What Made Castelli Run

A new biography paints a well-rounded portrait of legendary dealer Leo Castelli.

Castelli in Bucharest in 1944, while serving as an interpreter with the Allied Control Commission in Romania.

Castelli in Bucharest in 1944, while serving as an interpreter with the Allied Control Commission in Romania.


Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli
By Annie Cohen-Solal
Knopf, 576 pages, $35

Leo Castelli was called generous, shrewd, tireless, mercurial, magical, and charmingly cagey; a constant whirlwind of invention; a man with Old World charm, courage, audacity, dedication; and always a gentleman “in a business where it is sometimes rather difficult to be anything of the sort.”

Annie Cohen-Solal, who wrote a highly praised biography of Jean-Paul Sartre and was cultural counselor at the French embassy in New York from 1989 to 1993, has dissected the life of Castelli, who died in 1999, at the age of 91. She visited many cities, dug into archives, including internal memorandums at the Museum of Modern Art, and interviewed almost everyone who knew Castelli. She even found his report card from when he was 15 years old and had to take a make-up exam in math.

Cohen-Solal’s book Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli is a distinguished piece of work. It’s the story of a Jewish boy from Trieste, who had a rich father, was once manager of a knitwear factory in Jamestown, New York, and, at the age of 40, was considered by his industrialist father-in-law a “good-for-nothing—a hopeless case,” according to Cohen-Solal.

Although Castelli didn’t open his New York gallery until he was nearly 50, he picked unknown artists who became superstars, created a global market for American art with about two dozen satellite galleries in the United States and Europe, became one of the world’s most powerful dealers, and, according to his son, read Proust before going to bed. And although he built an empire, he always had trouble with numbers.

Cohen-Solal develops a cast of what she calls Balzacian characters and relates Castelli’s story to the life of the times. It may be a stretch to write that “his ancestors probably crossed paths with Piero della Francesca and Vasari,” but she gives us with great skill a history of the Jews in Monte San Savino in the 17th century, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, the fall of France, the blossoming of the art world starting in the middle of the 20th century, and the emergence of Pop art, Minimalism, and Conceptualism.

She found “in the chain of the forced displacements and wanderings his family was made to endure, a story of origins much more complex, much more fascinating, and much more tragic than that of the effortlessly jovial figure his self-fashioning had suggested.”

Castelli was born in 1907, the second child of Ernesto Krausz and Bianca Castelli. His parents’ marriage was “probably arranged by the rabbi of Trieste, between a newly landed executive of the Austro-Hungarian bank and the daughter of a local middle-class family.”

Trieste was annexed by Italy after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in World War I. Krausz became one of Trieste’s leading citizens and hired private tutors to supplement his children’s public-school education. They had piano lessons, tennis instruction, horseback riding, skiing, and lessons in French and English.

Castelli went in for swimming and mountain climbing and European literature—Anatole France, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Thomas Mann. Later the list would include Dickens, T. S. Eliot, Freud, Joyce, Kafka, Proust, and Thackeray.

Mussolini’s anti-Semitic measures “caught unawares a Jewish population that had thought itself immune,” Cohen-Solal writes. Ernesto Krausz was removed from the boards of some of the top banks in Italy.

Cohen-Solal writes that Castelli “never dwelt on the fact of his having spent nearly a quarter of his life there under another name: Leo Krausz…. His father would change the name from ‘Krausz’ to ‘Krausz-Castelli’ then to ‘Castelli’ (his wife’s maiden name), under the compulsion of Mussolini’s government, which required the Italianization of family names.”

At his father’s urging Castelli studied law at the University of Milan, got a degree, and began working at a large insurance company. In 1933 he married Ileana Schapira at the town hall in Bucharest after “not quite succeeding” with her older sister. The couple lived in Paris, where Castelli did market research at a bank.

When the marriage began to falter, Castelli’s father-in-law tried to shore it up. In 1939 he lent Castelli 500,000 francs to start a gallery with one of the couple’s friends, an architect and designer. They showed such artists as Salvador Dalí­, Leonor Fini, Max Ernst, and Pavel Tchelitchew. When World War II broke out, the gallery closed. With the defeat of France, and the Nazis’ entry into Paris, the Castellis, after a perilous trip that led them to an old Spanish vessel sailing from the northern coast of Spain, arrived in New York in 1941.

A year later Castelli volunteered for the army. He became a sergeant with an intelligence unit and an interpreter with the Allied Control Commission in Romania. Because of his army service he became a U.S. citizen. After his discharge he moved into his father-in-law’s town house at 4 East 77th Street and took a job in his father-in-law’s factory.

Although it takes Cohen-Solal some time to get to the metamorphosis of Castelli, it’s worth the trip. Her virtuosity keeps you reading. In New York Castelli went to the Museum of Modern Art and met Alfred H. Barr Jr., the museum’s first director. “I was amazed at the fact that I didn’t know anything about art at all until I got there,” he said.

In 1957 he and his wife began showing art in their apartment on the fourth floor of the 77th Street town house—the first exhibition included Robert Delaunay, Jean Dubuffet, Alberto Giacometti, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock. The Castellis owned most of the works.

Although they sold their first painting, a Mondrian, “his compulsive womanizing and financial dependence were taxing his wife’s nerves; after twenty-five years, their marriage, although long an open one, was fast losing altitude,” Cohen-Solal writes.

One day he and his wife met two young artists who had “recently arrived in New York from the South and [were] themselves searching no less ardently for an alternative to Abstract Expressionism.” They were Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

Castelli described his encounter with Johns to Claude Berri, the movie producer and director:

Castelli: We [Castelli and his wife] went down to his studio and there I was confronted with an astonishing sight: paintings of flags, red, white and blue, plain, and a big all-white one; targets with plaster casts above them; alphabets; numbers; and all in a material I hardly knew—encaustic.

Berri: Was it love at first sight?

Castelli: Yes. Total and absolute, the like of which I had never experienced before and rarely since. I asked him, “Do you want to join my gallery?” His answer was simply “Yes.”

In 1958, the late Thomas B. Hess, then executive editor of ARTnews, selected Johns’s Target with Four Faces to appear on the cover of the magazine while the show was still running.

Cohen-Solal writes that the list of artists the Leo Castelli Gallery discovered, exhibited, promoted, and sold from 1958 to 1981 includes Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Cy Twombly, Lee Bontecou, Roy Lichtenstein, John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Donald Judd, Christo, Robert Morris, Joseph Kosuth, Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman, Keith Sonnier, Richard Serra, Edward Higgins, Richard Artschwager, Ed Ruscha, Claes Oldenburg, Lawrence Weiner, Ellsworth Kelly, Hanne Darboven, Kenneth Noland, James Turrell, Julian Schnabel, and David Salle.

Yet there were times Castelli was close to insolvency. His system of huge monthly stipends to his artists was a factor. He supported them even when they were not selling. But the gallery kept growing. His move to 420 West Broadway in 1971 was an important moment in the rise of SoHo. He also opened another space, on Greene Street. Top collectors from all over the world started to buy the works of his artists.

So what was making Castelli run? The filmmaker Emile de Antonio, an observer of the art scene for years, may have said it best: “What his enemies say may be true. He loves the power; he loves the money. But he loves the work most, and well. And he has a very deep sense of the history he has lived. As work becomes bigger and bigger, he opens newer and bigger galleries.”

Cohen-Solal writes: “Thanks to the contacts he had been forging since 1941, he had an unmatched intelligence network…. Information circulated very unevenly in this fledgling art world, with artists, critics, and dealers on channels that collectors had no access to. Castelli’s great epiphanies are mainly cases of being in touch with all the right people.”

Some of Cohen-Solal’s interviews are marvelous. Art historian Leo Steinberg tells this story about Castelli: “Leo was distressed because he wanted to be the first to show Stella and Dorothy Miller [MoMA’s first curator] beat him to it. So he got Bob [Rauschenberg] and Jasper (who at that point had the status of Old Masters) to go down to Princeton to try and persuade Stella not to agree to show at MoMA!” They didn’t succeed.

Her interview with Johns about his and Rauschenberg’s inclusion in the legendary “Artists of the New York School, Second Generation,” at the Jewish Museum in 1957, is fascinating.

Cy Twombly was not a huge fan of the dealer. Even though Castelli exhibited him, Twombly “would always maintain a certain distance from Castelli,” Cohen-Solal writes. “Ileana should be given her due,” he told Cohen-Solal. “She had the eye. Leo had a silly side and a very honorable side.”

The Castellis divorced in 1959. One reason, Cohen-Solal writes, was his “weakness for women and his many blatant affairs.” Nevertheless the Castellis “remained together for reasons that included joint financial interests, social propriety, but also, and not least, genuine friendship.”

Ileana married Michael Sonnabend and, in 1962, started her own gallery. With branches in Paris and SoHo she became a prominent dealer. In the ’60s, Castelli married Antoinette (Toiny) Fraissex du Bost. She died in 1987. In 1995 he married Barbara Bertozzi, a young Italian art critic. He had a daughter, Nina Sundell, from his first marriage and a son, Jean-Christophe, from his marriage to Fraissex du Bost.

Perhaps the final word should go to Larry Gagosian, who has become one of the world’s most powerful dealers. He told Cohen-Solal: “Leo was always very generous, very shrewd, and very very loyal. There’s such a big change in the art world now: it became a business, it is much more global, and the prices are so different! When False Start [by Johns] sold for $15 million, that was considered stratosphere, but now, there’s information technology, you can email a painting to Moscow and they email you back the money, instantly! I’d love Leo to be alive and watch it today!”

Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews.

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