As the Tirca Karlis Gallery, directed by Tirca Cohen, this was not just a nexus of the Provincetown art scene in its heyday, but an important landmark for anyone who cared about modern American art. Consider the roster of “16 Americans” in July 1961. It included Milton Avery, Nell Blaine, Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Goodnough, Sam Francis, Alfred Leslie, John Levee, Louise Nevelson, Theodoros Stamos and Joseph Stefanelli.
In 1938, 20 years before Cohen opened her gallery here, Marion Blakeman established the Personal Appearance shop; Peter Hunt helping with the décor. She sold toiletries, perfumes, colognes, powders, creams, preparations, compacts, beach bags, scarves, costume jewelry and a product called Gardenalls, “something all will want to slip into many a day, even if one never gets near a flower garden.” (“Women Will Find Shopping Thrills,” The Advocate, 30 June 1938.)
A fascinating variety of commercial tenants followed Personal Appearance’s short run. The jeweler Arthur King was here in the mid-’40s; Hopkins Cleansers in the late ’40s; Alfred, Hair Stylist in the late ’40s and early ’50s, run by Alfred Simoneau (“formerly of Elizabeth Arden”) and his wife, Ruth; the painter James Kirk Merrick in the early ’50s; and the Harl-Chris Beauty Studio in 1955.
But it was the arrival in 1958 of Theresa “Tirca” Cohen (d 1974) and her husband, Charles “Karlis” Cohen, that put 353 Commercial Street on the national art map. It is a measure of their gallery’s importance that The Tides of Provincetown catalogue devotes an entire chapter to it, “The Tirca Karlis Gallery: Pivotal Decades of Provincetown Art,” by Julie Heller and Whitney Smith. Following is a very abbreviated version of their account:
Tirca, who had been a dancer and choreographer in New York, became enamored of modern art after a chance encounter with Wassily Kandinski. Before she and Karlis opened in Provincetown, they had been art dealers in New York and Westport, Conn. Their gallery took up two floors at No. 353.
Avery (1885-1965; Provincetown Artist Registry) was a favorite of Tirca’s, Heller and Smith write. His work was in at least two shows every summer at the gallery. Twice, in 1955 and 1960, she championed Avery personally at the Museum of Modern Art, calling him the “poet of American Art.” Among other favorites were Stamos (1922-1997; obituary in The New York Times), who was one of the 18 so-called “Irascibles”; Edward Giobbi (b 1926; Times Topics), who had come to Provincetown to study with Henry Hensche; Lester Johnson (1919-2010; obituary in The New York Times), the intense and confrontational Figurative Expressionist; and Bob Thompson (1937-1966; Wikipedia), whose contemporary interpretations of Old Masters made his one of the leading African-American artists of his generation.
Amid all the comings and goings in the Provincetown art scene, Tirca Karlis was not only an outstanding but a durable presence. Tirca Cohen herself presided for 17 years, until her death in 1974. Karlis Cohen and their son, Aaron, continued the gallery into the early 1980s, though Heller and Smith note sadly that “without its matriarch, it changed unavoidably.” They concluded:
The kind of art that artists, collectors and the public saw in the gallery and at the openings was new and fresh — it was not yet in museums and would be only much later in significant collections and in New York. A large number of artists that Tirca showcased each summer reached critical acclaim and are now celebrated as leaders in the Abstract Expressionist, Figurative Expressionist, Surrealist and modern art movements.
The current tenant, Kennedy Gallery and Studios, showcases the paintings of Robert E. Kennedy and Michele Richard Kennedy, who is another Hensche student.