Leo and His Circle
The Life of Leo Castelli
by Annie Cohen-Solal
Knopf, 576 pp., $35
It is a testament to the art world’s centrality in contemporary culture that even marginal figures like dealers are now treated to the sort of full-dress biographies that were once the privileged domain of generals, monarchs, and great writers. However one feels about this cultural shift, it seems quite clear that if any recent dealer deserves such treatment it is Leo Castelli, who presided over the international art world, and certainly over its New York chapter, for nigh on half-a-century. During that time, in some measure due to the exertions of Castelli himself, New York became the undisputed capital of the sort of contemporary art in which he exclusively trafficked.
The longevity of Castelli’s tenure means that, unless a New York critic happens to be well advanced in years, he is unlikely to recall a time when this dealer was not the major player on the art scene, until his death, at age 91, in 1999. Even if one did not know the man, one certainly saw him everywhere: In the cutthroat arena in which he moved, he was remarkable for communicating to all and sundry an effortless pleasantness. He also stood out for being so remarkably well dressed, in an equally effortless and elegant way, that it is difficult even now to speak of him without invoking the word “dapper.” But most of us never knew much about the man behind the smile and behind the astounding track record of his success in discovering the likes of Rauschenberg, Warhol, and a hundred other blue chip names. Now, thanks to this new biography, we are finally in a position to know the man.
Perhaps the most fundamental fact about him—and I write this with a sense of relief—is that there is little to disclose in the way of scandalous, Kitty Kelley details. Surely he had his affairs (many of them) and surely he hustled to build his business. But nothing in the nearly 600 pages of this work exceeds the normal and licit boundaries of conventional ambition or human frailty. And if there was much that the generality of his acquaintances did not know, that too lay within the normal ambits of human complexity. By all accounts, Castelli appears to have lived a relatively placid life over nine decades; and though this Jew from Trieste was forced to flee from fascism and come to America in the early 1940s, the details of his flight might be unique but the general narrative is one that he shares with millions of other men and women of his time.
What most of his more casual acquaintances did not know, though it is now revealed by Annie Cohen-Solal, is that he was hardly born to take up the profession with which he is now so indissolubly associated. An indifferent student, he was, for at least the first 40 years of life, more interested in mountaineering and chasing women than in studying art. He was born into an affluent family in Trieste, where his father was the president of the main bank. But he exhibited no interest for that line of work, or for the law in which he earned a degree. He was not even especially interested in art, though he did retain, throughout his life, an amateur’s love of good European literature. In the course of his peregrinations, Castelli came to spend several years in Bucharest, where he met his first wife, Ileana Schapira, who, as Ileana Sonnabend, was destined to become, in her own right, a dealer almost as eminent as he was. But her father, who was extremely wealthy, is said to have despaired of his charmingly ineffectual son-in-law, whom he supported for decades and set up in the short-lived art gallery that Castelli opened in Paris in the 1930s.
Even in America, it would be nearly two decades before Castelli’s career as an art dealer took off when he was 50. Any assessment of his ultimate success depends upon the criteria you choose to apply to him. In terms of his ability to spot winners, he is probably without peer in the postwar period. Only the much-earlier Ambroise Vollard, the discoverer of Cézanne and Picasso, comes anywhere close. Shortly after coming to America, Castelli managed to ingratiate himself with the leaders of the then-nascent movement known as Abstract Expressionism. And though he cannot claim to have discovered Pollock and De Kooning, he played no small role in the progress of their careers. But after 1960, when he had his own gallery, Castelli was instrumental in discovering some of the most celebrated (if not always the best) artists in America. Almost single-handedly he made the reputations of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol, of Frank Stella, Bruce Nauman, and Julian Schnabel.
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).