American Realism Today

David Kessler
 David Kessler,


American Realism Today

In 2018, the New Britain Museum of American Art presented a retrospective of paintings by Neil Jenney (b. 1945, Torrington, CT) that explored the artist’s unique and influential brand of realist painting, steeped in the landscape, people, and pastimes of America. Now, four years later, Jenney returns to the NBMAA as artist-curator of the Museum’s forthcoming exhibition American Realism Today—the first survey of contemporary American Realism made by the current New York scene in over half a century. The exhibition encompasses more than 50 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by a network of 21 artists working across generations, including Robert Lobe, Kathleen Gilje, Joseph McNamara, Faith Ringgold, and many others. Featuring depictions of the landscape and everyday life, American Realism Today celebrates the rich tradition of Realist art in America while reflecting the innovative spirit of our contemporary times.

The most important figure in post-WW2 contemporary American realism was a man named Ivan Karp (1926-2012).

When Norman Mailer decided to create a weekly newspaper in 1955 in NYC called the Village Voice, his choice for its art critic was Ivan Karp. And when Leo Castelli opened a gallery off Madison Avenue at East 77th Street, he chose Ivan Karp as his top lieutenant and guiding force. Karp proceeded to organize a stable of little-known talents such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Andrew Warhol.

Karp explained their productions to the world as "The Popular Movement." This unifying term was his alone. It gave context to the then dominating and opposing force of Abstract Expressionism. He offered a thoughtful validity to its being. This logic impressed the few active but timid collectors of Abstract Expressionism to embrace the possibility of taking a chance on this "Popular Stuff." A courageous and confident collector and NYC taxi cab magnet named Robert Scull realized that Karp was right in his thinking and jumped in wholeheartedly, as did the architect Phillip Johnson, who proceeded to purchase and then donate Andrew Warhol’s possibly greatest work, The Gold Marilyn Monroe, to The Museum of Modern Art. The dispersal, at auction, of the Scull collection in 1973 was a most pivotal event, as it was purchased by West German Collectors. This international approval and transaction immediately validated "Pop Art" as the real thing and proved contemporary American realism was a wise investment.

Karp was a most approachable and accommodating person and willing to assist struggling dealers like Arnold Glimscher and his partner Fredrick Muller of the Pace Gallery to get started in the New York scene. Karp also was constantly approached by unknown realists and patiently explained to them that the Castelli schedule was filled for years to come and that there was no room for more talented creators, but pocketed their names and addresses.

In 1969 Karp decided to leave Castelli and set off on his own downtown—a radical move at the time—and called his gallery the O.K. Harris Gallery after his first storefront gallery, which opened in the summer of 1963 at Provincetown, Massachusetts. (The storefront came with a sign that said "O.K. Harris"). The O.K. Harris Gallery found its permanent location on the first floor at 383 West Broadway. This space was a "Block Through" with four separate addresses, 69-71 Wooster Street and 383-385 West Broadway. 200 feet long by 55 feet wide, equaling 11,000 square feet, it was the largest art gallery of the 20th century. To fill such a space required four separate shows every month. Karp still holds the world record for most shows ever given at a single location. Ivan Karp died in 2012, and the gallery closed in 2014. Some of his biggest stars moved to the 4th floor of 383 West Broadway and showed at the West Broadway Gallery until it closed in 2020.

Ivan Karp’s legacy reaches down to this exhibition through the inclusion of artists he discovered or that were part of the extended network of artists affiliated with the West Broadway Gallery.

-Neil Jenney