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Castelli’s Art

The connoisseur-dealer who commanded the market.

Aug 23, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 46 • By JAMES GARDNER
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There are several ways of interpreting this exceedingly diverse roster. One could argue, for example, that Castelli was without formal principles, that he chose his artists less according to their merits than according to his unerring instinct for what the world, over the next 5 to 10 years, would come to find incandescently interesting and important. On the other hand, one could argue that art is a business like any other, and that Castelli’s early grasp of these artists’ monetary potential was the key to his success. At the same time, one is surprised to learn that, in later years, he ran into financial troubles and that his gallery, though outwardly stable, was no longer doing as well as it had once done.

What is certain is that no one today has performed a role anywhere comparable to Castelli’s, and it is unlikely that anyone will hereafter. When Castelli started soon after the end of the Second World War, it was still possible to see all the galleries in New York in a single afternoon just by strolling along West 57th Street. Today, with the exponential explosion of such venues throughout the city’s five boroughs, it would take a solid week just to reach them. The competition is simply too great for one man to dominate the scene as Castelli did. 

It should also be said that it is going on 40 years now since we have had any true revolutionaries worth talking about in the world of contemporary art. It is hard to imagine, at this moment, what someone of the stature of Pollock, or even of Rauschenberg or Warhol, would look like, or where that artist might be found.

In telling the story of Castelli’s long and largely admirable life, Annie Cohen-Solal, formerly the cultural counselor at the French embassy in New York, has written a French biography. It is different from the American sort in that it is more impressionistic, more artificial and adulatory than what we tend to tolerate or produce: “Generous, loquacious, and attentive, he made sure .  .  . everyone’s amour proper was flattered, working the room, deploying his personal and material charms as a peacock spreads its tail.” But behind such breathless writing (which may have sounded better in the original French), Cohen-Solal, together with her phalanx of research assistants, has done the requisite work and, in the process, has laid bare aspects of Leo Castelli’s life that few people knew before.

James Gardner recently translated Vida’s Christiad (I Tatti Renaissance Library).

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