Chemicals, Casks, Crowns & Corks

by Sally Steele

Cork Trees in Portugal, photograph by Kim Steele

Depending on your perspective, as a Boulevardier, one of these might come to mind as a place to start perusing this post…

What contemptible scoundrel has stolen the cork to my lunch?      ~W. Clement Stone

His heart danced upon her movement like a cork upon a tide.        ~James Joyce

What you learn after you are 40 is that it is just about plugging up holes in the boat. You just hope you have enough corks to plug enough of the holes.             ~George Clooney

I, of course, have a totally different cork profile–my spouse, Boulevardiers Publisher, Kim Steele, has many square feet of glorious cork in his studio. My appreciation for cork has always been abundant, I now further associate it with being able to share productive times, in Kim’s studio, looking at oh-so-beautiful images. (note: all images in this cork post are by photographer & Boulevardiers Publisher, Kim Steele, from a recent visit to the country where he spent 4 years of his childhood with his family, his father as U.S. Military Attaché)

Cork Trees in Portugal, photograph by Kim Steele

Back to business, and history.

Cork Harvesting in Portugal, photograph by Kim Steele

Cool Cork Facts & History from Wikipedia:

~Cork is used in musical instruments, particularly woodwind instruments, where it is used to fasten together segments of the instrument, making the seams airtight. Low quality conducting baton handles are also often made out of cork.

~Cork can be used to make bricks for the outer walls of houses, as in Portugal’s pavilion at Expo 2000.

~Cork’s bubble-form structure and natural fire retardant make it suitable for acoustic and thermal insulation in house walls, floors, ceilings and facades.

~The Cork Oak is unrelated to the “cork trees” (Phellodendron), which have corky bark but are not used for cork production.

~On November 28, 2007, the Portuguese national postal service CTT issued the world’s first postage stamp made of cork.

Cork Tree Harvesting, Portugal, photograph by Kim Steele





Cork is the outer bark of an evergreen oak known by the Latin name Quercus (oak) Suber (cork). Today, the center of the world’s cork oak forest is concentrated in Southern Europe; Portugal, Spain, Italy & France, which accounts for 67% of the cork oak production. North Africa has the remaining 33%. The total land surface occupied by this oak is 2.2 million hectares (5.434 million acres), of which Portugal and Spain represent 56%.


The sale of cork and cork products by producers, to the European and United States market, exceeds $1.5 billion annually. Of this value, the cork stopper is $1.1 billion, while the sale of agglomerated cork, cork flooring, and other related products is $400 million.

Cork Tree Grove, Portugal, photograph by Kim Steele

Wikipedia: The rare cork tree can live for 2,000 years. The cork industry is generally regarded as environmentally friendly. Cork production is considered sustainable because the cork tree is not cut down to obtain cork; only the bark is stripped to harvest the cork. The tree continues to live and grow. The sustainability of production and the easy recycling of cork products and by-products are two of its most distinctive aspects. Cork Oak forests also prevent desertification, are a particular habitat in the Iberian Peninsula, and the refuge of various endangered species.

Cork is extracted only from early May to late August, when the cork can be separated from the tree without causing permanent damage. When the tree reaches 25–30 years of age and about 24 in (60 cm) in circumference, cork can be removed for the first time. However, this first harvest almost always produces poor quality or “virgin” cork (Portuguese cortiça virgem; Spanish corcho bornizo or corcho virgen). Bark from initial harvests can be used to make flooring, shoes, insulation and other industrial products. Subsequent extractions usually occur at intervals of 9 years, though it can take up to 13 for the cork to reach an acceptable size. If the product is of high quality it is known as “gentle” cork (Portuguese cortiça amadia, but also cortiça secundeira only if it is the second time; Spanish corcho segundero, also restricted to the “second time”), and, ideally, is used to make stoppers for wine and champagne bottles.

The workers who specialize in removing the cork are known as extractors. An extractor uses a very sharp axe to make two types of cuts on the tree: one horizontal cut around the plant, called a crown or necklace, at a height of about 2-3 times the circumference of the tree, and several vertical cuts called rulers or openings. This is the most delicate phase of the work because, even though cutting the cork requires significant force, the extractor must not damage the underlying phellogen or the tree will be harmed. To free the cork from the tree, the extractor pushes the handle of the axe into the rulers. A good extractor needs to use a firm but precise touch in order to free a large amount of cork without damaging the product or tree. These freed portions of the cork are called planks. The planks are usually carried off by hand since cork forests are rarely accessible to vehicles. The cork is stacked in piles in the forest or in yards at a factory, and traditionally, left to dry, after which it can be loaded onto a truck and shipped to a processor.

Old Cork Tree, Portugal, photograph by Kim Steele

Cork stoppers were found in tombs from ancient Egypt, tombs dating back thousands of years. In the Mediterranean, cork was used to make buoys to float fishing nets. The Romans, made beehives out of cork, because of its low heat conductivity. The Romans employed corkwood planks in the construction of their homes, a tradition to today in North Africa. Fishermen used cork to create life jackets.

Though the material seems simple in the sense that it needs no additives outside of its natural chemical compounds, cork is actually a highly complex material in its makeup, a complete package in and of itself. Cork has an incredibly unique physical makeup, as it is composed of closed cells containing air, suberin, and ceroids. This makes cork impermeable to gas and liquid, heat and impact resistant, hypoallergenic, and incredibly light weight. Cork’s closed cell structure gives it great versatility.

Cork Trees and Cow, Portugal, photograph by Kim Steele


 Despite its many different uses, for centuries the most faithful ambassador of cork to the world has been the natural cork stopper, that seal of exceptional quality that is still today preferred and demanded by the great wine producers. However, throughout History there have been numerous references to this product and its varied applications. In 3000 BC, cork was already being used in fishing tackle in China, Egypt, Babylon and Persia. In Italy remains dating from the 4th century BC have been found that include artifacts such as floats, stoppers for casks, women’s footwear and roofing materials. Also dating from that period is one of the first references to the cork oak, by the Greek philosopher Theophrastus who, in his botanical treatises, referred in wonder to “the ability that this tree has to renew its bark after it has been removed.”

Vintage Cork Cooler, made in Portugal, photograph by Kim Steele


Wine and cork are two products that have long been companions. Proof of this is an amphora from the 1st century BC found in Ephesus: it was not only was sealed with a cork stopper, but also still contained wine. Later, in the 1st century CE, the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder made extensive reference to cork oaks in his celebrated Natural History. He explained that in Greece, the trees were adored as symbols of liberty and honour, only priests were allowed to cut them down. In the same work, he notes that cork oaks were consecrated to the god of Olympus, Jupiter, their leaves and branches were used to crown victorious athletes. In Pompeii, the Roman city destroyed by the brutal eruption of Mount Vesuvius, wine amphorae sealed with cork have also been found.



In the 18th century, while in England, the physician Robert Hooke obtained the first microscopic images of cork using a microscope that he designed. In France, the monk Dom Pierre Pérignon, treasurer of the Hautvillers Abbey, began to use cork to seal bottles of his famous Dom Pérignon champagne.

Portugal has been a pioneer in environmental legislation, the first agrarian laws protecting cork forests were enacted in 1209. Later, during the Age of Discoveries, the builders of the Portuguese ships and caravels that set sail in search of new worlds used cork oak wood for the parts most exposed to inclement weather. They claimed that the “sôvaro”, as it was called then, was the best wood for masts and yards–besides being exceptionally strong, it never rotted.

Venice 2017 and the Biennale

by Jeffrey Bishop

No matter how many times one is fortunate enough to visit Venice it is impossible to be blasé about the wonders of this most liquid of cities. This is especially true when, every two years, significant cultural capital is expended staging what is still the most venerated of Biennales, in an all out effort to expand art’s multifarious impact on global culture. In addition to the major venues at the Giardini and the Arsenale, and the many national pavilions scattered around the city, there are the ever increasing ancillary mega-exhibitions staged in spectacular palazzi by billionaire tycoons and art-loving luxury super-brands.

The 57th International Art Exhibition called “Viva Arte Viva” was curated this year by Christine Macel who comes to Venice from the Centre Pompidou in Paris. In introductory interviews she emphasized her desire to spotlight artists over the more usual emphasis on the thematic and the curatorial, all while acknowledging the overwhelming pressure and urgency of issues on the planet. As she said, “with artists by artists for artists.” Many reviewers felt she fell short in achieving some of these aims. Nonetheless my wife Jill and I saw flashes of brilliance everywhere.

To this viewer however, the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini, now simply called the Central Pavilion, which has traditionally been the kick-off curatorial stage for the Biennale, was a significant disappointment. The architectural interior of this pavilion is in dire need of a makeover or even a rebuild. It takes an extraordinary installation to overcome its now tired structure. This was not it.

As one enters under a lively exterior draped painting by Sam Gilliam honoring Yves Klein, among the first works encountered are installations by Dawn Kasper and the provocateur Franz West that confront assumptions about our hyper-active lives and our propensity to see work-production as the only way to assess or validate our selves. They suggest, instead, the value inherent in moments of rest or idle repose. Kasper set up a studio for a six month stay and included musical instruments. As she says, “I brought all these different clothes, I might learn Italian.”

Interesting options no doubt but a rather slack way to engage an anxious audience in anxious times. I love Franz West’s furniture and his offer to be lazy and hang out but had no time to rest, first thing in the morning.

Somewhat more along the expected lines of social practice and activist themes was a large workshop installation by the now ubiquitous Olafur Eliasson where a group of immigrants and asylum-seekers were being trained to assemble lamps. The lamps were for sale, in order to help fund the project.

Anne Imhof, Faust, Installation and Performance in German Pavillion, 2017, photograph by Jana Harper

Back out in the Giardini grounds, the deserved winner of the prestigious Palme D’Or was the German Pavilion, which featured a powerful installation and performance by Anne Imhof called Faust. Above and below a powerfully elegant double-thick glass surface, perhaps four feet above the pavilion ground floor, a handful of performers moved among the assembled attendees, sometimes awkwardly parting the now complicit audience, moving sometimes with athletic grace, sometimes displaying menacing aggression. The glass divided but made transparent the conditions between actors and spectators. Outside, two large dogs, Doberman Pinschers I think, circulated in a caged area assessing the line of spectators waiting to be ushered inside. I heard tell of very raucous and rude behavior on this very long line, during the opening days. So many polarities of power were in play here.

Many other national pavilions impressed; too many to enumerate. As anyone who has attended one of these now everywhere global art affairs can attest, it is impossible to see and take in everything or anywhere close to it.

That said the Swiss pavilion, curated by Philipp Kaiser, featured a compelling doubled narrative video by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler touching on Alberto Giacometti’s reluctance to represent his home country in International exhibitions. The double video narrative thread presents on one side the rather desolate figure of the son of one of Giacometti’s Parisian lovers who, on leaving Paris, began a long slow decline, in sad circumstances in Los Angeles. On the other side, and remarkably with the same shared sound track, an actress acts out scenes from the same woman’s life.

In Venice the exterior of the US Pavilion was, I assume, deliberately and fittingly left worn, tired, shabby, while in the first room a heavy gargantuan foot-like form weighed down and impeded the progress of the visitor. It was said that the shape might also suggest the hull of a slave ship. More simply installed were three huge, beautiful paintings.


Mark Bradford, Tomorrow is Another Day, mixed media, 2016, photograph by Jeffrey Bishop


As a painter I have long admired this year’s US representative Mark Bradford. Early on in his extended stay in Venice he opened a shop called Process Collettivo where incarcerated people make products while aiming to transition to self-sufficiency.


This project parallels an enterprise in his native South LA called Art + Practice, which reaches out to neighborhood youth at risk.

On this first of three days allocated to the Biennale we bailed on the Giardini in the late afternoon and hopped a vaporetto to the Gallerie Dell’ Academia to take in the superb Philip Guston among the Poets show, staged by the uber gallery Hauser & Wirth. I admit I can never get too much of Guston and this show’s touchstone was not only his deep connection with poetry, but also his time spent in Italy and his reverence of masters, from Pierro and Masaccio to de Chirico. We ended a satisfying first day by meeting up with artist friends for a very impressive seafood feast at Corte Sconta. I will mention a few restaurants for Boulevardier readers largely because we have eaten so poorly in past visits and finally came prepared with some well-considered recommendations.

Philip Guston, Pantheon, 1973, photograph by Jeffrey Bishop

Day two began at the Arsenale, a daunting, imposing space, once home to Venetian assembly-line shipbuilding and rope making, an imperative function of Venice’s centuries-long maritime dominance. Dating to the 14th C. it is one of the earliest examples of assembly-line construction, as ships in progress moved up and down the adjacent canals awaiting parts. Part of the Arsenale is still shared with the Italian Navy and one occasionally sees warships, in jolting contrast to the contemporary art.

The Arsenale is home in this Biennale to more than a hundred artists and many overlapping themes prevailed in many forms.  Macel divided this huge space into seven areas with titles such as Pavillion of the Common, Earth Pavilion, The Dionysian Pavilion, Pavilion of Time and Infinity, and so on. As one might expect in our increasingly fraught world, migration, displacement, climate and environmental themes dominated and there was strong sourcing from, and reference to, colonial and post-colonial issues, as well as queer and gender critique.

Charles Atlas, The Tyranny of Conciousness, multi-channel video installation, 2017, Charles Atlas is represented by Luhring Augustine Gallery

In Charles Atlas lament The Tyranny of Consciousness, the protagonist is drag star Lady Bunny who bemoans the vanishing voice of peace. As Atlas states: “I grew up with the hippy generation…so they were all about peace and feeling good. But there is no voice for peace anymore.”

Strategically positioned at a midpoint of the interminable 316 meter long Corderie, the ever present Brazilian star Ernesto Neto offered a tent-like oasis within which millennials could be seen resting, nesting, and texting. Earlier in the run he had brought indigenous Brazilian rainforest Huni Kuin tribe members to Venice to occupy this enclosure in the Pavilion of Shamans.

Nearby, the theme of species elimination and extinction was treated in a powerful but neutral fashion by Marie Voignier in her film Les Immobiles, wherein a big-game-hunting guide reminisces winsomely as he flips through a memory book of client trophies, massive tusks and the like, with no voice-over or commentary. The images and voice speak for themselves in this sad bi-product of colonialism, where the clients were invariably white, while the helpers were always black.

Marie Voignier, Les Immobiles Film 2013, photograph by Marie Voignier

A favorite encounter for me was the section devoted to Michelle Stuart, highlighting environmental work from four decades of her career. She was an important influence for me in my early 70’s art school days. Flight of Time, a gridded body of photo-based work showing landscape, birds, flowers, fauna, etc. reminded me a bit of the Robert Smithson of Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan. Stuart’s work was among many powerful statements about the fragility and grace of our anthropocene world.

Michelle Stuart, The Flight of Time, archival inkjet photographs, 2016, (detail), photograph by Jeffrey Bishop

Nearby Huguette Calland, Born in 1931 in Lebanon, showed extraordinarily delicate, intimate ink drawings of female genitalia.

Huguette Caland, Self-Portrait, 1971

Leaving the Arsenale, we made our way to one of the super-sized shows that dominated the advertising on the sides of the palazzi and the buzzing vaporetti that cruise the Grand Canal, picking up and depositing the never-ending flow of visitors. Tourists in Venice are estimated at 20 million per year and growing, compared to the plunging number of 55,000 residents. This ever-increasing stress on the architecture and infrastructure of the city and the lagoon is a micro-metaphor for larger stresses in the world.

Only touristic profit can excuse allowing gargantuan cruise ships into the fragile Lagoon. The ugliness of these bloated vessels that drop off thousands of day trippers daily, insults the integrity and dignity of this ancient but still vital maritime city.

Nothing was more bloated, however, than the Damien Hirst extravaganza in, astoundingly, both the Palazzo Grazzi and the Punta della Dogana, once a customs house, now elegantly restored by Tadao Ando. At a cost of some $65m and apparently ten years in the making, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable proposes, quite preposterously, a recently discovered shipwreck yielding a fabulist’s trove of historical artifacts from every conceivable culture and time. So ludicrous and spectacular was this monstrosity of an exhibition that we were left flabbergasted at the Spielbergian absurdity of it all even in our own time of excess and exploded veracity.

Heavily publicized everywhere and perhaps more popular with tourists than the Biennale in the somewhat distant Giardini and Arsenale, this show seems too easy to dismiss as simply a grand obscenity, courtesy of an ostentatious billionaire, François Pinault and the mega-ego of Mr. Hirst. Some new marker has been laid down in the annals of spectator entertainment and cultural upheaval.

Damien Hirst, photograph, Mickey Carried by Diver, photograph by Jeffrey Bishop


I heard one young visitor say, without irony, how “real” some of these glittery coral-encrusted artifacts seemed, many of which found reiteration in replicant copies with a wink and a nod to so many ideal copies, think Roman iterations from the Greek. How then to navigate history as you return as you will to your favorite Met, Prado, Louvre and reflect on the multiple artifices upon which their canons have been constructed. (Many not incidentally by force of cannon!)

Damien Hirst, Demon with Bowl, painted resin, photograph by Jeffrey Bishop



I look forward to more erudite deconstructions/critiques of this exhibition that reach beyond mere easy dismissal by art world cognoscenti. The back-lit underwater photographs were undeniably gorgeous. And Hirst surely had a blast concocting this barrel of laughs with a virtually unlimited budget. Are these items for sale then? Of course! Do these items need to belong together? Is it art even? Does it matter? Do we care?


Shaking our heads and feeling more than a little puzzled, bedazzled and over, or more likely, underwhelmed, we retreated to our hotel way out in Sant Elena but en route made note of the comparatively humble and barely visible sculpture at the edge of the Lagoon, by artist Augusto Murer dating to 1968 – on a base by the revered Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa – of a reclining woman with waves gently lapping over her draped figure. Inevitably this brought to mind so many unfortunates who have drowned in their attempts to navigate the Mediterranean to flee the impoverished or war torn shores of their homelands.

Carlo Scarpa / Augusto Murer, Partigiana, 1968, photograph by Jill Baker

In fact the site commemorated the Partigiana, the partisan anti-fascist women of WW II. Interesting how time and context can shift meanings in the eyes of an uninformed viewer. More on Scarpa in a moment but not before mentioning a simple but superb dinner at Osteria da Gino which sits on a small canal in a quiet neighborhood in Castello.

We began our third and last day by battling the selfie-taking hordes near San Marco and the Bridge of Sighs to find the Taiwanese Pavilion featuring a look back at the astounding work of Tehching Hsieh. In the late 70’s and early 80’s Hsieh embarked on a series of year-long performance pieces requiring extreme deprivation, severely testing human survival limitations. In One-year Performance 1981-82, for example, the artist remained outside in a then much harsher New York City for an entire year without ever taking shelter of any kind. Yet again these intense gestures put one in mind of the dire circumstances facing so many people now on the move.

Tehching Hsieh, Poster, 1982, photograph by Jeffrey Bishop

We next made our way to the very quiet Campo Santa Maria Formosa where the ground floor of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia was restored by the aforementioned Carlo Scarpa in 1963. This unique jewel-like space in an elegant palazzo was this year given over to the eighty-four year old Italian Arte Povera artist, Giovanni Anselmo, whose work subtly spoke of the slow passage of time, geological and constant, while yet rhythmic, fluid, and transformative.

This was a welcome but brief pause of serene, minimal perfection before proceeding to the Palazzo Fortuny, always one of the more idiosyncratic experiences of a Biennale visit. This Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, dark and cluttered, was the sixth and last to be curated by Axel Verroodt. These Fortuny installations have always included works spanning centuries, packed, salon style, and invariably there are bizarre and startling juxtapositions.

Our next stop involved crossing the Grand Canal at the Rialto Bridge to make our way to the Fondazione Prada for its tour de force exhibition, The Boat is Leaking. The Captain Lied, curated by Udo Kittelmann, featuring “three giants of German culture,” film maker Alexander Kluge, artist photographer Thomas Demand, and the stage and costume designer Anna Viebrook. The title comes from a Leonard Cohen song. Occupying multiple floors and labyrinthine chambers, the show referenced all manner of global insecurities – in its own large spectacle way an intellectually inverse mirroring of the Hirst/Pinault extravaganza, as a friend who is a German scholar pointed out. Kittelman quotes Shakespeare from Julius Caesar “Why, now blow wind, swell billow, and swim bark! The storm is up, and all is on the hazard,” and goes on to suggest the collaboration was generated out of a “shared awareness, both on an emotional and theoretical level, of the critical aspects of present times and the complexity of the world we live in.” But the impressive Kluge film clips were overwhelming unless one was deeply familiar or had volumes of time to decipher the intricacies and references. I was fascinated however by a quote from Kluge, read elsewhere, that seemed apt to much of the experience in Venice:

“Human beings are not interested in reality. They can’t be; it’s the human essence. They have wishes. These wishes are strictly opposed to any ugly form of reality. They prefer to lie than to become divorced from their wishes…(they) forget everything except this principle of misunderstanding reality, the subjective…If this is real, then the media industry is realistic in telling fiction, and the construction of reality founded on this basis can only lie. This is one of the reasons why history isn’t realistic: it’s not documentary, it’s not genuine, and it’s not necessary.”

Alexander Kluge, The Soft Makeup of Lighting 2007; Anna Viebrock, Runners 2009, Four Doors 2017, photograph Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti / courtesy Fondazione Prada

This quote put me oddly back in mind of the Hirst. So much art in Venice now seemed to me in dialogue with aspects of the liquid, the oceanic, the fugitive, the pirated…

Thomas Demand, Photograph, Patio, 2014 (on the right); Thomas Demand, Photograph, Backyard, 2014, photograph by Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti / courtesy Fondazione Prada

I have long loved Demand’s constructed photographs and I recognized some themes in his work from previous encounters, especially his sinking ship video called Pacific Sun. I was reminded of the cruise ship Costa Concordia which memorably capsized and sank off the Italian coast in 2012.

The show at the Prada site was wonderful if overly dense. We could easily have stayed longer, we absorbed what we could and moved on…

After a hasty but requisite run through the invariably crowed but always pleasing Peggy Guggenheim collection, which this year featured an elegant Mark Tobey survey, we found ourselves back at the Accademia for a closing dose of old Masters favorites, especially, for me, Giovanni Bellini, who always impresses with his delicacy and clarity. And to view his student Giorgione’s enigmatic The Tempest, considered by some to be one of the earliest examples of landscape painting in European art, is always a special treat. The added bonus at the Accademia this year was a superb small selection of work by Hieronymous Bosch that had a Venetian provenance. One triptych, of a crucified bearded female Saint Uncumber, another of Saint Gerome and two other saints and a series of four panels with “hybrid animals and scenes of witchcraft.” The backs of these four panels were painted to imitate marble but reminded me of the Tobey’s seen earlier. The Saint Encumber triptych has a wild back-story: A teenage noblewoman named Wilgefortis, promised in marriage to a pagan king, took a vow of virginity and prayed she could become repulsive. Her prayer was answered; she grew a beard, and her father had her crucified. I was also intrigued by the right-side panel which showed multiple ships sinking in a harbor while one very oddly shaped ship floated high in the water under oar. The nearby information suggested this ship represented the Catholic Church.

Hieronymous Bosch, Altarpiece of Saint Wilgefortis (Liberata): central panel with Martyrdom of Saint Wilgefortis, photograph Jeffrey Bishop

This old master finale seemed the appropriate way to end an art-packed three day Venice visit. We were too late in the day for a visit to the Basilica San Marco but we did have time to squeeze in one last stop, at the recommended show at the Louis Vuitton store. Climbing the stairs to the third floor, we passed three resplendent and a bit too well sited Candida Höffers and entered an ample gallery space, on this occasion screening Pierre Huyghe’s video, A Journey That Wasn’t, from 2005, another fabulist conjoined story – on the one hand a search in the Arctic for an elusive albino penguin and on the other the foggy spectacle of a symphonic sound piece staged in Wollman Rink in New York’s Central Park.

Exiting the store, past the pumped up Jeff Koons old master bags and an impressive model of the Frank Gehry LVMH building in Paris, I asked an attractive young saleswoman if many Louis Vuitton stores now had art spaces. She said she thought not but that this might change. I wondered, given the Hirst extravaganza, etc, and the changing NY gallery scene – where the middle seems to be increasingly eviscerated as many mid-level galleries are unable to compete with the super galleries that gobble up rising star artists – if the default venues of the future would increasingly become luxury-brand sites. As the pretty attendant remarked, “We are no longer just fashion, now we are culture also.” At a time when so much artistic and intellectual capital struggles to cope with the issues of our in-crisis and agitated world, this new polarity of privilege versus everyone else, seems all too well-defined in 2017 Venice.

Ivan Karp: An Eye for Talent

by Kim Steele

Ivan Karp Polaroids, photographs by Andy Warhol


Wearing sunglasses indoors is a pretense. Except if you are Ivan Karp. He paired this affectation, which he pulled off with aplomb, with an unlit cigar clenched in his teeth all day long. Ivan Karp lorded over one of the most prestigious and long lasting galleries in New York, situated in SoHo before it became chic, in the early 1970’s where only Paula Cooper had a gallery as well. There was a sign on the front of the all black cast iron façade below the name: OK Harris, that stated, “Founded in 1492.”  Karp chose the fictitious OK Harris name as it “sounded like the name of an American riverboat gambler.” His irony informed his choice of artists as well.


NEW YORK CITY – FEBRUARY 1970: Art dealer and Director of OK Harris Gallery Ivan Karp poses with OK Harris artists in front of OK Harris Gallery in Soho, New York City, New York (starting second from left is artist Duane Hanson, Mrs. Marilyn Karp, and gallerist Ivan Karp), photograph by David Gahr/Getty Images


At his new gallery, Karp was the first to show then unexhibited Duane Hanson and Robert Betchtle, and the supreme photo realist, Mark Goings (said to influence the wave of extreme realism photographers Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky, but this is a stretch for this writer) who influenced me significantly, and with whom I showed in one of my two shows at OK Harris.


Leo Castelli, Ivan Karp, Andy Wahol in 1966, photograph by Sam Falk, The New York Times



Karp had been the gallery director at the most powerful gallery in the U.S. for ten years, Leo Castelli Gallery, really the granddad of post-Modern art movement.  It is widely acknowledged that he introduced Leo, as was noted in the seminal profile of Leo in The New Yorker, in 1980, to the most influential artists in the U.S. of the last century: Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist, and Roy Lichtenstein. Several of these artists lived in the same walk-up tenement, near Wall Street, across from the Brooklyn Bridge.


Ivan Karp with work by Andy Warhol


Ivan was revered by both collectors and artists. He exuded a confidence and clarity that was renowned. West Broadway began to populate with galleries in the 1970’s, with the renowned 420 Building, which housed both Castelli and his wife Illeana Sonnobend (whom he had divorced by this time), and an another powerful figure in the art world, Charles Cowles. Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker in 2010, “The Times did run a piece that year, which probed Castelli’s handling of his thoroughbred stable: Johns, Rauschenberg, Twombly, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Oldenburg, Kelly, Stella, Judd, Flavin, Morris, Nauman, Serra, Ruscha, et al. It reported that he gave special consideration to favored collectors and might refuse to sell anything significant to others, and that he cultivated a network of cooperating galleries in other cities, which showed works by his artists and split the commissions on sales with him. No scandal there.” Castelli was “da mahn!” The important critic Clement Greenberg had paved the way, introducing Castelli to the earlier generation of artists, including Klee, Mondrian, Gorky, Pollack and Kandinsky.


Ivan Karp with Andy Warhol


Ivan Karp to Leo Castelli: “We should discover a genius! It’s been two weeks since we last discovered a genius!” Castelli, who held on to his artists, paid them regular stipends, on a scale unheard of in America, whether their work sold or not. This harkens back to the Renaissance times of sponsoring an house artist. I was offered an exhibition at Castelli by his print curator, Marvin Hiefferman. I turned down the offer because there was not promise of an exhibition, a grave mistake on my part. Both Castelli & Karp had an undeniable artistic eye. Karp was an appreciator of art on many levels. Later in his career, he opened a cigar store next door to the galley on West Broadway, and collected antiques for his store in New Mexico, where he had a summer home.


Ivan Karp in cigar shop, New York City




Karp (who had converted his gallery storage room into smoking room/cigar shop called OK Cigars) also had a unique business rescuing architectural artifacts from demolition buildings around New York. He quietly began a museum in a small town in upstate New York, Charlotteville, west of Albany, named the Anonymous Arts Museum (formerly the Anonymous Arts Recovery Society). He called himself a “rubble rouser.” Ivan drove around in his beat up Jeep, starting in the 1950’s, and cajoled site managers with a tip to rescues architectural artifacts from being demolished. Mayor Lindsay gave him a letter of ‘permission’ to show if he were stopped by police that allowed him to save the ornamentation before being smashed willy-nilly. A cease and desist type of notice. Mrs. Marilyn Karp stated that then, “they were not saving anything of the Pre-World War I buildings.” The museum is open three hours each week, from noon to 3PM on Sundays.



Arriving as a naïve artist, though having had several shows in my hometown of Seattle, and the last one at the most prestigious, FOSTER/WHITE GALLERY, I was seeking exposure in New York. I had two acquaintances at OK Harris Gallery in SoHo, one from high school, Carol Ann who worked there. As they say, it’s not what you know but who…I ventured into the gallery with an appointment to see Ivan Karp. There he was in his full regalia-cigar and sunglasses. I was intimidated. I brought in the biggies-forty inch square silver prints of my industrial landscapes from the West Coast which I printed on the floor of my studio in Seattle, in large trays I made myself. He was taken with them as I laid them out on the floor of the cavernous multi-roomed gallery. After some discussion, he offered me a show. I was so moved by this opportunity, I screamed outside the gallery on the street. This was a validation of my statues as an artist. I was overwhelmed with joy – it was so difficult and even much more so now, to get a show at a major gallery in New York…Ivan Karp gave me two shows.

This was a springboard for me to enter major collections in the U.S. First was the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  I had the honor to meet with the renowned John Szarkowski, the Director of the Department of Photography. He chose to purchase, a very different status than a ‘gift’ from the artist, a large industrial print from my American Industrial series. I was in seventh heaven, and upon receiving the check copied and framed it! Szarkowski exhibited it in 1985 in an exhibition titled “Big Pictures.” I had arrived.


Ivan Karp (behind Andy Warhol) universe: Gerard Malanga, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Leo Castelli



Larry Sultan: Close to Home

by Kim Steele

Den, Santa Clarita / 2002, photograph by Larry Sultan

A thoroughly California product, Larry Sultan mined the Golden State’s sensibility for most of his career. After a degree in Political Science, he pursued a graduate degree at the San Francisco Art Institute.  He was immediately drawn to the conceptual dimension of picture taking and joined forces with a fellow conceptualist, Mike Mandel.  They collaborated for many years.

Untitled Evidence / 1977, photograph by Larry Sultan

Sultan’s first body of work was titled Evidence.  These were photos from corporate and government archives, which functioned as a representation of what appeared important to these institutions, but were banal in nature.  He took the concept further by combining the images with curious text on billboards in the Los Angeles area.  These were intended to prompt the viewer/driver in this case, to stop and ponder the juxtaposition of image and message. The New York Times characterized these images as a “watershed in the history of photography.”

Oranges on Fire / 1975, photograph by Larry Sultan

Sultan wove in and out of the prevailing sensibilities of picture making for forty years.  He influenced many photographers as a teacher at both the San Francisco Art Institute, and the California College of the Arts where he became the Department Chair.  He taught for most of his career, while exhibiting and creating books. His work sticks close to home, both physically and conceptually. He was raised in the San Fernando Valley, near LA.  One of his most influential series was on assignment for Maxim Magazine, to shoot the middle class homes that were employed as sets for the porn industry.  These are powerful images.  They create multiple layers of meaning and references while holding the titillating sexual element at bay.  They are nuanced with Americana and middle class icons, with only tangential elements of the porn industry.  Certainly no direct sexual activity, just the banal matter of waiting and ‘passing the time’ in these ordinary environments are the subject here.

The Valley series. Haskell Avenue / 1998, photograph by Larry Sultan

After this assignment, which took Sultan within a stones throw of his high school, he began a book on this subject titled The Valley. In San Francisco at Casemore Kirkeby, through June 10, 2017, and exhibited for the first time ever, is a series Sultan made on a subsequent 2003 assignment for Wallpaper magazine to photograph a line of modern furniture.  There is a tongue in cheek mood in these vivid colored prints. Sultan placed the modern furniture in mise-en-scène (gallery’s release term), but added a touch of the context elements used in pornography, e.g. handcuffs, heels, etc. The images are rich with entendre.  The rough and ready side of the industry is not so apparent here as in his Valley series.  Before this series he photographed his parents in their home.  This effort resulted in one of Sultan’s most memorable images of his parents, titled Pictures from Home. These are truly touching and emotional laden images. They are a bit reminiscent of Avedon’s images of his dying father.

My Mother Posing for Me/ 1984, photograph by Larry Sultan

The eighties introduced a new genre in photography, the constructed image.  Beforehand there was an effort to explore the outside world with a notion of veracity. Cindy Sherman was the leader of the movement. Not staged, but ‘constructed.’  This approach to image-making relies on the mythologies of subjects, whether it be Hollywood or pornography. Sultan is well versed in visual mythology and it is evident in his various images. Another series, Homeland (2006–2009), further explored the intersection between a longing for home and fulfillment against the promise of suburban life by staging day laborers in domestic dramas.  They have always appeared over-arched to this reviewer and do not ring true. These images do not connect directly with the struggles of the immigrant labors but more the rift between them and their employers. Possibly workers standing on the streets outside U-Haul would ring a more honest note?

Canal District San Raphael, CA., photograph by Larry Sultan

At San Francisco MOMA now is a contemporaneous exhibition, titled Larry Sultan: Here and Home, through July 23rd.  “As an artist, Larry Sultan was one of the great thinkers of photography in all of its facets,” said Clément Chéroux, senior curator of photography at SF MOMA. “He had the unique power and insight to transform certain forms of functional photography into art.”  Sultan’s four main bodies of work are represented here:  Evidence, Pictures from Home, The Valley and Homeland. His collaborator, Mike Mandel, will be showing at the Museum following this show, from May 20th through August 20, 2017.  Mandel introduced influences in Sultan from other constructs in photography, such as, Robert Cumming, a conceptualist whom I interviewed in the 1970’s, and admire, and the renowned Ed Ruscha; as well as the outsider, Robert Heineken.  A provocative body of work.

Sharon Wild, Vallery series, photograph by Larry Sultan


Ohachimeguri (literally, “going around the bowl”)

March 6, 2017

2017…is a making me long for places I’ve been. A walk on our local path through the neighborhood park on a drizzly day, yet under a bursting cherry tree, made the dense clouds of 2017 disperse. Last weekend we saw the Japanese Photography show at SF MOMA. Last December, we were lucky enough to catch […]

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A Tale of Two Museums: Mexico City

February 8, 2017

On a recent end of year art pilgrimage to Mexico City, we set our sights on a visit to the Museo Soumaya in the city’s Nuevo Polanco neighborhood. The museum, which opened in 2011, houses the private collection of one of the world’s richest men, billionaire Carlos Slim, who built his fortune in telecommunications and now […]

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Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, New York

January 9, 2017

In this current milieu of political upheaval and rancor, these acerbic drawings of Guston’s strike a poignant cord with the American public.  These drawings were executed in Guston’s studio in Woodstock, New York, collaborating with the writer and friend, Philip Roth who had just completed a similar critical series of essays, titled ‘Our Gang.’ As […]

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ART BASEL Miami Beach 2016

December 10, 2016

As a neophyte, going to the largest art fair in the world now, was an eye opening experience.   It requires preparation, stamina and fortitude. I had the advantage of traveling with seasoned veterans who had visited there six times and who run a company, There are numerous venues scattered around the Miami area, ranging […]

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Danny Lyon: A Cult Figure

November 15, 2016

There is an aspect of my encounters with young photographers that seek rebellion and adventure – it comes with the territory. Danny Lyon personifies this dynamic. I had the honor of participating in a workshop he taught in the seventies and was very moved by his conviction to the medium, and his irreverence as well. […]

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Five Years of The Boulevardiers and the beautiful things along the way…

October 2, 2016

The goal of The Boulevardiers is to bring art to life in the context of culture and design.  Sometimes it has been humorous, sometimes very sober.  But the guiding force has been our view of beauty and how it sustains life.  There have been many assaults on art over the years, from many fronts.  Recent […]

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Greek Game of Thrones — Acrocorinth Castle

September 16, 2016

Who could resist the temptation whilst in ancient Greece to visit a mysterious site, the Temple of Aphrodite, at Acrocorinth, marked only with a lone column, where legend reveals that more than 1000 sacred prostitutes associated with the temple. Acrocorinth is the acropolis (the upper or higher town) of ancient Corinth. When The Boulevardiers arrived […]

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Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Landscape Designer Brillante

August 14, 2016

Photograph © Leonardo Finotti.

There was much trepidation as the 2016 Olympics approached; everything from security, Zika, to running water and accommodations. Several stories appeared in The New York Times about assaults, and robbery. As the date approached, the Torch Bearer was stoned and ridiculed because of all the offenses to the citizens of Brazil — the displacement of […]

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Advil on a silver platter…

July 31, 2016

One of the joys of life these days, and I know I am ultra-privileged, is that my life offers me the opportunity for international travel, with my learned and adventurous spouse, and, oh!, the places we go! I’m in London and Paris each year, and I’m determined to go to a Fashion Week show. The […]

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Josef Sudek – a passionate man: Jeu de Paume

July 10, 2016

Rarely does a photographer look so inward to create his or her images. In the many years I have viewed photography, I have not been so emotionally moved by the sentiments of a series of images depicting the inner sanctum of a visual artist. The range is extreme here in this retrospective: well hung and […]

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The World is my Oyster ~ artist Ahmed Alrashid

June 26, 2016

  The ‘Global Village’ is a clique. But in the world of design, be it architecture, graphic or product design – it is a global market. Jordan tennis shoes come to mind. Working from the Middle East, based in Kuwait and traveling to Dubai, Ahmed Alrashid, has struck a note that resonates throughout the world, […]

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Gem in the Desert, Museum of Islamic Art ~ Doha, Qatar

April 30, 2016

Approaching the cubistic building along a path of luscious palm trees, I knew there was something special inside this Museum. In my travels across the Mid-East, there was an alarming dearth of cultural artifacts. The National Museum in Kuwait City was appalling, and impossible to find, as well. The excuses for cultural artifacts were dark […]

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Saved by Ivana…

March 12, 2016

  From our Boulevardier & Publisher, Kim Steele: I shot a portrait once a week for Time magazine, Business section, in the 1980’s, and hit all the major players, including The Don. Trump was the most difficult, made me wait for hours, hurried me, until Ivana came in and said, “The reason you don’t like […]

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Biggest Scam in the Art World in a Century: Greed shows it’s teeth

March 4, 2016

  Forgery is not an offense under the law of Scotland, but here in the U.S. it has caused quite a stir. The distinguished Knoedler Gallery in Manhattan has shuttered it doors after one hundred and fifty years. Knoedler dates its origin to 1846, when French dealers Goupil & Cie opened a branch in New York, as […]

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Coralie Bickford-Smith — A Love Story

February 12, 2016

        The Boulevardiers have a new friend, Coralie Bickford-Smith ~ the book designer.  When you read about Coralie and her magnificent work, if you don’t know Coralie yet, you will be envious of our friendship. Don’t despair, it’s ok to fall in love, read on…!     In Coralie’s words from her […]

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DAVID IRELAND – San Francisco’s Most Famous Art Home

January 17, 2016

  The first time I had the honor to walk into the home at 500 Capp Street of the renowned artist in 2001, about whom I knew very little, I realized it was a special place. I was introduced by the Director of Crown Point Press, Valerie Wade, a friend of Ireland. Ireland was elderly […]

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Albertopoulis…the V&A…and an “extremely capacious handbag”

December 25, 2015

  Happy & Beautiful Holidays to all our Boulevardiers & Readers…thank you for another inspiring year!   The Boulevardiers recently did London, from top to bottom, Shakespeare to the Houses of Parliament, to Bond Street & Saville Row, to museums, many, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, which is really one of the wonders of […]

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MICHAEL HEIZER: The man who moves mountains

October 27, 2015

  THE MOST PROMINENT EARTH SCULPTOR IN THE WORLD, Michael Heizer has experienced a resurgence in his work, as evidenced by his recent exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in New York this summer, which The Boulevardiers had the pleasure of viewing. As a neophyte in art reviewing, just awarded my NEA grant as an ‘emerging critic,’ […]

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When in Milan … Expo 2015

September 19, 2015

The Boulevardiers have been to EXPO 2015. We were impressed, surprised, entertained, humbled, underwhelmed, treated to a world-class press tour of the Switzerland pavillion, in awe of the Korea pavilion, left with big thoughts, and big questions. Sustainability, the ifs ands and buts are resoundingly evident at EXPO 2015, more here. Does this drive all […]

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Flaming June, and other Pre-Raphaelites

July 19, 2015

“PAINT the leaves as they grow! If you can paint one leaf, you can paint the world.” John Ruskin The Guardian, Friday, May 1, 2015: A remarkable study for Flaming June, one of the best known of all Pre-Raphaelite paintings, has been discovered hanging discreetly behind a bedroom door in an English country mansion. I […]

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John Heartfield…Abandoned in a field by his parents as a child…

May 29, 2015

  “I lost my parents in 1899 and thereafter lived as an orphan with different families.”   John Heartfield managed to rise to a distinguished career as a graphic designer after a very challenging childhood, founding a publishing house, Malik-Verlag in 1917, with the renowned artist George Grosz, one of this publisher’s favorite artists.  Both […]

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Emancipation & Esteem

May 27, 2015

65th Annual SF Juneteenth Celebration Commemorates the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation “The Journey Continues” Juneteenth, also known as Juneteenth Independence Day, Freedom Day, or Emancipation Day, is a holiday in the United States that commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. state of Texas in June 1865, and more […]

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Save the date: May 9th, 2015 ~ Fondazione Prada

May 8, 2015

On May 9th Fondazione Prada, Largo Isarco 3, Milano, will be open to the public from 10 am to 9pm.     Once a former distillery, in the industrial south section of Milan–8,900 square meters, it is now the home of the biggest, and arguably, this city’s most exciting contemporary art space. The new location […]

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In the Studio: Photographs

April 11, 2015

  An ambitious exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue, curated by Peter Galassi, rustles up many issues. As Roberta Smith quoted in the New York Times: “…trophy-curators. Clout is definitely on display here, contributing to that heady combination of overt excellence and subtle vulgarity that may be something of a Gagosian specialty.” The […]

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“I would rather sleep in a bathroom than in another hotel.” Billy Wilder

March 8, 2015

    Just In Case The Raphael is Booked                                                      …by Jerry Bowles                                                                         There is nothing quite as deliciously self-indulgent or decadent as a great hotel. Hemingway wasn’t whistling Dixie when he said “Whenever I dream of afterlife in Heaven, the action always takes place at the Paris Ritz.” Papa loved the […]

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William Randolph Hearst ~ Boulevardier of the Year

January 18, 2015

~~~~~~     WILLIAM RANDOLPH HEARST Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, your readers might like it. ~WRH   One of the most telling descriptions, for better or worse, is the fact that his Senator father, George Hearst, willed his entire fortune upon his death in 1895 to his wife, Phoebe, stating that his […]

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How to be Successful in the Arts 101… Shear Madness

December 31, 2014

    “I’ll never forget my first words in the theatre. Peanuts. Popcorn.” Henny Youngman     What happens when 2 actors from upstate New York decide to pursue their dreams, buy the rights to a murder-mystery written in German, by Swiss playwright Paul Portner for $50,000, turn it into a comedy, and spend another […]

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Boulevardiering — the verb

December 12, 2014

  The Boulevardiers are proud of and bemused by the mileage and velocity we are encouraging via our use of the term Boulevardiering (our Twitter name). We are Boulevardiers, indeed Chesterfieldian, flâneurs, fops, walking-stick nuts, so are most of our friends, and garnering that curiosity and energy is the reason we started this publication over […]

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