Leo and His Circle

This biography of “gallerist” Leo Castelli paints a wonderful portrait of the hurly-burly 20th-century New York art world.

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    Leo and His Circle:
    The Life of Leo Castelli
    Knopf
    576 pp., $35
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Leo Castelli may well have been the most important and influential art dealer in American history. He launched the careers of dozens of major American artists (including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg) and made art dealers and commercial galleries better integrated into the modern art world than ever before.

But despite the acclaim Castelli received for introducing dozens of world-renowned artists, it has been very difficult to fully appreciate his accomplishments. Now, however, thanks to Leo and His Circle, a new biography by Annie Cohen-Solal, we now have a clear and comprehensive picture of this seminal figure. It turns out he was a far more complex and interesting individual than anyone suspected.

The man who helped define contemporary American art for the rest of the world was born in Trieste – then a part of the Austro Hungarian Empire – in 1907. His father, Ernesto Krausz, was an Austrian banker and Leo had a very comfortable childhood. But things got harder – Trieste was annexed by Italy after the First World War and the rise of Mussolini and growing Italian nationalism complicated the family’s situation. Indeed, the family’s name was changed to “Krausz–Castelli” (based on his mother’s maiden name) to conform to a decree that required the Italianization of all family names. Before long, Castelli would drop Krausz altogether.

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In 1932, the family moved to Bucharest where Leo married Ileana Schapira, the daughter of a prosperous businessman. The newlyweds moved to Paris in 1935 and began to collect art. At this point, Cohen-Solal shows little sympathy for her subject, describing him as “apolitical, insulated, naive, callow and pampered.”
Castelli discovered his vocation as an art collector when he opened a small gallery in the Place Vendome. But history intervened – he fled France with his in-laws in 1940 and arrived in New York City in March 1941. After serving in the American army, he went to work at his father-in-law’s clothing factory but spent much of his time visiting New York’s art galleries and museums, especially the Museum of Modern Art.

He established a professional foothold in the American art world when he began to sell paintings from Wassily Kandinsky’s estate. At the same time, he befriended artists – including the major abstract expressionists – and became an occasional curator for their exhibitions at galleries. He opened his own gallery in his daughter’s bedroom in February 1957 with an exhibition of Jackson Pollock and Robert Delaunay.

But what Castelli really wanted was to introduce new artists. One legendary afternoon in April 1957, he visited the studios of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and offered them both exhibitions. After helping to move American art beyond Abstract Expressionism, Castelli focused on artists who launched Pop Art, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art. The others he “discovered, showed and promoted” included Frank Stella, Cy Twombly, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Ed Ruscha, Ellsworth Kelly, Christo, and Claes Oldenburg.

Castelli did not just find artists and sell their work. Cohen–Solal spends considerable time documenting Castelli’s efforts to get his artists into the best private and museum collections. In doing so, he pioneered an important innovation in the art world – the strong professional link between commercial dealers and museum directors and curators. This part of his work was so important to him that Castelli called himself a “gallerist” rather than a dealer.

This is fascinating story that is extensively researched and carefully documented. In addition to recounting an amazing personal story, it paints a wonderful portrait of the hurly-burly New York art world during this exciting and creative era. Rich in anecdotes and insights, “Leo and His Circle” is a must read for anyone with an interest in contemporary art.

The book would have been enhanced by tighter editing, however. It is repetitive in places and Cohen-Solal writes in a breathless style that makes excessive use of exclamation points. Also, given the extraordinarily thorough research behind the book, there are some puzzling inaccuracies. For example, she gives Castelli credit for instituting the practice of providing artists with monthly stipends in exchange for the right to their output. In fact, Peggy Guggenheim was paying Jackson Pollock a stipend more than a decade before Castelli opened his gallery.

None of this, however, takes anything away from Castelli or diminishes the value of the book. He was a central figure in American art and it is impossible to fully understand today’s art world without acknowledging his role in creating it. There were then and are now other important and even legendary art dealers. But like so many of the artists he uncovered, Leo Castelli was sui generis.

Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.

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