The ‘Funky Old Space’ Where Artists Could Do Whatever They Wanted

Bykert Gallery existed for less than a decade, but it created a template for how to show contemporary art in New York City.

TO ANYONE FAMILIAR only with the current contours of New York’s art industry — smooth, slick, luxury adjacent — the version of the 1960s would be completely unrecognizable. There were fewer galleries and much less money, though perhaps more freedom, or at least a healthier appetite for risk. It was a time when an artist could spread a pile of graphite on a gallery floor and call it a show, and no one noticed if it sold or not.

All that was true of Bykert Gallery, the short-lived but influential space where the artists Chuck Close, Lynda Benglis and Brice Marden had their first New York shows, and which encouraged a searching, intrepid kind of art production — not overly interested in market domination but rather in new ideas, the likes of which weren’t being shown widely. Bykert artists got away with a lot. And many of their careers have far outlasted the gallery, which was in business for less than a decade, though its legacy still reverberates today.

Bykert was started in 1966 by Klaus Kertess, a soft-spoken art history graduate born in New York City to a well-off German businessman father and homemaker mother. Annoyed, as he would say in an interview with the Smithsonian Institution in 1975, to discover that the “history of art was about slides rather than about art,” and disillusioned by false starts at a Cologne auction house, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Madison Avenue advertising agency Interpublic, he decided on a career as an art dealer. An encounter at the Green Gallery on West 57th Street with the artist Ralph Humphrey’s frame paintings, enigmatic, vacant compositions that seemed to mock the whole idea of painting, was catalytic. Green’s proprietor, Richard Bellamy, had given early exposure to Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Andy Warhol and Yayoi Kusama. Kertess would emulate his wide-ranging taste and pioneering approach right down to the real estate. After Green closed in 1965, Kertess signed a lease for the same unit. With Bellamy’s mailing list, and financial backing from Jeff Byers, Kertess’s classmate at Yale and reportedly a blue-blooded scion of the W.R. Grace chemical company (he went by J. Frederic Byers III professionally), Kertess was open for business. The first show was paintings by Humphrey, whom Kertess had tracked down through the phone book. Kertess was 26.

A 1966 Brice Marden exhibition poster.© 2023 Estate of Brice Marden/ARS, NY

Today, with more than 760 galleries with at least one paid employee, New York City is the nucleus of the international art industry, part of a churning $68 billion global market that commands a calendar replete with exhibitions, art fairs, auctions and corporate partnerships and employs scads of steely salespeople working from polished concrete sales floors. The words “57th Street” now conjure an image of a glass-walled playpen for billionaires but, in the 1960s, it was the gallery scene’s center of gravity, home to Sidney Janis, Pierre Matisse, Galerie St. Etienne and Pace Gallery. According to Kertess, Bykert occupied a “funky old space [with an] elevator … no worse than Pace’s elevator.”

“Oh, we had a terrible elevator,” Arne Glimcher, Pace’s founder, said. “Our gallery was above a beauty parlor, you could smell the chemicals in the elevator and you had to wait a long time for it. And his elevator was terrible as well.” Glimcher opened Pace on 57th Street in 1963, and it’s now among the leading dealers of blue-chip art, with locations in Europe, Hong Kong, Seoul and elsewhere. But he recalled a gentler, more compact art world: “It was the street — everyone was there. All you had to do was walk outside and you knew somebody. And it was very collegial. Bykert had an opening, I would go to it, and if I had an opening, [Kertess] would come to it. We were not busy. We were busy with our artists, but there were a handful of collectors who made the rounds, and I don’t think there was any of us who didn’t see everyone’s shows.”

Bill Bollinger’s “Screen Piece” (1968).Courtesy of Karma Gallery

Even among the precorporatized gallery ecosystem, Bykert was conspicuously eccentric, starting with its name. The slightly awkward “Bykert” was in the equitable portmanteau style, rather than the name of its principal dealer. The vagueness suited Kertess, who was both quiet and not self-serious; when visitors to the gallery would ask to speak with “Mr. Bykert,” Kertess would solemnly inform them of his recent passing.

Bykert’s lease was around $700 a month (about $6,700 in today’s money) for a space that was, in Kertess’s estimation, “very sympathetic to the showing of art.” (The curator Paul Cummings described it as “two large living rooms.”) The gallery operated on a shoestring. In the beginning, Kertess painted the walls himself. Benglis, whom Kertess began dating shortly after, worked the desk two days a week. Within roughly two years they had vacated, and the building was eventually replaced by Gordon Bunshaft’s swooping skyscraper the Solow Building, and Bykert moved to East 81st Street. (Pace stuck it out on 57th Street until recently, but by the ’80s most galleries had shifted their attention downtown.) Generally, very little of Bykert’s archives remain. The dealer Mary Boone, who had moved to New York to study under Benglis at Hunter College, and was 19 when she started working as Kertess’s secretary, suggested this is to be expected. The idea of an in-house archivist would be unlikely to occur to Kertess at a time when, she said, “there [were] only the two of us. Everything he didn’t do I did.”

Paul Mogensen’s 1975 show at Bykert.Courtesy of Karma Gallery. Photo by Paul Mogensen

Kertess operated less as a dealer than a talent scout, looking for young artists who wouldn’t otherwise have a place to show their work. (Not all of this was altruism; the gallery wouldn’t have been able to pay established artists.) Marden’s first solo show came after Kertess met him at the Jewish Museum, where he was working as a guard and, in Kertess’s memory, drunk. Much of the roster, as for much of the rest of modern art, was fleshed out as something of a boys’ club: Marden vouched for his friend the painter David Novros and, later, Close, a fellow Yalie. Novros championed his painter friends Paul Mogensen, Richard Van Buren and Robert Duran, who all signed on.

Mostly, Kertess looked. He would visit the studio of any artist who asked, and would spend hours observing what they were making. “There was something really meditative about the way he looked at art,” Boone told me. The artist Dorothea Rockburne, who was working for Robert Rauschenberg — and who had hired Marden in Rauschenberg’s studio because, she said, “Bob was an alcoholic and he drank all the time” — began speaking with Kertess when he would call for Marden.

“Everyone in the world wanted Klaus to come to their studio,” Rockburne recalled. “It was sort of a goal to work toward. When I had some work to show, he came and looked at it. There were maybe 12 small works and he stayed an hour and just looked.” Kertess included Rockburne’s early set theory works, which grew to include lushly textured assemblages of torn paper soaked in crude oil, grease or tar, in a group show in 1970.

Robert Duran with one of his sculptures at Bykert.Fred W. McDarrah/MUUS Collection via Getty Images

“Klaus gave me carte blanche to make work and arrange it in the space,” Novros told me. “Bykert was very adventurous. The artists that were showing there were people who were mostly young. The gallery was reputable, and one could be proud of showing there because the other people showing there were good. And that was the criteria. It wasn’t about wealth and fame, becoming an art star. That wasn’t really where any of us were at. The ambition was to make work that would be of a high quality and be seen by as many people as possible.”

Bykert became known for showing cerebral, challenging art that could flirt with obtuseness (a sample show: Saul Ostrow: “An Introduction to an Indoctrination [For B. Brecht]”). But the gallery never aligned itself with a particular movement or orthodoxy. Kertess’s catholic taste made room for Barry Le Va’s gnomic floor works and Novros’s architectonic pictorial forms, but also avant-garde film by Michael Snow and Paul Sharits; Deborah Remington’s radiating, eerie abstracts; and, perhaps most unfashionably, Close’s ostensibly figurative paintings. (You could make the case, as Kertess did, that their aggressive scale, and the fact that Close produced so few a year, gave them their conceptual heft.) If Bykert’s artists shared anything, it was less a formal preoccupation than a hands-on sensuality: Marden made improvisational drawings with sticks dipped in ink and spatulas; Benglis poured her latex sculptures directly onto the floor; and Alan Saret formed delicate, oracular whorls of wire. “My thinking was, ‘Well, no one is ever going to show my work, so I might as well do whatever the hell I want,’” Rockburne said. “He just encouraged everybody to do their most extreme work. Somebody made a solid cone maybe eight feet high, of graphite, in the middle of the gallery, and that was the exhibition. It was beautiful.” Bykert’s program reflected a radical willingness to let artists simply make art. “There were a number of people who showed dust on the floor,” Close recalled in an interview with the Smithsonian in 1987. “The differences between the intentionality behind the way one person put the dust on the floor and the way the other — and all this stuff that at the moment seemed so incredibly important.”

An invitation to a 1969 Marden show.© 2023 Estate of Brice Marden/ARS, NY

THE GALLERY WAS a largely improvised operation, by all accounts devoid of any real business plan or yearly projection. “Lynda said, ‘Oh, no problem, my boyfriend has an art gallery,’” Boone said. “I never really interviewed or anything.” On a typical day, she continued, “if you had three people come in, that was really exciting. And at about 4 o’clock the artists would start to trickle in, and then everyone would be invited — even me — to go to Max’s Kansas City and hang out and talk about art. It was just much more about the content of the work and less about who was selling out shows. I think Brice’s fourth or fifth show, where they finally sold half the show, Brice said to Klaus, ‘I must be doing something wrong, everything sold.’ Work was difficult, that meant it was good.”

In Kertess’s own words, “the gallery existed almost solely in my head, was completely my doing, thrived on my personal chaos and was run fairly sloppily because there was no other way of running it.” Kertess made all the decisions regarding programming, with minimal input from Byers, who was, by all accounts, private. As Kertess recalled, he seemed “a little surprised at what he’d gotten involved in and wasn’t really willing to admit to his involvement in the gallery until like three or four years after it was underway.” Remarkably for a commercial gallery at the center of the New York art world, money barely ranked among Bykert’s top concerns, even by the relatively quaint standards of the 1970s, a posture that now would be considered heterodox, if not totally heretical. “My basic attitude was that you put up good art. Sooner or later somebody will come in. And some people will understand it; some people will buy it; some people may do both,” Kertess said.

A photo by Kertess of Alan Saret in his loft working on “Forest Close” (1969-70).Courtesy of Karma Gallery. Photo by Klaus Kertess

Rockburne assumed Kertess had family money, though no one knew exactly how, or how much. (“Klaus had no interest in money at all,” she said. “But he had no interest in poverty, either. Somehow he always seemed to manage.”) His father, Ferdinand, was convicted in 1943 of shipping strategic metals to Nazi Germany and sentenced to six years in prison. Byers, who also co-founded the development firm Two Trees, which now owns and manages millions of square feet of office and commercial real estate in New York, was Bykert’s sole backer. Marden, who died in August at age 84, has become one of Kertess’s most canonized artists. But early on, he was Kertess’s hardest sell: “I really, truly could not give them away,” he said in 1975. “The Whitney turned down a gift of one from me.” The only thing that sold from Marden’s first show was a drawing, purchased by the artist’s landlord. Many shows, “there was virtually nothing to buy,” Close noted. “He almost made it reasonably difficult for people to buy stuff.”

The dealer David Nolan, whose gallery now occupies the same East 81st Street townhouse that Bykert’s once did, told me of Kertess, “the sales [were] a part that he always found a little distasteful.” Nolan became friendly with Kertess in the ’80s and remembers him as “sort of like a daddy figure, he would come and talk to me about my program and quiz me a lot. His vision was very particular.” Nolan now shows Rockburne and Le Va, among other artists whom Kertess championed, not least because Kertess ensured they would continue to have a place to exhibit.

Cannily, Kertess did make a point to sell to museums. “I never expected to sell anything in my life, ever,” Rockburne said with a laugh. “Klaus sold a work — for peanuts, but he sold it — to the Museum of Modern Art out of my first show. I think it was $150 and I got $75.”

Lynda Benglis, with a poured latex sculpture called “Planet,” in Kertess’s loft in 1969.© 2023 Lynda Benglis/licensed by VAGA at ARS, NY, courtesy of the artist. Photo by Norman Seeff

By 1974, Kertess had had enough of dealing art. “It had become a business,” he complained, one that necessitated “better filing systems.” But there was also the sense that the art world Kertess knew, the one he started out in, was changing, well on its way toward its current mode of relentless commodification. The 1973 Scull sale at Sotheby Parke Bernet was a frenzied, keenly publicized auction of the taxi magnate Robert Scull’s collection of postwar art, providing the first glimpse of the spectacle art buying would become: a Rauschenberg combine that Scull bought for $900 sold for $85,000; Rauschenberg berated Scull for profiteering. “The art scene still interests me,” Kertess said then. “Its public manifestation is totally boring to me, I mean … there are as good artists now as there were 10 years ago or 20 years ago. But it’s much more private. It’s just … like New York as the city has become more private, or the glamour as it still exists is more about nostalgia than anything that’s alive.”

Kertess gave up his interest in Bykert. “It was like divorcing 18 people,” Kertess said. “It got very emotional.” There were more personal changes as well. Kertess had started dating the painter Billy Sullivan and was coming out as a gay man. The gallery sputtered along in a depleted version of itself, and closed the next year. Byers died of an apparent suicide on the last night of 1977.

“It’s sort of hard to believe now that a dealer wouldn’t be comfortable making money,” Close said. “That was why Klaus was so respected. Now he’d be considered a damn fool.”

A 1970 advertisement in Artforum, featuring Chuck Close’s 1969 painting “Richard.”Image courtesy of Chuck Close Estate. Photo by Chuck Close, 1970

Bykert closed up shop nearly 50 years ago, but its artists keep returning. Marden and Rockburne are exhibited widely. Close’s paintings have traded recently in the millions of dollars. Novros and Saret have upcoming shows at Paula Cooper and Karma galleries, respectively, the latter of which showed a survey of Mogensen’s paintings this past spring. This looks now like a testament to Kertess’s foresight, which it is, to a point — Bykert was respected in its time, but it’s also a testament to an intrepidness of spirit that scarcely exists anymore.

“To me, the ’60s were a great high moment for art,” Novros said. “And I don’t think you can replicate that by snapping your fingers or starting another space. It was a confluence of things where a lot of people were excited about coming to New York and making work. And people were excited about being painters and sculptors.”

As Glimcher said, “Art, like everything else, changes. When we opened our gallery, people weren’t putting vast sums of money into art — I was selling Giacomettis for two and three thousand dollars. And Warhols were $250. There was a great sense of community. And that is gone from the art world.”

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