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Klaus Kertess, Foresighted Art Dealer and Curator, Dies at 76

Showed Brice Marden, Dorothea Rockburne, Chuck Close, Bill Bollinger, Alan Saret, curated 1995 Whitney Biennial

John Jonas Gruen, Klaus Kertess, Watermill, N.Y., 1996, gelatin silver print. ©ESTATE OF JOHN JONAS GRUEN/FRANCES MULHALL ACHILES LIBRARY, THE WHITNEY PROJECT, WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, NEW YORK

John Jonas Gruen, Klaus Kertess, Watermill, N.Y., 1996, gelatin silver print.

©ESTATE OF JOHN JONAS GRUEN/FRANCES MULHALL ACHILES LIBRARY, THE WHITNEY PROJECT, WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, NEW YORK

Klaus Kertess, the writer, curator, and art dealer whose Bykert Gallery in New York helped launch the careers of numerous artists who are now cornerstones of art history, has died. He was 76.

Barely a quarter-century old, Kertess opened Bykert in September of 1966, with the financial backing of his former Yale classmate Jeff Byers, in the 57th Street space that had been vacated the previous year by Richard Bellamy’s pioneering Green Gallery. Over the next nine years, Bykert would show a formidable roster of artists associated with Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, and Process Art, including Brice Marden, David Novros, Barry Le Va, Alan Saret, Chuck Close, Bill Bollinger, and Dorothea Rockburne, among many others.

Explaining his decision to become an art dealer, Kertess said in 1975 that, at the time the gallery started out, aside from Park Place, which was run by Paula Cooper in Downtown Manhattan, “there were no galleries that were actively looking for new artists or no galleries where younger artists could turn to in the hopes that they would show their work.” The gallery quickly garnered attention. In 1968, critic Rosalind Constable declared Bykert the “Gallery of the Year” in New York magazine, writing that “now the word is out that something fresh is going on [there].”

After leaving the Bykert in 1975 (it would close a year later), Kertess focused on writing and curatorial projects, working as curator at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York, from 1983 until 1989, when he became adjunct curator of drawing at the Whitney. He curated its closely watched biennial in 1995, organized the inaugural show for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in 2007, and in 2009 received the Lawrence A. Fleischman Award for Scholarly Excellence in the Field of American Art History from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.

Klaus D. Kertess was born in New York in 1940 and grew up in Westchester County, New York, about 20 miles outside of the city, the second of three children. His father, F.A., was a businessman, and his mother, Kate, was a homemaker who had studied art history. He attended the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he wrote a humor column for the paper that regularly roiled certain faculty members, and then headed to Yale University. “I had this thought that I was going to go into government service and be a diplomat,” he told the Archives of American Art in an oral history, but gravitated to art history courses.

Kertess graduated from Yale in 1962 and then studied at the Universities of Cologne and Bonn, in Germany—in part to avoid the draft, he’s said. While in Cologne he worked at the Lempertz auction house, but he was fond of neither the job nor the city, where he said he felt discriminated against because he was not Catholic. “The only way I survived the year in Cologne was, I spent all the money I made at [Lambrecht] going to Paris once a month,” he said. Returning to the States, he completed a master’s in the history of art at Yale in 1964.

When Kertess told the head of Yale’s art history department, Egbert Haverkamp Begemann, that he wanted to open a gallery in Manhattan rather than earn his doctorate, he said the professor replied, “Whore, whore, you will become a whore.”

Deciding to become an art dealer, Kertess said, was a result of “a process of elimination.” Teaching and museum work didn’t interest him, and “I knew I couldn’t survive in an academic atmosphere, even as an undergraduate,” he added. After graduate school, he headed down to New York, where his first job was at the Interpublic advertising firm, which he joined with the aim of helping it building an art collection and learning the industry before setting up shop on his own.

Unfortunately, the company was struggling financially and it quickly became clear that it would not be acquiring art for its walls. “I generally walked in with an attaché case that had a bathing suit and a towel and read the New York Times, went to a health club, and spent my afternoon either at the Museum of Modern Art or going to galleries,” he told the Smithsonian of his time at the firm. “I was, in retrospect, under a very generous scholarship.”

Kertess spread word around that he wanted to open a gallery, and that he didn’t have the capital to do so. An old Yale classmate, Jeff Byers, came forward to fund the enterprise. They combined their names to title the gallery and opened in the old Green space, a gallery Kertess had visited regularly when visiting New York from Yale, on September 20, 1966, next door to Pace Gallery. The first show was a solo outing by the painter Ralph Humphrey. Always on the hunt for the new, Kertess became a diplomat of another sort, introducing the work of an adventurous new generation of artists to gallery goers.

Visiting the “Primary Structures” show of Minimalism at the Jewish Museum in 1966, Kertes ran into the artist Carlos Villa, who told him that if he liked Humphrey’s work he should go see an artist named Brice Marden. Marden, as it happened, was working as a guard on the second floor of the museum. “Brice was somewhat wasted, leaning against a case of silver,” Kertess remembered in a 2012 interview with Clocktower Radio, adding, “He was one of several artists where the door opened and I just stood there in wonder.” Marden would end up showing with the gallery, and becoming a friend, pointing the dealer to the studios of many artists, including Chuck Close, who would also show at the Bykert.

Bykert was one of the rare galleries that has secured its place in art history not only for the artists it showed but for the people it employed, who included the sculptor Lynda Benglis, as a secretary, and Benglis’s student at Hunter College, the future dealer Mary Boone. Boone would go on to open her eponymous space in SoHo in 1977. “It was a gallery that was artist-driven rather than collector-driven,” Boone told New York magazine of Bykert years later.

“The first five years of the gallery [were] difficult,” Kertess told the Archives of American Art. “You know, always run in deficit, always needed outside support. After that, it wobbled with extreme difficulty on the break-even point, was, you know, sporadically hysterical in terms of whether or not the rent was going to be paid, whether the electricity was going to be turned off, whether I was getting my salary, the woman who worked for me was getting her salary, et cetera.”

Nevertheless, the gallery persevered, and it earned a solid reputation with critics and artists. “I had wanted to be in Klaus’s gallery…because there was a sort of daring, devilish tolerance for the extreme,” Dorothea Rockburne, who would join the gallery, told the Brooklyn Rail in 2005. As artists’ careers progressed, it was clear that they would need guidance, and greater backing, but “[n]eedless to say, I wasn’t interested in the business of career management,” Kertess told the Rail in the same interview. And so he ended up leaving the gallery.

Joining the Parrish as curator in 1983, Kertess organized solo and group shows with artists like Carroll Dunham, April Gornik, Albert York, Jane Freilicher, and Alfonso Ossorio. In 1989, he joined the Whitney as adjunct curator of drawings.

In the catalogue for his 1995 Whitney Biennial, Kertess writes, in what critic Paul Goldberger described in the Times as something of a riposte to the politically engaged 1993 edition, “Art is a platform for experience, not a lesson. What is being proposed here is not a return to formalism but an art in which meaning is embedded in formal value. An acknowledgment of sensuousness is indispensable—whether as play or sheer joy or the kind of subversity that has us reaching for a rose and grabbing a thorn.”

Kertess’s biennial included long-established masters like Richard Serra, Agnes Martin, Brice Marden and his wife Helen Marden, Barry Le Va (who had also showed at Bykert) and Cy Twombly, alongside younger, lesser-known figures like Nicole Eisenman, Jason Rhoades, Ellen Gallagher, and Stan Douglas, who was then based in Toronto and eligible for the show since Kertess expanded its—typically just the United States—to include Canada and Mexico.

Discussing the stress that comes with being the show’s curator, being lobbied by so many people, Kertess told Goldberger, “The pressure got so bad that in the middle of it all I went out and got a dog so I’d have a friend.” (Goldberger also noted that Kertess was the first Whitney Biennial curator to release the artist list well in advance of the show, with a bit of fanfare, leading the critic Hilton Kramer to tell the Times, “They’ve never advertised and illustrated the contents of the exhibition on the scale they did this year. I think it’s an obvious bid to have the exhibition favorably reviewed before it is actually seen, and I won’t be a part of it.”)

After the biennial, Kertess continued to curate shows, including “Willem de Kooning: Drawing Seeing/Seeing Drawing” at the Drawing Center in New York in 1998 and “John O’Reilly: Assemblies of Magic” at the Addison Gallery of American Art at his old high school, the Phillips Academy. In 2007 he organized “Meditations in an Emergency,” the inaugural show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, which included Mark Bradford, Kara Walker, Nari Ward, Barry McGee, and others. His taste was broad and always evolving. “Artists make the definitions, and the rest of us have to follow,” he told a radio reporter in 1971.

Kertess published widely, penning many monographs and writing numerous pieces for Artforum, Art in America, and other publications. In 2011, Gregory R. Miller & Co. published a book of his collected writings under the title Seen, Written. His essays brim with intimate descriptions, nuanced interpretations, and bold arguments on artists stretching from de Kooning to Raymond Pettibon, Martin to Matthew Ritchie. In the introduction to the book, Kertess writes that, while “gathering these texts, I often thought of what and whom I had not written about,” before concluding, “More travel is now on my calendar. Still so much more to see.”

Kertess’s survivors include Billy Sullivan, his partner of more than 40 years, with whom he lived in New York and East Hampton.

Remembering the Bykert days in their joint interview in the Rail, Rockburne said, “The atmosphere then at Klaus’s gallery was a unique experience. In the back room there was a huge, white leather couch in the office where everybody plopped down and talked to Klaus. His desk was opposite it.”

Kertess jumped in. “I used to lift up cushions and pick the change up,” he said. “Part of what made it interesting was who walked into my office. There was one spectacular show after the next. It was stunning. Even though I knew the artists, knew their work, I was never ready for what they delivered.”

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