Ivan Karp: “So original, I’ve never seen art work like this before”

Portrait of Ivan Karp by Andy Warhol

Ivan Karp (1926-2012) is a legend in contemporary art. He was the first art critic for the Village Voice. For ten years he worked as associate director of the Leo Castelli Gallery. While there, he discovered, and launched the careers of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. In 1969 he opened his own art gallery, OK Harris Gallery, in the SoHo district of Manhattan. His gallery’s presence there led to SoHo becoming the world’s center of contemporary art. There he launched the careers of many artists including Deborah Butterfield and Duane Hanson.

In October of 1978 I managed to visit with Ivan at his gallery. I do not recall how I was able to arrange a meeting with such a celebrity. Possibly my frequent visits to his gallery had ingratiated me with his staff. We spent fully a half hour together reviewing my portfolio of slides and photographs in detail. It is only a week ago that I accidentally came across notes I wrote immediately after that meeting.

His comments included “Elegant…. impressive…very beautiful…extremely original.” He also said: “So original, I’ve never seen any art work like this before.”

These were incredible comments from a legend in the history of contemporary art.

The significance of these comments is that as of 1978, according to Ivan Karp, my art work was more original than anything that Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol had created.

But, what followed, was a ton of bricks: “Your work is so original that I would not be able to sell it.”

I had purposefully stayed outside of the traditional art world—developed my own personal artistic style—very successfully—but was excluded because my work did not readily fit into set, dogmatic styles.

At that time, my work included windows, doors, light systems and sound installations. It was a few years later that I shifted to investigating neurobiologic issues in my art.

Did I learn from this experience with Ivan Karp? Apparently not. I have continued to do highly original work, which has been successful in attracting the public’s attention and interest, but not so the dogma-laden art establishment.

My current installation at the University of Chicago’s Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge is a statement of originality of art work and creativity, especially in being able to successfully use the extremely complex architectural three-story atrium. I am very proud of what I have been able to accomplish while staying outside of the traditional art world.

Leo Castelli, Ivan Karp and Andy Warhol
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