On Being Ivan Karp In 1962

The Archive of American Art’s collection of transcripts of Paul Cummings’ interviews with art world figures is always good for a firsthand account and an interesting nugget or reflection. But I don’t think I’ve ever had quite the visceral reaction I got reading Ivan Karp’s account of the emergence of Pop Art in New York in 1961-2. At the time Karp was director of Leo Castelli Gallery. Roy Lichtenstein had just brought in some paintings done from comic books, which Karp and Castelli both found extremely unnerving. Here’s an extended excerpt, but you could really read almost anything and just be hit by the sense of discovery and amusement of Karp’s story:

But we kept I think four of them. And then Leo saw them and had his own set of reactions to them. Which was pretty startling. And we both were jolted. We thought well let’s look at them again; we’ll put them in the racks and we’ll take them out again and see how they feel as the days go by. I told you earlier in the tape about how other reactions were; we showed them to people who came into the gallery. And it was not good. It was a bad scene. There were really truly unpleasant moments there because people thought that if we’d show art like that it would be the end of our situation, that we were pushing things too hard. And we said, “No, no, it’s really an intelligent and original innovation. It’s peculiar and alien and strange and we’re going to look at them some more.” I don’t know if I told you that Warhol, who was a collector to a certain extent at that point, (I didn’t know who he was ) he came in with some young men who had also been buying works from me, and I remember Warhol bought a little Jasper Johns drawing for $350. What a beautiful drawing! Wow!
[ed note: The invoice for Wahol’s Johns drawing, Light Bulb, 1958, graphite wash, 6 1/2″ x 8 3/4″, dated 8 May 1961, is in the amount of $450, which Warhol paid in installments. Here’s the sketch; it was in Sotheby’s Warhol sale in 1988, and it was resold at Christie’s in 1998.]
PAUL CUMMINGS: Warhol bought the drawing?
IVAN KARP: Warhol, yes. He came back the next week. And I said, “Oh, there’s a curious painter downstairs that I’d like you to look at; very strange.” (I didn’t know who Warhol was or what he did. All I knew was that he was a man with a crop of gray hair who came in an bought a Jasper Johns from me). He issued one of his curious little sounds like an astonished “Oh!” that he says every so often, which he still says in a state of astonishment. He said, “Good God” — or whatever he was exclaiming — “I’m doing something like this myself!!” He said, “What are these paintings doing here!” Whose work is this! What is this man! What is he thinking!” He was really shocked and at the same time he was appalled. And I think he was very troubled that somebody else was doing the same thing. And he asked me if I wouldn’t come to his studio and look at what he was doing. I said, “Do you mean to say that you’re really concerned with the same kind of images?” He said, “Yes. I actually am doing cartoon things and like commercial subjects. But they’re different, of course; they’re very different. Would you come and look?”

You know, it’s really too long for the front page, so I put the rest of it after the jump.

And I think it was a couple of days later that I went over there. I used to go to studios on weekends, on Sundays usually; sometimes after work. I went to Warhol’s powder blue building on Lexington Avenue, a four-story building which he owned. I was shocked to see that his was the only name on the bell. I went in there. It was a very dark place. There was one very bright light on in this living room area which was beautifully decorated with fine, elegant furniture and beautiful paintings with a generally surrealistic character about them. A number of canvases were jammed up against the wall. A record was playing. I have a copy of it here. I remember Andy just for this particular event. I think the name of the record is “I Saw Linda Yesterday.” He played it the whole time I was there. I must have been there for two or three hours. The same record over and over again. We could hardly hear each other it was playing so loud. I said, “Why do you play _________ this same record?” He said that by the end of the day he really understood — he could feel what the guy was trying to get around to. He said after all the guy who was making the record probably had to do it over twenty times and “[I] really want to suffer along with him and really find out what this is all about.” So he played the record all the time, you know. And the next time I’d come there’d be another record playing all day long. I ought to play that one here for the tape so you’d get an idea what it’s like. Anyhow, I saw the paintings there and they were, as he said, cartoon subjects. Some of them were very lyrical. Unlike Roy’s paintings which were pretty stark and straightforward and cold to begin with. And they still had the echo of abstract expressionism in his brushwork and things.
IVAN KARP: The black lines as we see here in the painting, this painting of Nancy were smokey and the lines were irregular and they dripped a little bit and they had what you might call artistic gestures about them, and there were a lot of cartoons.
PAUL CUMMINGS: They were still personal.
IVAN KARP: Yes. They were very personal, very elegant, very lyrical. But there were a few cold ones. I remember a few pictures of the so-called dance step paintings and a few others. They were very straight, stark paintings. And I had already learned from Lichtenstein that these images cold and numb as they were best taken for what they were. I said to Warhol that these paintings without the lyrical abstract expressionist phenomena were somehow much number and much more powerful, much more scary. He said, yes, he was drawing in that direction but he didn’t know whether it was all right to do that kind of painting because the others were art and this was something else; these were kind of powerful making of pictures but it wasn’t art like they made abstract expressionist pictures with tricky lines and beautiful brushwork. At the same time I said, “They’re not all so soft and lyrical. That Nancy picture is really a beauty. It’s a great painting.” He was very touched by my reaction to it. I said that I would invite other people to come up to his studio but that I didn’t think that maybe the gallery could be interested. We were just beginning to launch Lichtenstein; we were planning on showing Lichtenstein and that maybe it would be a very destructive thing to have these two new artists doing the same sort of thing. He was very troubled by that because he wanted to be with us in the gallery. But I said that I would invite dealers and friends to look at his work. And I remember I left and returned to the gallery that day — it must have been in the morning that I went to his studio — about an hour and a half after I got back to the gallery an enormous package arrived with a red ribbon around it. It was his Nancy painting (which is right here on the wall) which he gave me that day with a little note on the back thanking me for coming over and being so kind to him.
PAUL CUMMINGS: But he was still involved in the commercial art field.
IVAN KARP: Apparently so. But I didn’t know. I didn’t ask him about that, what he did for a living. But he had this nice house there with beautiful paintings and furniture. I guessed he was doing something for a living. In one corner of this very elegant living room these paintings were stacked. And he was working right there in a very narrow space. I don’t know how he was doing it. I said, “You’ll have to get a studio. He said, “Well, you know, until I fill up this room I guess I can work here.” He had his own peculiar way of talking. I remember all the windows were closed off with fabric so no outside light came in. And it was a pretty strange experience with Andy there then. I took some people up to his place. I remember I took Henry Geldzahler up shortly thereafter when he was still I think doing art history work at Harvard — I don’t think he was affiliated with the Met yet, or he was just about to be. Henry also was very impressed with Andy’s work at that point. He and Andy’s work at that point. He and Andy got along very well together. And they seemed to enjoy each other’s presence and company. Then I brought up a number of collectors. And curiously enough, although the reaction to Lichtenstein was very hostile, everybody that I brought to or sent to Warhol bought one of his works. Everybody bought one. I have a list there. The fifteen people that I invited to see Andy’s work that I thought could best deal with the work all bought work. Andy sold about 15, 18, 25 paintings maybe in the first three months from his studio. The price was something like $250, $300, or $400. I remember the Campbell’s Soup Can paintings were $30 apiece. They were standing all around the room there. I remember Leo bought one the first time I took him over there. Leo liked Andy’s work very much. But he felt also as I did from my own instinct that to show Lichtenstein’s and Andy’s work the same season, at the same time, would be destructive to them somehow. So I tried to get Andy into other galleries. I told Martha Jackson about him. She had his paintings for a little while. Robert Elkon had them for a little while. And I think a couple of other dealers did. But nobody really took to them. They were very alien for these people. The work was very strange I think for everybody. At the same time it must have been not more than five or six weeks later I was eating in a little fish restaurant down near Peck Slip called Sloppy Louie’s, which is very much in existence, a man stood up, a tall, slender, blond man and he said, “Aren’t you the man who saves the old stones?” He said this in reference to the Anonymous Recovery Society. And I said, too.”
PAUL CUMMINGS: _____ When did you start that?
IVAN KARP: I started I would say about twelve or fifteen years ago. I always five years but on thinking about it really it must be fifteen years now I guess.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, really!
IVAN KARP: I’ve been doing it for a long time. I don’t save much lately because I can’t afford to buy them any more. The demolition people are charging too much for them. Here’s a beautiful one right here.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, really? This is a famous one.
IVAN KARP: Yes, a very famous one. Anyhow, this man came over to me and said, “I have a couple of old stones, too.” And I said, “Well, my God, nobody else is supposed to have those things. I save them all.” But I thought it was marvelous that some guy was also saving these bits of demolished buildings. I said, “I’d love to see what you have up there.” And I went up to this loft building with this man. I saw that he had two stone heads, two melancholy pieces. They really weren’t very much and he really wasn’t in desperate competition with us. But I saw there were paintings in this studio. He turned them around. And of all things the first one I saw was a giant depiction of Franco-American Spaghetti, and the front of a Ford car. And again they were really commercial images. This was about six to eight weeks after I’d seen Warhol’s paintings. And again here was another artist who did not know either Lichtenstein or Warhol or what they were doing. It was Jim Rosenquist. This was in late 1962.
IVAN KARP: Well, middle 1962? It was earlier than that. Wait a minute. I don’t know the first date we showed Lichtenstein.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Lichtenstein was 1961-1962 that season.
IVAN KARP: Well, I saw Rosenquist in 1962.
IVAN KARP: Warhol was the same time. But he didn’t show until 1963. Anyhow, Dick Bellamy went up to Rosenquist’s studio and saw the paintings and he affiliated him immediately; that very night — the moment that he saw the work he wanted to show them at the Green Gallery. And it was not by concert, but by coincidence that Lichtenstein and Rosenquist were shown at the same time in New York, about the same month in late 1962 I think it was really, the first show. I don’t remember the exact date. But I remember it was quite an unsettling event on the New York art scene at that point.

Warholstar.org’s chronology dates the Nancy painting to Feb-May 1961. Meanwhile, at Warholstars.org’s Lichtenstein page, Gary Comenas has assembled a great collection of other firsthand accounts of people discovering [sic] Warhol and inventing [sic] Pop Art, including Walter Hopps and Irving Blum. Mapping that timeline against Karp’s interview, I think I should probably change the post title to 1961, though, since that’s when a lot of this action was breaking. Warhol was either tipped off to Lichtenstein’s work at Castelli by Ted Carey, or he stumbled upon it with Karp. Lichtenstein saw Warhol’s single frame comic strip paintings before making Mickey Mouse in the summer of ’61, and thus copied the idea, or he didn’t [Since Warhol only exhibited cartoon paintings in the window at Bonwit Teller for a week, and Lichtenstein was in New Jersey, and the dates don’t really match up, I’m leaning toward a parallel development theory myself.] The subsequent success of Warhol and Pop turns out to have a thousand fathers.
Oral history interview with Ivan C. Karp, 1969 Mar. 12