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Academic & writer


The Art Dealer of the Century

How Leo Castelli created the gallery as we now know it.

By Eric Banks
Posted Monday, May 31, 2010, at 6:52 AM ET

It’s hard to fathom the history of contemporary art without understanding the remarkably idiosyncratic niche business that rose with it half a century ago: the commercial New York art gallery and the well-connected dealer behind it. There were of course galleries and dealers in Manhattan and elsewhere before the ’60s. But with the arrival of Pop Art came the incarnation of the institution that we know today, with its curious blend of esoteric connoisseurship and marketing zeal. Even as styles of art shift and prices soar, the primary way of selling art persists all but unchanged five decades later.

One man in particular deserves credit for transforming the quiet little business of dealing art into an empire. No one understood the art, or the business, of the art gallery better than Leo Castelli, a dapper, late-blooming, Trieste-born dandy with drop-dead old-world elegance. For the better part of the 1960s the Castelli Gallery was to American art what 3M was to adhesive tape. He turned the dealer’s showroom into a brand with cachet that reached well beyond Manhattan and tightened the knot between the art gallery and the museum. In the process, he made contemporary American art into a global commodity.

In her new biography Leo & His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli, Annie Cohen-Solal inventories the artists who at some point showed there beginning in 1957, when Castelli, at the age of 49, converted his daughter’s bedroom into a gallery. There were Rauschenberg and Johns, of course, and Lichtenstein and Warhol, but also Frank Stella, Cy Twombly, John Chamberlain, James Rosenquist, Donald Judd, Christo, Robert Morris, Joseph Kosuth, Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, Ed Ruscha, Claes Oldenburg, Ellsworth Kelly, Julian Schnabel, David Salle. The list, a virtual syllabus of American art after the ’50s, is nowhere near complete, either. Castelli’s prescience for two decades inspired tributes to “the Castelli magic.”

Castelli himself burnished the aura of the man-above-money. “I am not an art dealer. I am a gallerist,” Castelli, who died in 1998 at age 91, told Cohen-Solal, who sometimes succumbs to the Castelli magic herself. But behind the gray Milan-made suits, Hermès ties, and charming Mitteleuropaische mien lay an astute and creative marketing eye. Some of his innovations were simple. He moved the traditional opening night for gallery shows (Tuesday) to Saturdays and made openings into hip social happenings. He maintained archives and documented his artist’s work as sedulously as a historical society, happily sharing the photographs and slides with critics, curators, and potential collectors—a boon at a time when information on artists was scarce.

Other innovations were more visionary. With faith in his own capacity to create a market for his artists even when virtually none existed, he revived a variation on the patronage system, supporting them with healthy monthly stipends—a practice that became standard operating procedure in galleries for the next several decades. Most important, he created his own satellite network of galleries not just in the United States but also in Europe, a trailblazer in the nascent global marketplace. None of these satellites bore his name, but they disseminated his artists’ work and found collectors for the new art where none had existed before. Sharing his artists on terms that were favorable to the borrowing dealers, Castelli collected the commission whenever their work sold. He never made a killing, but he kept demand for his artists high and extended their selling careers for years.

Cohen-Solal, a former cultural counselor of the French Embassy and the author of a biography of Jean-Paul Sartre, goes to great lengths to trace the roots of Castelli’s business acumen to his wealthy Central European origins and milieu. There’s no doubt he owed plenty to family connections, although they don’t seem to have been obvious catalysts of drive and focus. Castelli drew on his father’s position as a banker and insurance agent to land a job in Bucharest after World War I. There he married Ileana Schapira, the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Romania, whose money in turn supported a rather peripatetic life in Europe and then the United States, where they fled in 1941. His father-in-law bought the couple the 77th Street townhouse they would eventually convert into the first gallery and gave Castelli partial ownership of a knitware factory, but he played hooky and spent afternoons at the Museum of Modern Art.

The most astute part of Cohen-Solal’s title is what follows the ampersand. It was “His Circle” that was the real key to Castelli’s career, beginning with Ileana Schapira, whose eye he continued to rely on even after they got divorced in 1958. With her he made the discovery of Jasper Johns in 1957 that launched Castelli as the gallerist go-between with the power to shape artistic careers and museum collections. Bowled over by Johns’ work, Castelli offered him a show on the spot—it was mounted in 1958—and bought a Flag painting to boot. Four of the works in the show sold immediately to MoMA, working wonders for 27-year-old Johns and for the lore of the Castelli touch.

The talented staff he assembled at his gallery rounded out his all-important circle. It was his first director, Ivan Karp, who heralded James Rosenquist after visiting his studio and who greeted Roy Lichtenstein when he showed up with his canvases at the gallery and asked for a show. It was Karp, too, who first paid a visit to Warhol’s Lexington Avenue studio. Ileana deserves credit for forging the closer relation with Warhol, and it was her own gallery, Sonnabend in Paris, that became the most significant outpost for Castelli’s artists. Castelli drew on the taste and expertise of his own clients as well, like the taxicab tycoon Robert Scull, a notorious publicity hound whose collection is currently the subject of a remarkable little show at New York’s Acquavella Galleries.

Leo’s circle extended yet further, in ways that helped Castelli mold the symbiotic relationship between commercial galleries and public museums that, for better or worse, still exists today. Desperate to get museum validation for his artists when MoMA dragged its feet on buying a Rauschenberg, Castelli found a welcoming friend in Alan Solomon, the influential curator at the Jewish Museum, which mounted the first retrospectives of Rauschenberg and Johns. In fact, Castelli artists were so frequently on exhibit there that the museum itself resembled one of the satellite galleries. And when Solomon was selected by the United States Information Agency to direct the American participation in the 1964 Venice Biennale—a sort of art-world Summer Olympics—he got the USIA to ship, by military transport, 99 works by Castelli artists. He turned the festival into a coming-out party for Rauschenberg, inciting foreign critics to denounce it as the Venal Biennale and to protest that the exhibition had become an advertisement for American superiority.

Castelli, though, was busy masterminding a very different European-American dynamic. The outsourcing of his artists in particular to European galleries established American Pop in non-American collections. In fact, it was there that Pop arguably first became enshrined. Where the market for his wares was shallow in New York and the critical press was slow to come around to his artists in the States, Castelli found gaga buyers in Count Giuseppe Panza in Italy and the chocolate magnate Peter Ludwig in Germany, both of whom collected in depth. After the Venice Biennale, museum directors in Bern, Stockholm, Amsterdam, and London eagerly showed the work and leapt at the chance to acquire it for their collections—a prestige boomerang that helped boost esteem for the work in the States. This is why you’ll have to travel to Cologne to see Lichtenstein’s M-Maybe or Stockholm to view Rauschenberg’s angora goat sculpture Monogram.

In the era of globalization, we’ve long since gotten used to a world of artists—and dealers—without borders. We take for granted the gallery scene with its easy-to-parody blend of showmanship and velvet-roped discretion, of hushed spaces and fabulous parties. And when you stop and think about it, Castelli the pioneer is perhaps a less exotic specimen than Cohen-Solal’s portrait may suggest. A European exile who makes good as a businessman in the United States by marketing his work in the Old World? Does it get any more American than that?

Eric Banks is the former editor of Bookforum.