Editor's note: The following essay was published in Resource Library on August 17, 2011 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the New Britain Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



Tirca Karlis Gallery: Pivotal Decades of Provincetown Art

by Julie Heller and Whitney Smith


"Curiosity about the world of art is a magnet that draws thousands of visitors to Cape Cod every summer," wrote the art dealer Tirca Cohen. [1] As a Provincetown gallery owner herself for more fifteen years, Tirca understood the attraction that the art colony had on the country at large. Every summer Tirca Karlis Galleries exhibited renowned upcoming and established artists as one of the town's the most revered galleries.

Tirca and her husband, Karlis (née Theresa and Charles), opened their Provincetown gallery in June 1958 to much fanfare (fig. 49). A front-page article in the Provincetown Advocate praised them as "leading exponents of contemporary American Art."[2] In a town that could already boast of its historic artists, the article commended Tirca for bringing further excellence, showcasing Milton Avery, Arshile Gorky, and Theodoros Stamos, among others. Many of the artists that Tirca decided to bring to her gallery in the 1950s were involved in the heated abstract and modern art debates of the 1940s.

Always a proponent of contemporary American art, Tirca continued to expose the public to modern traditions and these artists to the public. During the 1940s and into the 1950s, many contemporary artists were virtually shunned by a society that had celebrated its artists in the past. Being outside society, said Adolph Gottlieb in the mid-1950s, turned out to be beneficial for the artist, though not initially for the modern movement: in a hostile situation, "the artist can at least display initiative, assert the pure values of art, and exercise his freedom."[3] Although outside society, Gottlieb and his peers did want recognition from the art community and from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in particular. In 1950, after being rejected from exhibitions or ignored, Gottlieb and seventeen other artists published a letter to the Metropolitan condemning the jury of the upcoming exhibition "American Painting Today" and calling for people to boycott it. Referring to themselves "advanced" artists, they published the letter in the New York Times, bringing attention to contemporary artists to a national audience.

This discourse and exposure eventually encouraged the public to accept the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s and the Pop artists of the next generation. Unlike elsewhere in the country, Provincetown was fairly quick to embrace the modern movement through its resident artists such Hans Hofmann. In the rest of the country, the initial rejection of the so-called bohemians of the Abstract Expressionist movement, the "Irascibles," slowly grew into acceptance and admiration with a series of articles in Time and Life. [4] Eventually, this generation of artists was celebrated on a national scale. Among those listed as part of the initial discussions were William Baziotes, Fritz Bultman, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, and Theodoros Stamos -- all represented by Tirca Karlis Gallery at one time.

In a large part, it was artwork created during the 1940s and 1950s, and artists of that generation and style, that Tirca Karlis Gallery showcased and continued to promote. Throughout her tenure in Provincetown, Tirca was known for her "commitment to abstraction" and promotion of "modern masters."[5] After a chance meeting with Kandinsky when she was dancer and choreographer in New York City, Tirca fell in love with abstract painting. She later credited the artist with her "enlightenment and interest in art."[6] It was of no surprise to her friends and family that her subsequent ventures were in fine art. [7]

Tirca and Karlis Cohen's journey to Provincetown began as art dealers and gallery owners in New York City and Westport, Connecticut. Interior Design praised Tirca's knowledge and taste: "Since we feel that good original paintings are hard to come by, we should like to call your attention to a new gallery in which the paintings have not been selected only for their fine artistic values but with an eye to the need of interior designers. . . . The artists represented are well known Americans, and from their work Miss Karlis has selected small-sized paintings which would fit in nicely with any type décor in any home." [8] Some of the artists represented were from Provincetown: Avery, David Burliuk, and Philip Evergood.

It was this love for great American contemporary art that brought Tirca and Karlis to Provincetown in 1958. Located at 353 Commercial Street, in the center of town, Tirca Karlis Gallery occupied two floors and three exhibition rooms. At the time of the gallery opening, Provincetown was experiencing an unprecedented boom in artists and tourists. "This summer," stated Time, "more tourists than ever before are jamming the narrow, sloping streets of sun-bleached, wind-bathed Provincetown. . . . New galleries are selling paintings faster than Manhattan." [9] With her summertime gallery among those newly established, Tirca continued promote the artists and art that she loved.

In her initial season, according to the Provincetown Advocate, Tirca "selected a diversified group of painters and sculptors. Many on the roster are known internationally and are featured in leading museums and private collections in the United States and abroad." [10] From collages and lithographs to sculptures and works on canvas, Tirca Karlis Gallery presented its patrons with a wide range of art. Among the artists faithfully exhibited were Milton Avery, William Baziotes, David Burliuk, Peter Busa, Ed Giobbi, Lester Johnson, Franz Kline, Lillian Orlowsky, Theodoros Stamos, and Bob Thompson. [11]

Milton Avery was a particular favorite of Tirca's. The artist and his family began to summer in Provincetown in 1958, and every season thereafter Avery was featured in at least two of the gallery's shows (fig. 50). During that first summer, Avery had a one-man exhibition at HCE Gallery, 461 Commercial Street, and was a member of the group show "18 Americans" at Tirca Karlis. From 1958 to 1974 he participated in at least twenty exhibitions at Tirca's gallery. [12]

Among the works that Avery showed at Tirca Karlis were the oils Mother and Child (1944; Cohen Family) and Orange Jacket (1948; private collection); the watercolor Artist Family in Spring Landscape (1943; whereabouts unknown); and the flobrush and pen-and-ink drawings and prints Night Nude (cat. no. 2), Umbrella by the Sea (fig. 51), and Sally with Beret (1939; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). The Cohens lent Mother and Child to Avery retrospectives at the Whitney in 1960 and the Museum of Modern Art in 1965 and 1970.

Celebrated for what he brought to the younger generation and his initial push in modernism, Avery was one of the rare artists to be appreciated both during his lifetime and after his death. Known as a painter's painter, Avery did not fit into any mold as an emerging or established artist. Although the art community celebrated him, critics generally could not categorize him because he was either too abstract or too representational. It was through promotion by people like Tirca, the success of artists that drew inspiration from him, and the admiration of those outside the art world that Avery was finally recognized as one of the greatest American painters -- "the greatest" of his generation, according to Rothko. [13]

As the critic Hilton Kramer wrote, "Avery had a special, highly sophisticated way of looking at the world -- a habit of observation that sifted out everything that was inessential to the realization of his poetic vision."[14] With his unceasing dedication to his craft, Avery created works that were often described as "poetic." Upon seeing Avery's work for the first time, David Burliuk, a fellow Provincetown artist, remarked, "Avery is an aristocrat of color in the way that Modigliani was an aristocrat of line." Often called the "American Matisse," Avery was looked up to by other artists for guidance and inspiration. Mark Rothko said that Avery "fashioned great canvases, that far from the casual and transitory implications of the subjects, have always a gripping lyricism, and often achieve the permanence and monumentality of Egypt."[15] Avery's use of color and the way he presented his subjects inspired many younger artists, especially Rothko and Gottlieb. [16]

This use of color and focus on the subject instead of the object is evident in March on the Beach (cat. no. 1). In this picture of his teenage daughter, Avery focuses on a few essentials of shape and color instead of what could be a detail-oriented scene. Avery himself said, "I am not seeking pure abstraction, rather, the purity and essence of the idea -- expressed in its simplest form."[17] This focus on lines and shapes is also evident in his 1953 woodblock print Night Nude. The lines with which Avery drew the nude's simplified form are uncomplicated and direct, as was his style. Like all his woodcuts, Night Nude was printed with the back of a spoon and without the aid of a press. Avery is credited with a primary place in this medium, being revived by American artists in the 1950s. He was also ahead of his time in his etchings. Umbrella by the Sea (1948; Julie Heller Gallery) comes close to being a "field image" of the kind "not widely known until almost twenty years later."[18] As the historian Frank Getlein explained, "In aesthetics, this image of a field . . . takes on organization and composition in the classical sense. In the relations between people and places, the people here are shown as determining, however subtly, the configuration of the places." [19]

For her part, Tirca was one of Avery's biggest advocates both before and after his death in 1965. About 1955 she wrote to the Museum of Modern Art, proposing a retrospective of Avery's work, as she thought the museum was "overlooking one our own Masters in our own back yard." She wrote again in 1960, reiterating her desire for such an exhibition, following the Whitney Museum's retrospective. "Milton Avery is the poet of American Art," Tirca said, "and he is now greater than ever. Why, please, don't you try to give him a retrospective in your beautiful Museum?" When there finally was an Avery retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1965, Tirca lent Mother and Child from her personal collection. [20]

Avery made such an impact on Tirca and her family that her son, Aaron, wrote poetry inspired by the artist. Of the many works of art that Aaron saw at his parents' gallery, the two Averys that elicited a written response in 1951 were A Clear Cut Landscape (1951; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and Green Umbrella (n.d.; Cohen Family). Aaron wrote three poems about A Clear Cut Landscape and gave them to the artist. Avery made Tirca the subject of at least two paintings, Two Figures (1960; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth) with Sally Avery and the portrait Tirca (1944; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). In 1939 Avery made a print in an edition of six of his beloved friend entitled Tirca (1939; Albert Merola Gallery); it was the only lithograph on stone that he made. It was this love and appreciation for Avery and his work that Tirca brought to her gallery patrons. [21]

Both her artists and the Provincetown community recognized Tirca's enthusiasm for the arts. Upon the opening of the second season of the gallery, a front-page article in the Provincetown Advocate declared, "The gallery now promises to become one of the hubs of the Provincetown artist colony."[22] The 1959 season boasted another full roster of artists and exhibitions, including seven one-man shows and several group exhibits. The featured artists included Avery, Henry Botkin, Burliuk, Arshile Gorky, George Grosz, Hans Hofmann, Yeffe Kimball, Umberto Romano, and Stamos. In August an exhibition of eighteen works by Stamos was accompanied by forty drawings by American artists, many contributed by Tirca. "This exhibition is of unusual interest as the trend to collect drawings has been recently revived. Tirca Karlis is especially proud of her contribution to this exhibition as she has collected drawings over a period of twenty-five years." [23]

Tirca mounted numerous exhibitions of works on paper, one of which, "18 Americans" of 1972, included three figurative drawings by Stamos -- a self-portrait, a seated nude, and a head of a man -- displayed alongside eleven oil paintings. Born to parents of Greek heritage, Stamos owned a frame shop in New York City before he was able to support himself as a painter. Known mostly for his works on canvas, Stamos was one of nineteen artists Life chose in 1950 as the best artists under thirty-six years of age. [24] Twenty-seven at the time, Stamos was praised for his ability to exclude "recognizable objects so that the eye would not in any way be diverted from the essence of the painting -- a mournful spiritual state of mind." Part of the New York Abstract Expressionist group, Stamos was recognized by critics and patrons for his sense of color and whimsy. As a critic for ART Digest wrote in 1947, Stamos' paintings had "low-keyed beauty of a subtle, sensuous nature." [25]

Stamos was the youngest of the eighteen "Irascibles." Documented in a 1951 photograph and article in Life, the "Irascibles" protested the Metropolitan Museum's "worship of art of the past to the almost total exclusion of art of the present."[26] This public outcry from many of the great abstract painters of the 1940s ultimately helped the country accept the movement. Of his own work and that of his peers, Stamos said, "The great figurative painters are involved with grandeur or vision, using the figures as a means to an end, whereas today the best of the abstract painters are also involved with the grandeur of vision using color as their means toward a new space-light." [27]

At Tirca Karlis Gallery, Stamos' paintings and drawings were hung alongside those by several of the other "Irascibles," as Tirca appreciated and promoted contemporary art. Perhaps the two most recognizable paintings by Stamos that Tirca displayed were large, colorful oils from his Infinity Field (1960s­1970s) series. Infinity Field, Olympia 1 (1969; private collection) and Infinity Field, Delphi 1 (1970; whereabouts unknown) were exhibited at the gallery during the 1973 season.[28] Through his Infinity Field paintings, Stamos explored his interests in mythology, botany, and Eastern philosophy. As one historian wrote, "He viewed his surroundings as touchstones of the ancestral past, where the rocky shores, white cliffs, and ocean waves were evidence of civilizations of centuries past and stories of generations old."[29] The Greek roots of his family were prevalent throughout the ten-plus years of his Infinity paintings.

A Stamos' self-portrait was one of the many works that Tirca chose to include in the 1965 gallery show benefitting the Association for Improving Medical Research of Outer Cape Cod -- a group of 1,300 members who wanted to construct a community-sponsored modern medical center in the area. After Tirca proposed that her gallery host a benefit exhibition, she asked her artists and friends in the art world to donate or lend portraits and self-portraits. The exhibition, "The Artist's Face," debuted on July 2, 1965, to rave reviews. Among the artists represented were Avery, Varujan Boghosian, Edward Giobbi, Xavier Gonzalez, Marsden Hartley, Henry Hensche, Franz Kline, Karl Knaths, William and Elaine de Kooning, Stamos, Jack Tworkov. [30]

"The Artist's Face" brought both regional and national attention to Tirca Karlis Gallery and the Provincetown art scene. Cue Magazine called it a "dazzling show . . . eminently worth a visit," and one of "two major cultural events this Summer."[31] The Provincetown Advocate advertised the show and its fundraising profits with front-page articles during the exhibit's two-week run. [32] True to her belief that artists and students alike should be supported and encouraged, Tirca waived the fifty-cent admission fee to art students. Altogether, Tirca raised more than $2,000, putting the fund within $35,000 of its goal. "The A.I.M. is deeply grateful to the artists who are participating in 'The Artist's Face,'" wrote the association's fundraising chairman, "and would express special gratitude to Tirca Karlis for conceiving and executing the exhibit and for so generously suggesting that all admissions fees and 10% of the sales be for A.I.M.'s benefit." [33]

A significant number of the artists who participated in the benefit struggled for acceptance in the 1940s but rose in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s. Tirca had supported many of the Abstract Expressionists from the 1940s onward, and her dedication was evident in the participation of so many of the renowned artists from this time in "The Artist's Face," among them Franz Kline.

Kline began his career as a figurative and landscape painter. In the late 1940s, after projecting some of his drawings on a wall, "he found that their lines, when magnified, gained abstractions and sweeping forces."[34] It was this discovery that inspired all his subsequent paintings, many of them in bold black and white. Kline's abstract work with broad brushstrokes is often described as "gestural," suggesting the movements one makes with their hands and arms in conversation. As the art historian Dr. Harry Gaugh summarized, "Between 1950 and 1956 he set black and white on fire, respecting their independence as elemental forces, yet fusing them in passionate and ever-changing manifestations of human emotion." [35]

Tirca Karlis exhibited a few of these paintings in the ten years that Kline was shown at the gallery, including a self-portrait, an untitled collage, Study for Tremaine (1958; whereabouts unknown), and a few small ink drawings on paper. As many of Kline's canvases were very large, Tirca chose smaller works for display. Kline was featured in at least five exhibitions and was frequently mentioned in advertisements and announcements in the Provincetown Advocate. From 1956 on he spent part of his summers in Provincetown, working, influencing, and learning from other fellow abstract artists from Tirca Karlis Gallery such as Avery, Robert Motherwell, Bob Thompson, and Jack Tworkov. [36]

The late 1950s to the 1970s saw an artistic boom in Provincetown. Tirca Karlis Gallery was just one of the exhibition spaces in town that showcased contemporary art. The other two prominent galleries at the time were Sun and Kootz-HCE. The Sun Gallery, at 393 Commercial Street, was a small but innovative gallery from 1955 to 1959. During its five summer seasons, it displayed Surrealist as well as abstract art by Fritz Bultman, Giobbi, Hofmann, Lester Johnson, and Thompson. From 1953 to 1967 the Kootz-HCE Gallery sponsored prominent artists such as Avery, Edwin Dickinson, Giobbi, Marsden Hartley, Hofmann, and Tworkov. The New York dealer Sam Kootz opened his gallery in 1953 at 481 Commercial Street; it was renamed HCE Gallery in 1955, when it changed owners. According to the art historian Dorothy Gees Seckler, between the late 1950s and the late 1960s, "It was often possible to see as much distinguished American art in eight or ten galleries on Commercial Street as one could see making the rounds of Fifty-Seventh Street and Madison in New York." [37]

The quality of the work and the artists that chose to summer in Provincetown during this time were truly impressive. As the other galleries changed hands, moved, or closed, Tirca Karlis kept its doors open for nearly thirty years. Tirca's impact on the Provincetown art world was professed in a Provincetown Advocate article commemorating her tenth anniversary season: "Under her stimulus she has succeeded in creating fresh new influences to the art world on the Cape. The amount of activity generated by this discerning gallery each season has captured new artists and a special acceptance. . . . The gallery has become unique in the Provincetown art world and displays outstanding examples of contemporary art and has featured most of the leading American artists as well as some Europeans." [38]

Apart from sharing her passion for the arts with her gallery patrons, Tirca donated and sold to many museums and universities during her Provincetown tenure, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Michigan State University; and Chrysler Art Museum, Provincetown. Among the works that museums purchased were several paintings by Avery; Premonitions (1963; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) by Leo Manso; two Marilyn prints by Andy Warhol; and a Kennedy painting and For Brecht #2 (1963; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) by Giobbi. [39]

Edward Giobbi first showed at Tirca Karlis Gallery in 1963 and the relationship would continue into the 1970s. Giobbi first came to Provincetown in the mid-1940s to study with Henry Hensche. "He taught the Impressionist style, which is when I learned color logic, whereby all colors fit as they do in nature," Giobbi said. "This enabled me to build a color vocabulary that I continue to use today."[40] This study of color is evident in all Giobbi's work (cat. no. 36), though his style different greatly from that of his first Provincetown

After studying with Hensche and attending art school in Boston, Giobbi spent a few years in Italy, and upon his return the Abstract Expressionist movement, and the debates that it stirred, were in full swing. In Italy Giobbi was attracted to the Old Masters such as Giotto, Masaccio, and Michelangelo; while contemporary American art also inspired him, he did not agree with some of its protagonist ways. Of the modern artists, Matisse, Picasso, and Giacometti "nourished" him. "I like the excitement and the abandonment of [the Abstract Expressionists'] technique to a degree, but I do not believe in anarchy. If you look at the growth of masses of various vegetation that grows naturally in the woods, you see extreme anarchy. However, if you really study this vegetation, there is order in there. This is how I see painting. The Abstract Expressionists lacked order." [41]

His love of the Old Masters and of his peers, along with his deep attachments to Italy, could have had a "schizophrenic result," Giobbi noted, "but I have found both cultures nurturing."[42] This dichotomy is evident though all mediums in which he worked. As one art historian said, "In all of Giobbi's work . . . one is keenly aware of the dual embrace of the rich heritage of Italian art and architecture and the 'glittering hard-edge technique' and inventiveness of modern American art." The intelligence that Giobbi brought to his work forced his patrons to take in deep perspective, "mathematical proportional arrangement, the complex multiplication of color . . . [and] dramatic narrative content." [43] These crisp lines, movement of color, and influence of Italian architecture are evident in Untitled (fig. 52).

Tirca featured Giobbi's work in a variety of mediums, from large oil paintings to watercolors, collages, and Plexiglas boxes. While with the gallery, Giobbi was included in seven exhibitions. This exposure and acceptance of all mediums was standard for the artists represented in the gallery.[44] As the Provincetown Advocate noted, the three gallery spaces were always hung "with a comprehensive and varied selection of significant work. They embrace all schools." [45]

Just as Tirca saved exhibition space for young artists, she presented a display area for new collectors. In 1966 the Provincetown Advocate announced, "A special permanent gallery for the 'young collector' has been established." For this "introductory" audience, Tirca scheduled a series of exhibitions of paintings, drawings, and prints "by important artists and this innovation should provide a rich opportunity for Provincetown Gallery goers."[46] At times Tirca was able to provide an opportunity for introductory patrons to purchase an original work of art. "An excellent way to begin collecting . . . is to purchase original graphics by major artists. Lithographs, silk-screens, etchings, woodcuts-all are original works, signed by the artist, but printed in edition," she said. [47] Her patrons responded positively to the exhibitions that presented numerous mediums in the same space.

Tirca's view that "original graphics" should be displayed next to unique pieces was not a universal practice of gallery owners and art dealers. During many summer seasons, Tirca Karlis Gallery dedicated entire exhibitions to prints, such as "Lithographs" (1965), "Important Lithographs by Outstanding Americans" (1969), and "Original Signed Lithographs and Etchings" (1972). [48]

Lester Johnson's lithographs and silkscreens held places of prominence in at least three of these exhibitions. As one of the Tirca Karlis Gallery artists, Johnson separated himself from others of his generation as he explored Figurative Expressionism. From Provincetown, it was Johnson and fellow Tirca Karlis artist Bob Thompson that pushed this vain of abstraction in new ways. Johnson spent most of his adult life in New York City and many summers in Provincetown from 1954 onward. He exhibited at Sun Gallery then with HCE and later Tirca Karlis. [49]

In his early works, Johnson drew from Abstract Expressionist painting, while his focus on the canvas set him apart. As one historian commented, "He painted from the shoulders in broad, messy, drippy strokes. . . . All of his guts and energy went into the frenzy of the creative act. There was no time or place for thinking and theory." [50] The images that Johnson produced were "not decorative, but stubbornly confrontational: oversize, brooding, thickly encrusted, scarred surfaces that were alive with recognizable objects and figures." [51] This style of painting became somewhat less "frenzied" after Johnson took a teaching position at Yale in 1964, though his figures were no less captivating.

Two Heads (cat. no. 61) is an excellent example of this type of "confrontational" style of Figurative Expressionism. Like his other paintings that art critic Harold Rosenberg would call "golem-like" in 1966, Two Heads of 1969 portrays "grim dolls [that] seem to push forward out of a background darkness which they bring with them to the painting surface."[52] During the 1960s he usually painted solitary figures; Untitled (One Head) (fig. 53) epitomizes what people have come to associate with his earlier work-thick, bold, brushstrokes creating dark and brooding figures.

In the 1970s Johnson made a shift in his style. "I get into a theme, and I get into it until I don't like it," he told the Hartford Courant in 2005. [53] He began using color and more specific figures in his work; tightly packed into these canvases were men in bowler hats and women in colorful dresses. One historian described these later paintings of the urban crowd as having a "kaleidoscopic intensity. Men and women moving with the collective bustle of the city in an enigmatic, contemporary drama of epic proportions. . . . It is possible for even the most resistant viewer to somehow join the cast of characters and become part of the narrative." [54]

Johnson pulled his painted "cast of characters" from his studio window that looked out over New York City, his summer home in East Hampton, and his early years in Provincetown. Of his time on the Cape, Johnson said, "I really loved the place"[55] -- a sentiment shared by many of his generation.

From the 1940s through the 1960s the art colony flourished and numerous galleries showed the same contemporary artists at the same time, as there was a true sense of community and camaraderie. In summer 1969, for example, Avery and Giobbi participated in shows at both HCE Gallery and Tirca Karlis.[56] Tirca promoted such relationships between her gallery and others throughout her career. In particular, Tirca enjoyed a very close relationship with New York's Martha Jackson Gallery. For many years, Martha Jackson Gallery lent or sold multiple pieces to Tirca for the Provincetown summer season. Their relationship was so strong, in fact, that an entire show during the 1960 season was made up of loaned work. "Through the courtesy of the Martha Jackson Gallery of New York, an exhibit of eight artists is being held at the Tirca Karlis Gallery," stated the Provincetown Advocate. [57] Among the artists represented were the abstract painters Karel Appel, Hisao Domoto, and John Hultberg. In the 1963 season Tirca obtained a 1948 ink on paper by Kline and three crayon and pastel drawings by Grace Hartigan from Martha Jackson. In 1971 Jackson lent Karel Appel's painting Tiger (1957; private collection) to Tirca. Often these exchanges were made in person before Tirca and her family left New York for Provincetown each June. [58]

It came as no surprise that these two galleries would create such lasting professional relationship, as they were run by strong, intelligent, interested, and kind women. As a leading art dealer and promoter of Abstract Expressionism in all its forms in New York, Jackson displayed and introduced many of the same artists that Tirca exhibited in Provincetown, among them Bultman, Lawrence Calcagno, Adolph Gottlieb, Grace Hartigan, Hofmann, Johnson, Thompson, and Tworkov. [59]

It was Martha Jackson Gallery that gave the young African American artist Bob Thompson his first solo gallery exhibit, in 1963. Before this noteworthy event, Thompson studied with Mary Spencer Nay and spent time in Provincetown during summer 1958. There, Thompson met with fellow artists who would become his contemporaries in New York. It was during that summer, at age twenty-one and still a student, that Thompson made his first sale to a major collector, Walter Chrysler. Thompson hosted many parties in his rental "shack" for fellow figurative painters, including Johnson and Red Grooms, and became influenced by the work of Jan Müller and befriended his widow, Dody. As one historian noted, "In Provincetown, Bob Thompson began experimenting with a heady mix of imagery, techniques, and themes borrowed from contemporary artists," but especially Müller and Johnson. [60]

This first summer in Provincetown formed the bridge between Thompson's student days and that of his career artist. As he was described by Thelma Gordon in the Whitney retrospective catalogue, "Thompson's career falls into three phases that correspond not only to his natural growth as a young artist, but also to the expanding vision he gained during his travels."[61] Shortly after his move to New York, Thompson traveled to Europe in 1961 and sought inspiration from the Old Masters. This time in France led to a more refined style. He then went to Ibiza before returning to New York in 1963. During the next two years Thompson had many successful shows in New York and spent more time in Provincetown before traveling to Rome in 1965, where he died, tragically, six months later.

The influence of the Old Masters and of his contemporaries created a change in Thompson's work after 1963. As The Tempest (cat. no. 104) demonstrates, Thompson had developed his narrative sensibility as he focused on a single action or central event and incorporated traditional iconography and sources into his paintings.[62] Through this growth, Thompson experimented with borrowing segments of or, sometimes entire, compositions from "canonical European masterworks."[63] In The Tempest, Thompson's colorful figures loosely depict themes from the Shakespeare play while also seeming to reference what the artist believed to be the power of women and sexuality.

During his time in Provincetown, Thompson was associated with the Sun and Zabriskie Galleries and was a big supporter of cooperative galleries. While Tirca Karlis Gallery was not an artists' cooperative, Tirca demonstrated unwavering support of her artists, did much to promote those of varied prominence, and always brought new faces into the mix. With the reputation of the gallery as a leader on the Provincetown art scene, Tirca could have made her focus solely the "greats" of the time and ignored young artists, but that was not her way. As a patron of the arts since she was young, Tirca always appreciated and encouraged new talent. In 1968, for example, she dedicated one of her gallery spaces to "Young Provincetown," allowing the next generation of artists to be introduced to the public alongside George Grosz, who also had his own exhibition at the time. [64]

This "Young Provincetown" exhibit is just one example of the many group shows at the gallery. Tirca used these exhibits to honor one particular artist as well as those they had influenced, to educate the public about a given style or medium, to display the great history of Provincetown art, and to give new artists a chance to interact with and be displayed next to the "modern masters." One such group show in 1970 was praised for showing "examples of work by exponents of most of the important art movements that have occurred in this country since 1945. . . . A visit to this gallery is a highly recommended experience." [65]

Two Provincetown artists who did not exhibit with Tirca Karlis Gallery but certainly had in impact on its owner and many of its artists were Peter Busa and William Baziotes. Born in Pennsylvania in 1914, Busa moved to New York and studied at the Art Students League in a class that included Jackson Pollock. A good friend of Arshile Gorky's, Busa was introduced to Stuart Davis, and it was these two artists that profoundly influenced Busa's work. Throughout the 1930s Busa's interest in universal themes and primitive cultures, as well as Gorky's and Davis's ideas about authenticity in art, led Busa to become a leading member of the abstract artists known as Indian Space Painters (see fig. 54). Active in the 1940s and 1950s Indian Space painters were known for their "brightly colored pictorial language of flat, allover patterns combining geometric and organic forms."[66] Although he would experiment with other forms of abstraction (see fig. 55), Busa would revisit Indian Space ideas throughout his career. He showed in Provincetown at Shore Galleries and Gallery 256 during the 1950s and on his own front porch and studio in the 1960s.

Busa was grouped with Baziotes when discussed in the Provincetown Advocate for being some of the "first artists to practice automatic painting in the United States."[67] While Baziotes was interested in primitive art and automatism, his work consistently displayed stronger connections with European Surrealists. Matta, in particular, was greatly influential for the artist, though Baziotes created his own form of Surrealism with an abstract "spiritual intensity."[68] A close friend of Robert Motherwell's, Baziotes was one of the "Irascibles" who protested mainstream America's insistence on focusing on traditional art. Fellow Provincetown artists Gottlieb, Hofmann Motherwell, and Stamos were also part of this movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s. During the 1950s Baziotes showed at Kootz Galleries in New York and Provincetown and brought his own Surrealist style to the art colony for numerous summers. [69]

Artists such as Baziotes, who launched themselves into the modern art scene in the 1940s, forever shaped the Provincetown art colony and its gallery scene. It was through the work of these artists that Tirca Karlis Gallery, in particular, presented the public with contemporary American art. This rich generation of artists had an affinity to Provincetown that had not since been replicated. In the seventeen summers that Tirca ran the gallery, her list of artists read like a who's-who of twentieth-century American masters: Karel Appel, Karl Ashby, Milton Avery, William Baziotes, Henry Botkin, Byron Browne, Lawrence Calcagno, Nassos Daphnis, Hisao Domoto, Philip Evergood, George Grosz, Arshile Gorky, Grace Hartigan, Hans Hofmann, Karl Knaths, Elaine de Kooning, Walt Kuhn, Leo Manso, Lillian Orlowsky, Umberto Romano, Raphael and Moses Soyer, Theodoros Stamos, Andy Warhol, and many more. [70]

Tirca Karlis Gallery in Provincetown was not only special because of its longevity at a time when galleries were numerous and quickly changing but also because of the dedication and passion that Tirca herself brought to the space. She firmly believed that she could contribute to the local and national art scene by bringing important contemporary artists and their work to Provincetown. In a full-page article about the gallery, the Provincetown Advocate noted, "For 17 years the Tirca Karlis Gallery has been one of the firmest bastions in Provincetown's struggle to maintain its place as an important Art center. The Tirca Karlic Gallery stands apart in quality and sophistication." [71]

Sadly, this celebrated 1974 season would be the last that Tirca spent in Provincetown. That November Tirca died, back home in New York. Many of the artists that she had represented and befriended attended the service. The artist Henry Botkin spoke at the memorial, reminiscing about Tirca's great "spirit," her dedication to the artists, and her enthusiasm for the arts. [72] Among others in attendance were Sally and March Avery and Edward Giobbi and Leo Manso. "The gallery for many years has been a center of art life in Provincetown," the Advocate stated in its obituary for Tirca. [73]

Tirca Karlis Gallery did not end with the death of its founder; her husband, Karlis, and son, Aaron, carried on in Tirca's tradition for several more seasons. The Fine Arts Work Center Provincetown Gallery Guide explained, "The Tirca Karlis Gallery of Provincetown was founded in 1958 by Tirca Karlis who for seventeen years was its devoted inspirational Director. She was highly respected and widely beloved by artists, collectors, and fellow dealers. With the untimely death of Tirca last year, her husband is now the director and intends to continue the gallery in the same tradition."[74] Among the one-man exhibitions that Karlis realized during the first season without his wife were for Avery, Carl Ashby, Giobbi, Manso, Botkin, and Joseph Kaplan. He continued Tirca's practice of a wide selection of group shows with "Husbands and Wives," "Group Show 1975," and "Review 1975." Although Karlis and Aaron maintained some of the same artists and continued with the Tirca Karlis Gallery into the early 1980s, the space in Provincetown was not the same. It really had been Tirca's gallery, and without its matriarch it changed unavoidably.

The lasting impact of Tirca Karlis Gallery is evidenced by the continued display of "original graphics" by major American artists, the appreciation and celebration of Milton Avery and his impact on the country's art scene, the inclusion of young artists in established galleries, and the continued support and acceptance of modern art. Tirca brought to Provincetown a new dynamic energy as well as new artists. She introduced Abstract Expressionism as well as Social Realism. The art that people saw in the gallery and at the openings was new and fresh as museums did not yet own or display these types of art. Artists, collectors, and the public came to Tirca Karlis Gallery to see what was happening with the artwork and then would much later on see it in significant collections and in New York. A large number of artists that Tirca showcased each summer in her gallery reached critical acclaim and are now celebrated as leaders in the Abstract Expressionist, Figurative Expressionist, Surrealist, and modern art movements.



1. Tirca Karlis, "An Art Dealer's Advice to the Neophyte," Tirca Karlis Gallery Records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

2. "New Gallery Opens Tomorrow," Provincetown Advocate, June 26, 1958.

3. Quoted in Bradford R. Collins, "Life Magazine and the Abstract Expressionists, 1948­51: "A Historiographical Study of a Late Bohemian Enterprise," Art Bulletin 73, no. 2 (June 1991): 283-­308, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3045794?seq=13&Search=yes&searchText=20&searchText=1949&searchText=June&list=show&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3Ffilter%3Diid%253A10.2307%252Fi354068%26Query%3D%2B20%2BJune%2B1949%26wc%3Don%26Search.x%3D7%26Search.y%3D19&prevSearch=&item=1&ttl=4&returnArticleService=showFullText&resultsServiceName=null (accessed January 23, 2011).

4. Life (February 17, 1947): 78-84; Life (April 11, 1949): 99­102; Life (December 26, 1960): 45; Life (February 21, 1949): 84; Life (October 11, 1948): 56f.; Life (June 20, 1949): n.p.; Time (December 1, 1947): n.p.; Time (February 7, 1949): 51, as cited in ibid.

5. "Karlis Gallery Season Opens," Provincetown Advocate, June 28, 1962.

6. "New Gallery Opens Tomorrow."

7. Ibid.

8. "Small Paintings from Great Talents," Interior Design (December 1953): n.p.

9. "Art Town, 1958," Time (August 18, 1958) http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,810513,00.html (accessed January 23, 2011).

10. "New Gallery Opens Tomorrow."

11. "Art Town, 1958"; and "Karlis Gallery Opens Tonight," Provincetown Advocate, June 25, 1959.

12. "Milton Avery Dies," Provincetown Advocate, January 14, 1965.

13. Barbara Haskell, Milton Avery (New York: Whitney Museum of Art, 1982), p. 80.

14. Hilton Kramer, The Age of Avant-Garde, 1956­1972 (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1973), p. 316.

15. Mark Rothko, Writings on Art (New Haven: Yale University, 2006), p. 50.

16. Milton Avery Papers, 1926-82, Archives of American Art.

17. Quoted in Frank Getlein, "Introduction," in Harry H. Lunn Jr., Milton Avery: Prints, 1933-1955 (Washington, D.C.: Graphics International, 1973).

18. Ibid.

19. Milton Avery, quoted in Milton Avery: The Late Paintings (New York: American Federation of the Arts, 2001), p. 93.

20. Tirca Karlis Gallery Records.

21. Milton Avery Papers.

22. "Karlis Gallery Opens Tonight."

23. "Stamos and 40 at Karlis Tonight," Provincetown Advocate, August 13, 1959.

24. "19 Young Americans," Life (March 20, 1950): 82-85.

25. Quoted in Daniel Grant, "The Case of Theodoros Stamos," artnet Magazine (May 25, 2009), http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/grant/theodoros-stamos5-26-10_detail.asp?picnum=3 (accessed January 3, 2011).

26. "The Metropolitan and Modern Art," Life (January 15, 1951): 35-38.

27. Quoted in Marika Herskovic, American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s: An Illustrated Survey (New York: New York School Press, 2003), p. 318.

28. Tirca Karlis Gallery Records.

29. "Theodoros Stamos: Infinity and Beyond," Hollis Taggart Galleries, April 24-May 17, 2008, http://dev.hollistaggart.com/past/stamos_08.htm (accessed January 19, 2011).

30. Tirca Karlis Gallery Papers.

31. Cue Magazine, June 26, 1965, as quoted in "Exhibit 'Dazzling' Magazine Says," Provincetown Advocate, July 1, 1965.

32. "Portrait Exhibit Open to Students," Provincetown Advocate, July 8, 1965.

33. Arthur J. Guilbert, "A.I.M Show Pamphlet," Tirca Karlis Gallery Papers.

34. Harriet Schoenholz Bee and Cassander Heliczer, eds., MoMA Highlights: 350 Works from the Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004), p. 205.

35. Quoted in Mary McCarty, "The Vital Gesture: Franz Kline in Retrospect," Cincinnati Magazine (January 1986): 115.

36. Tirca Karlis Gallery Papers; James O'Connell, Becoming Cape Cod: Creating a Seaside Resort (Lebanon, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2003) p. 90; and Judith Wilson, Bob Thompson (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1998), p. 47.

37. Ronald A. Kuchta and Dorothy Gees Seckler, Provincetown Painters 1890's-1970's (Syracuse, N.Y.: Everson Museum of Art, 1977), p. 80.

38. "Tirca Karlis Gallery Celebrates Tenth Anniversary in Provincetown," Provincetown Advocate, July 6, 1967.

39. Ibid.

40. Oral history interview with Edward Giobbi by Paul Cummings, November 18­December 1, 1977, Archives of American Art, online.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid.

43. "The Legacy of Charles W. Hawthorne," Provincetown Magazine (September 23, 1999), http://renalindstrom.com/articles/THE LEGACY OF CHARLES HAWTHORNE.htm (accessed January 2, 2011).

44. Tirca Karlis Gallery Records.

45. "Karlis Gallery Opens 1967 Season," Provincetown Advocate, June 29, 1967.

46. "Tirca Karlis Gallery Opens Ninth Season," Provincetown Advocate, June 30, 1966.

47. Ibid.

48. Exhibition advertisements, Provincetown Advocate, 1964-75; Tirca Karlis Gallery Records; and "Lithograph Show at Karlis Gallery," Provincetown Advocate, August 12, 1965.

49. Burt Chernow, "Lester Johnson: In New York and P-town," Procuniar Workshop (2011), http://www.procuniarworkshop.com/art-reference/burt-chernow-lester-johnson-in-new-york-and-p-town.html (accessed January 3, 2011).

50. Charles Giuliano, "Lester Johnson, 1919­2010: A Leading Figurative Expressionist" Berkshire Fine Arts (June 6, 2010), http://www.berkshirefinearts.com/?page=article&article_id=1748&catID=3 (accessed December 30, 2010).

51. Chernow, "Lester Johnson."

52. Harold Rosenberg for Art News as quoted in William Grimes, "Lester Johnson, Expressionist Painters, Dies at 91," New York Times, June 9, 2010.

53. Ibid.

54. Ibid.

55. Ibid.

56. Gallery listings and advertisements, Provincetown Advocate, 1959­70.

57. "Tirca Karlis Shows 8 Artists," Provincetown Advocate, July 21, 1960.

58. Martha Jackson Archives, UB Art Galleries, http://www.ubartgalleries.org/?gallery=anderson&select=page&page=martha_jackson_archives (accessed December 12, 2010).

59. Ibid.

60. Judith Wilson, "Garden of Music," in Thelma Golden, Bob Thompson (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art; and Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 27, 39, 43.

61. Golden, "Introduction," in ibid., p. 18.

62. "Bob Thompson (1937-1966)," Hollis Taggart Galleries, http://www.hollistaggart.com/artists/biography/bob_thompson/ (accessed January 9, 2011).

63. Shamim Momam, "Commentaries," in Golden, Bob Thompson, p. 176.

64. Exhibition advertisement, Provincetown Advocate, August 9, 1968.

65. "Group Show," Provincetown Advocate, July 6, 1970.

66. "Peter Busa," Hollis Taggart Galleries, 2008, http://www.hollistaggart.com/artists/biography/peter_busa/ (January 29, 2011).

67. "Busa Show Opens at His Home," Provincetown Advocate, August 20, 1964.

68. "William Baziotes (1912-1963)," Hollis Taggart Galleries, http://www.hollistaggart.com/artists/biography/william_baziotes/ (accessed January 29, 2011).

69. Peter Rutkoff and William B. Scott, New York Modern: The Arts and the City (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), pp. 289-91.

70. Tirca Karlis Gallery Records.

71. April Kingsley, "Tirca Karlis Gallery," Provincetown Advocate, August 1, 1973.

72. "Tirca Karlis Cohen," Provincetown Advocate, November 21, 1974.

73. Ibid.

74. "Tirca Karlis Gallery," Fine Arts Work Center Provincetown Gallery Guide, 1975, p. 3.

About the authors

Julie Heller is Principal of Julie Heller Gallery, Provincetown, Massachusetts. Whitney Smith is Director, Julie Heller Gallery, Provincetown, Massachusetts.


Resource Library editor's note

The above essay was published in Resource Library on August 17, 2011 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art, granted to TFAO on August 15, 2011.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Alexander J. Noelle, Assistant Curator, and Claudia Thesing, Director of Development, of the New Britain Museum of American Art for their help concerning permission for reprinting the above text.

RL readers may also enjoy biographical information on selected artists cited in this article in America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. TFAO neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History.

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