Where Did the Name O. K. Harris Come From?

‘It had a tone of official business wise-guy activity.’

Earlier today, art dealer Ivan Karp, who worked at the Hansa, Martha Jackson and Castelli galleries, before opening up his own shop, O. K. Harris, in 1969, died at age 86.

Given that no one with the name O. K. Harris was involved in the gallery (or the cigar store that Karp opened in a storage room with the same name), it was a peculiar choice. Why the unusual selection? According to an oral history that Paul Cummings recorded with Karp for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art in 1969 at Castelli, the name was thought up around 1960, when collector Robert Scull—who suddenly shows up at the gallery during the interview—was planning to open a gallery on 57th Street around 1960. Dick Bellamy, who had previously operated the Hansa Gallery, had been hired to serve as director. He and Karp went about trying to think up just the right name. Here’s a section of the interview:

IVAN KARP: I remember Bellamy and I spent three or four nights with lists of names. We came up with beautiful names. I remember just a few of them now. One was the ‘Oil and Steel Gallery’. One we thought of was the ‘Finger Lakes.” But we thought that was strangely obscene for some reason. I don’t know why. We thought of ‘Five Star Gallery’. We had to get a very blunt, campy name for it. We finally decided that ‘O. K. Harris’ was the best name somehow. It had a very strange complex set of meanings.

PAUL CUMMINGS: In what way?

IVAN KARP: It had a tone of official business wise-guy activity — O. K. Harris, Harris the official swinging businessman. Add, you know, a phrase like O. K. Harris bespoke a great number of things. It had very complex significance to us. And we proposed this. And I’d like to confront that gentleman back there [meaning Scull] right now with why he finally rejected that wonderful name. Anyhow, he did reject it. And Bellamy in a moment of sadness decided that the Green Gallery was the right name for it — ‘Green’ not as a man’s name but meaning both new and green and slightly slimy; you know, it had a very complex connotation because Bellamy has a very poetic mind and he is a bit of a poet in his way. And ‘Green’ had a very elaborate reference for him. But for most people it was just the name of somebody or the name of a thing. The Green Gallery. I think somewhere we still have the notes on the possible names for that gallery. Some of them are quite remarkable. In fact, some have been used by other galleries that I know of.

At this point Scull joins the conversation.

IVAN KARP: And I remember that at a social occasion at your own house out in Great Neck, at a party, we sat down and I made a very long idealistic speech about how we arrived at this name; and it was O. K. Harris, if you remember. And we proposed this to you as a name.

ROBERT SCULL: Thank you.

IVAN KARP: And you rejected it. But I don’t remember why you rejected it.

ROBERT SCULL: There were two names. They were: ‘O. K. Harris’ and ‘The Big Tit.”

ROBERT SCULL: I beg your pardon, it was.

IVAN KARP: No, no, I don’t think so. The other one —

ROBERT SCULL: It was a serious title that Bellamy almost insisted upon.

IVAN KARP: No, no. The other title we suggested was ‘Oil and Steel’. And another one we suggested was ‘The Finger Lakes.’ These were the three names that we concretely suggested for the gallery. But we really preferred ‘O. K. Harris’. And as the official backer you wanted —

They go on to argue about whether Mr. Scull was an actual backer of the Green Gallery.

Bellamy, who died in 1998 at the age of 70, ended up using the name Oil and Steel for one of his later galleries. Karp grabbed O. K. Harris for a small gallery he ran in Provincetown, R.I., during the summers in the 1960s and then used it for his Soho gallery.

Where Did the Name O. K. Harris Come From?