Letters from Centre College in Danville, Kentucky and the other in Fine Arts from the Detroit Institute of Arts in Michigan.

O. K. Harris Gallery

I take great pride on entering and presiding in my noble and capacious gallery on West Broadway in the SoHo district of Manhattan. We were the pioneering fine-arts facility in this neighborhood and although the majority of galleries have departed we plan to sustain our historic position so long as feasible. We feel confident that we exhibit the finest painters, sculptors and photographers presently in production of their craft. With five new exhibitions every six weeks there is no other gallery that measures up to its performance and achievement.

Ivan C. Karp

April 11, 2005

Ivan Karp

The Essential Vermeer: You played a fundamental role in discovering and promoting the Hyper-realist painting which however did not constitute a movement in the formal sense of the term. It did not have a manifesto and many of the painters had never met. What was the spark that set off the Hyper-realist movement and what do you believe is the fundamental element that these painters have in common? How did the movement evolve and what direction are today's realists taking?

Ivan Karp: How many art movements have a manifesto? I only know of The Futurists. How many bona fide Futurists were there? And who really cares except for some dreary art historians. What inspires an art movement to generate is essentially imponderable. Hyper-realism is related to Minimalism but is bereft of intellectual pretensions. Indeed, it is stoically unpretentious, at its best starkly "matter of fact"; "anti-sensibility." Generally its realism records the previously unrecorded places and objects of everyday life. Humanity is rarely in evidence. Most of the practitioners know each other—and are verbally admiring of each other's achievement. No backbiting in evidence.

For the first time in the history of Western art, Dutch painters produced wares commercially. Individual buyers of different backgrounds and various tastes were receptive to pictures of all kinds of subject matter and a wide range of styles. Competition was fierce and most artists were not able to live on their income from their painting alone. These merciless market condition, rather than hinder artistic creativity, seemed instead to have favored the creation of the most sublime works of art ever produced. What role does the market play today in artistic output?

I do not believe the market plays a significant role in the production strategy of the Hyper-Realists. Production is indeed very limited.

In consequence of the competitive market, most Dutch seventeenth-century painters worked in highly specialized areas. Perhaps only Rembrandt and Vermeer were able to produce masterworks in different categories of painting. Hyper-realist painters also seem to be highly specialized in both technique and choice of subject matter, for what reason?

It seems sensible for an artist to establish a characteristic style and subject territory. The result is always a mergence of unconscious impulses and intelligent process. See below.

From the early 1960s onwards, it was proposed by various scholars that Dutch paintings were not merely straightforward portrayals of daily life, but had been originally intended to have allusive, allegorical or emblematic character. Iconographic content, it is believed, was derived largely from popular Dutch emblem books which in turn was derived from sixteenth-century Italian prototypes. According to this school of thought, many Dutch painters carefully arranged the picture to convey meaning that is not entirely apparent today. What role does the choice of subject matter have for Hyper-realist painters?

The subject chooses the artist. All art is an emblem of the "return of the repressed," a kind of helpless obsession that is rarely harmful either to the obsessed or his and her loved ones. The obsession may come to depletion (the end of meaningful art production) through a full measure of indulgence.

The Dutch judged some of their painters differently than we do now. Gerrit Dou, Gerrit van Honthorst and Michiel van Mierevelt were among the most renowned and highest paid artists of their time. Instead, Vermeer was little known outside a restrict group of connoisseurs in native Delft and the nearby The Hague. Can you give us a list of those figurative painters of the twentieth century that you are sure will not disappear? In your opinion who are the most overrated artists of the twentieth century?

Overrated; Henry Moore, Frida Kahlo, G. O'Keefe, M. Chagall, D. Hockney, Clifford Still, Matisse and many, many others.

It is generally accepted that Vermeer, like a few other painters of the seventeenth century, employed the camera obscura (a sort of precursor of the modern photographic camera) as an aid to his painting. Moreover, artists routinely availed themselves of perspective manuals, drawing frames and it would seem, almost any form of technology or scientific knowledge which might help them achieve one of their prime objectives: the highest degree of mimetic illusion. What significance does the photographic camera have for Hyper-realist and have recent realists adopted other technological aids for their paintings as well? Have Hyper-realists used the modern camera to distance themselves or draw nearer to their world?

The camera is only a tool. The creation of a masterpiece is always ineffable, a kind of miracle no matter what the process or equipage.

In the last half of the twentieth century, the quest for the realistic forms of representation seems to have become a popular obsession. Digital cameras, computer graphics, virtual reality simulation, video gaming and cinema all seem to aimed at acquiring and perfecting the most accurate images possible. Does is surprise you that in the field of the fine arts, abstract and conceptual forms of communication have been dominant?

[That's] beyond me.

So was it the twentieth century that was unable to understand realism or was it that the realists who were not able to understand the twentieth century?

[That's] beyond me.

In the last half of the twentieth century, the quest for the most accurate and illusionist forms of representation seems to have become an obsession of our society. Digital cameras, video cell telephones, computer graphics, virtual reality simulation, video gaming and cinema all seem to have pointed in acquiring and perfecting the most accurate images possible to communicate, instruct and entertain. Does is surprise you that in the field of the fine arts, conceptual forms of communications have instead been largely dominant?

Dutch masters, Edward Hopper, and The Ash Can School.

Your gallery has shown realist and non-objective art. If I am not mistaken, you have stated that your essential criteria for choosing the work for your gallery is quality. How do you define artistic quality?

There is no "equation" that describes or defines quality. A successful work of painting or sculpture etc. results from the unification of elements and is detectable only to those with a surpassing degree of visual perception which is present in about 5% of the population.

The O.K. Harris Gallery has a unique reviewing system for aspiring painters. During the course of a normal week, the gallery interviews up to fifty artist applicants and also receives over thirty parcels of slides or photographs in the mail by artists seeking shows. How do you go about selecting and exhibiting a new painters' works? Have you registered any new directions in realist painting?

We feel it is incumbent upon an exhibitor of living artists to be available to all applicants. If an artist-applicant's work looks mature and innovative in the submitted evidence I visit the artists studio or have examples of work brought into the gallery for final evaluation. I possess full confidence in my ability to identify works of consequence worthy of exhibition.

Among aspiring realists which have represented their works to your gallery, what are the most common weaknesses you come across?

Lack of originality and conviction.

The majority of Dutch genre paintings was rather small. Most likely they were made to suite the smaller dimensions of their clients homes rather than public spaces. Oppositely, many Photorealist paintings are rather large. Why?

American artists are imbued with a sense of expansiveness, which relates to the dimensions of the country.

Make a quick balance of twentieth century art. What were the major mistakes of the art establishment and what do feel is the outlook for the future?

The failure of judgment by museum-curators in making acquisitions is a serious ongoing affliction.

If you could only have two paintings to live with, one from the twentieth century and one from any century before, which ones would they be?

Any one of F. Kline's major works. Sir Thomas More by Holbein.

Great part of the most esteemed Dutch seventeenth-century painters received their training via the master/apprentice relationship which lasted from 4 to 6 years. This practice, which exposed the aspiring painters to daily contact with an accepted master of the Saint Luke's Guild, guaranteed an high level of technical proficiency for which Dutch painting has perhaps never been surpassed. What kind of instruction do today's most accomplished realists receive and to what degree do you believe this kind of instruction influenced those artists' direction? How do most of today's realists acquire their technical skills?

I have never asked any of my exhibitors, where they acquired their skills. I prefer the "blessing of nature" theory.

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