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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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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.

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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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