Klaus Kertess opened Bykert Gallery in New York in 1966 with the financial backing of Jeff Byers, a classmate at Yale; the gallery’s name is a combination of theirs. The previous occupant of the space Kertess rented on 57th Street was the Green Gallery (1960–65), run by Richard Bellamy. During its brief run, the Green Gallery gave Mark di Suvero, James Rosenquist, and Dan Flavin their first solo exhibitions, as well as presented the work of Ralph Humphrey, Yayoi Kusama, Pat Passlof, Myron Stout, Lee Lozano, and Jean Follett. This legacy was on Kertess’s mind when he started.
Bykert’s first show was of Humphrey. This is how Kertess described his initial response to Humphrey’s work (“In Conversation: Dorothea Rockburne and Klaus Kertess,” Brooklyn Rail, December/January, 2004–05):
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Ralph was the first artist I showed at Bykert. At that time you could see every gallery uptown in a week without any trouble. I remember walking into the Green Gallery and saw this exhibition of Ralph’s paintings. They had a gray center, not uniform gray, with a border that went around the outside of the rectangular support of the canvas. The paintings totally baffled me. I couldn’t believe anyone could paint anything that nihilistic, purposefully empty. I kept returning to the show because it made me so crazy. In the end, I realized Ralph’s paintings were like a mirror for me: they were desolate and yet they had an amazing giving component at the same time. He wasn’t easy to find. I kept asking people “Where’s Ralph Humphrey?” and no one knew. Finally, I looked him up in the phone book.
Open for less than a decade (1966–75), during a time in which the art world started inching toward the corporate model that now dominates, Bykert was an anomaly, beginning with it not being named after the dealer. Kertess gave Brice Marden, Alan Saret, and Barry Le Va their first shows, and he was the first gallerist to exhibit Lynda Benglis. Bykert also represented the work of Chuck Close, Joe Zucker, Robert Duran, David Novros, and Deborah Remington.
Rather than identifying with a style or brand, as many other galleries went on to do, Kertess was remarkably independent in his choices, and was not averse to risks, even though his operation was not financially secure. In the same Brooklyn Rail interview, he makes a telling remark:
When we opened on 57th Street at Dick Bellamy’s funky old space, the Green Gallery, the rent was very low, the elevator was no worse than Pace’s elevator. I painted the gallery, cleaned the toilet. I did everything by myself.
Later on, he stated:
The first mark of success was when I could hire a painter to paint the gallery. It would be hard to do anything like that now and get away with it.
Some part of this history is currently recapitulated in the wonderful exhibition 13 Artists: A Tribute to Klaus Kertess’ Bykert Gallery 1966–75, at David Nolan (June 3–July 30, 2021). The show includes work by Lynda Benglis, Chuck Close, Robert Duran, Ralph Humphrey, Barry Le Va, David Novros, Brice Marden, Paul Mogensen, Deborah Remington, Dorothea Rockburne, Alan Saret, Richard Van Buren, and Joe Zucker.
While these artists have been associated with Minimalism, Photorealism, Pattern and Decoration, and post-studio and process art, it is clear that all of them blazed their own trail, with some gaining much more attention than others.
As everyone in the art world knows but is seldom willing to talk about, financial success is no measure of an artwork’s contribution or importance to culture, nor is its popularity. The art world is a business, and Kertess did not care about this side, because he was focused on aesthetic issues. This is why he is so interesting.This is why he is so interesting. You know that you have left the path of popularity when you decide to give shows to Le Va and Bill Bollinger, whose work is sadly not in this beautiful and challenging exhibition.
In their Brooklyn Rail conversation, Rockburne asks Kertess:
Do you recall Bill Bollinger’s show where he installed a pile of graphite on the floor of the gallery?
His answer — which is full of humility — is priceless:
I still remember Marion Javits coming in with [US Senator] Jake [Javits], and there was that green cleaning compound piled all over the floor, then swept. That was in one room. Then there was a pile of graphite that went from the edge to about the middle of the next room. Marion looked at me and said, “Would you explain to the Senator what this is?” I replied, “Not today.” There was related work that Virginia Dwan and Betty Parsons were showing, so I certainly wasn’t alone.
Can you imagine walking into a gallery today — especially if you are a United States Senator — and not having someone come out and provide all the details and theories as to why whatever you are looking at is important? And, more significantly, to not claim that you are the only person who recognized its importance?
The exhibition includes works from the 1960s and ’70s by artists who have long deserved a deep and thoughtful second look. Some, like Remington, seem to be in the first stages of rediscovery, while others still need to find their champion. It was great to see “Untitled” (1973) by Humphrey, which was done in casein and modeling paste on a tall vertical canvas with rounded edges. The work was a reminder that Humphrey has not received his second look. The same could be said of Rockburne, Saret, Van Buren, Duran, and Mogensen.
To begin to sense the breadth of Kertess’s openness to bold and conceptually rigorous artists, look at Zucker’s tightly packed, relief-like painting “Esox Lucius [Pike]” (1969), made of paint-soaked cotton balls and balls of aluminum foil, and consider what else was being done in that year: Pop Art, Minimalism, Color Field painting, and Painterly Realism. Once you have recognized the formal and stylistic difference between Zucker’s hybrid painting and what his contemporaries were producing, you might wish to consider that his subject is the pike, a carnivorous fish that anglers go after because of their aggressiveness and size.
Winslow Homer is one of America’s finest artists and a passionate angler who traveled long distances to fish. Is Zucker any less American in his subject matter than Andy Warhol? This is one of Kertess’s enduring legacies. He recognized that the questions one should ask while looking at art are more important and challenging than the answers the art world establishment is often quick to provide.
13 Artists: A Tribute to Klaus Kertess’ Bykert Gallery 1966–75 continues at David Nolan Gallery (24 East 81st Street, Manhattan) through July 30.