Late Rye artist turns 100

The late Irving Harper would have turned 100 on July 14, 2016. In light of his birthday, The Rye City Review is reprinting a profile of the famed artist.

This article was originally published on Jan. 23, 2015.


Last Saturday’s auction at the Rye Arts Center was historic.

One of the 160 participants from as far away as California and Canada was going to leave with a piece of art history—the first Irving Harper sculpture ever to have been sold—and win a rare, exclusive tour of the artistic genius’ obscure, Rye home, where hundreds of his sculptures keep the 98-year-old designer company.

A sealed bid for $9,000 jump started the auction.

Irving Harper, legendary artist and Rye resident, died of renal failure on Aug. 4, 2015. He was 99. File photos
Irving Harper, legendary artist and Rye resident, died of renal failure on Aug. 4, 2015. He was 99. File photo

Five people bid right away. The selling price quickly shot up to $13,000. Then it leveled off. The auction became a bidding war between three people until the price hit $17,000. Another bidder dropped out.

The bidding was down to two; however, in the end, neither participant would take home the prize.

Meanwhile, Paul Conn, a Rye resident, was in the back of the auction room in the Rye Arts Center—watching the live auction but never intending to participate.

“We didn’t go to the auction to buy it, originally,” Paul Conn said. “But it was in the back of my mind.”

His wife, Kate, said she put their auction card down since the couple was just there to take in the scenery. That is, until Paul Conn asked her for the card.

Meanwhile, bidding continued. The price jumped to $20,000.

“It was going to close at $20,000,” Paul Conn said. “So this was my chance. I placed my bid before the hammer went down again. I really wanted it, but no one in the room knew I wanted it.”

And then the gavel sounded, signaling the end of the bids.

Paul and Kate Conn won Harper’s blue, paper snake sculpture with a $21,000 bid. The sculpture had been sitting, on exhibit, in the Rye Arts Center since September.

Paul Conn said he would’ve gone as high as $24,000 or $25,000, but he was confident his $21,000 bid was going to win the auction.

Harper, who worked as a designer in the legendary New York City office of George Nelson in the 1960s, was on hand for the auction. He sat and watched intently from his wheelchair.

This paper snake was the first sculpture of Irving Harper’s ever to be sold. Photo courtesy Rye Arts Center
This paper snake was the first sculpture of Irving Harper’s ever to be sold. Photos courtesy Rye Arts Center

Harper is unassuming and quiet by nature. Money and fame was never what he had in mind when he began making these sculptures about 40 years ago, Kate Conn said.

Harper said in a past, exclusive interview with the Review, that he “doesn’t consider himself an artist…just a retired designer who does these sculptures to keep himself occupied.”

He began making the sculptures to relieve stress while he was working on the Chrysler Pavilion in the 1964 World’s Fair, he said. And he found tranquility by creating hundreds of paper sculptures in his Breevort Lane home in the Greenhaven section of Rye.

However, his sculptures sat tucked away as hidden treasures until 2001, when Michael Maharam, chief executive officer of the New York City-based textile company Maharam Fabric Corporation, met with Harper. Maharam had visited Harper’s home to ensure re-editions of 20th century George Nelson textiles were authentic.

That’s when Maharam saw Harper’s sculptures that covered every surface of his dining and living rooms. Maharam’s visit to Harper’s home inspired a 192-page book filled with photographs of Harper’s works, titled “Irving Harper Works In Paper,” which contains 150 photographs of his art. The book was published in 2012 by Skira Rizzoli.

A year later, Helen Gates, executive director of the Rye Arts Center, a local nonprofit, was looking for art pieces for a chairs exhibit, saw one of Harper’s works—the Marshmallow sofa—in the book and wanted to display it during the exhibit. For the following year, Gates said the Rye Arts Center and Harper stayed in touch. She said Harper visited the chair exhibit and felt comfortable enough to have his other works—paper sculptures—dis-
played there.

On Sept. 14, 2014, the Rye Arts Center unveiled its Harper exhibit, “Irving Harper: A Mid-Century Mind At Play,” showcasing a number of the designer’s sculptures never before seen by the public.

Paul and Kate Conn visited the exhibit and “got wrapped up” in Harper’s life story. Since then, the couple said they’ve been reading more and more about him, including recent articles in the New York Times and Financial Times.

This was one of hundreds of sculptures created by Irving Harper that were scattered all over his secluded Rye home.
This was one of hundreds of sculptures created by Irving Harper that were scattered all over his secluded Rye home.

Gates called the last four months in the Rye Arts Center “Irving mania” or “Irving magic.”

“What sets this experience apart from other exhibitions is Irving himself and his story,” Gates said.  “Irving’s background; creative process; how he was discovered; how he came to the art center, witnessing his first ever sale. This is living history as it unfolds and that’s what makes this so
exciting and unforgettable…We all became a part of art history in the making.”

Although Harper is a local artist, and his sculpture will remain in Rye, “Irving mania” is already an international draw.

“We’re in a local setting in a local art center, but he already has international appeal,” Paul Conn said. “The auction was in our town, but one of the New York City museums would’ve cut an arm off just to host something like that.

“It’s great for Rye, and it’s nice to think people are coming from Grand Central to here to see world class art.”

Gates said Harper’s sculptures have a “magnetic quality” that draws people to his works and it’s only a matter of time before Harper’s pieces are being viewed by a larger audience in a museum.

The Harper exhibit in the arts center concludes at the end of January, when the sculptures will be returned to Harper’s home. That is also when Paul Conn said they plan to visit his home. “His story is just starting out,” Kate Conn said.

The $21,000 winning bid went to benefit the Rye Arts Center.




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