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Academic & writer

The New York Times

May 18, 2010
A Smooth Operator, at the Vanguard of the Gallery World in the 1960s

In 1967, writing in The New York Herald Tribune, Tom Wolfe described an art opening at the Leo Castelli gallery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was a big, crazy night. Castelli was showing new work by Jasper Johns, his favorite, the groundbreaking painter he’d discovered and championed nearly a decade earlier.

“Castelli’s, especially at an opening like this, was where it was at,” Mr. Wolfe wrote. “You could tell that at a glance. Not by the paintings, but by the Culture buds. They were all there, all these gorgeous little Culture buds, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 years old.” Prying his eyes from the art girls, Mr. Wolfe zeroed in on Castelli himself, nailing him in a few casual strokes: “Leo is the eternal Continental diplomat, with a Louis-salon accent that is no longer Italian; rather, Continental. Every word he utters slips through a small velvet Mediterranean smile. His voice is soft, suave, and slightly humid, like a cross between Peter Lorre and the first secretary of a French embassy.”

Mr. Wolfe’s portrait was cruel — that Peter Lorre line had to sting — but it captured something essential about Castelli: the way he combined sex and European high-mindedness along with, humming just below the surface, a distinctly American kind of chutzpah. This country’s art world had never seen anything quite like him. He opened his first gallery in 1957, at the relatively advanced age of 49, and he changed not just the way American art was bought and sold but the way it was talked about, the way it was perceived around the world.

Castelli had a brilliant eye, and made his name with the painters — notably Mr. Johns and Robert Rauschenberg — who bridged the gap between Abstract Expressionism and what came next, Pop Art and Minimalism. Castelli gave Mr. Johns, Frank Stella and Roy Lichtenstein their first one-man shows, and displayed early work by Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, Christo and Richard Serra, among others.

Castelli gave these painters more than a gallery. He gave them a narrative, linking them with the European masters of the past. And he knew how to sell them. He introduced his painters the way Steve Jobs rolls out a new Apple product, keenly aware of how to manage desire. You couldn’t just buy a painting from Leo Castelli. You had to prove you were worthy of buying a painting from Leo Castelli.

Annie Cohen-Solal’s new biography of Castelli, “Leo & His Circle,” was first published last year in Paris, and has been translated from the French, with the author’s help, by Mark Polizzotti. It’s a serious, probing, mostly well-made book, and certainly a beautiful one. Its photographs, sprinkled throughout, pop from the page.

Castelli was a hard man to know. He had thousands of friends but few intimates. There was something elusive, shape-shifting, almost Tom Ripley-like about him. “For me, the point was to be with these people,” Castelli said about painters, “to live their lives.” Ms. Cohen-Solal, who knew Castelli in the last decade of his life, and whose previous books include “Sartre: A Life,” peels away what layers she can.

Mr. Castelli, whose original name was Leo Krausz, was born in 1907 in Trieste, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was a successful banker, and Leo and his siblings grew up in a cloistered world of private piano and tennis lessons, skiing and horseback riding. They probably seemed like “spoiled brats” to their classmates, Ms. Cohen-Solal writes. But this Jewish family also felt the sting of anti-Semitism. They seemed to be assimilated and rejected at the same time. (His family changed its name to “Krausz-Castelli” and then “Castelli” in the mid-1930s, when Mussolini’s government required names to be Italianized.)

Leo did poorly in school, but he was obviously bright. He devoured European literature and easily mastered a handful of languages. He was short — he never grew beyond 5 feet 5 — and was worried, briefly, about his lack of success with women. His father ultimately sent him to the psychoanalyst Edoardo Weiss, a former student of Freud’s, who unblocked, the author writes, “the future Don Juan.”

Fearing his son was leading a largely frivolous life, Castelli’s father helped him find an insurance job in Bucharest. In 1933 Castelli married Ileana Schapira, the chic daughter of a financial titan. He’d married well. Her taste and money helped him throughout his career. She helped Castelli start his first gallery, in Paris with René Drouin, and her father’s connections enabled the couple to flee to America at the start of World War II. The couple would remain married for more than 25 years, and were friends and partners even after their divorce, when Ileana married Michael Sonnabend and that couple opened its own gallery.

Castelli arrived in the United States in 1941, and quickly volunteered for the Army, serving in the intelligence service in Europe. Upon his return, his wife’s father gave him a job managing a knitwear factory. But what obsessed him was art, and he began spending more time at the Museum of Modern Art, and making connections in the art world. He began collecting and making deals, and became Wassily Kandinsky’s agent before opening the Leo Castelli gallery in 1957.

Ms. Cohen-Solal writes wonderfully about Castelli’s gifts of personality. He was “irresistible to men and women,” she notes. “Generous, loquacious, and attentive, he made sure everyone’s flute was always filled, everyone’s amour propre flattered, working the room, deploying his personal and material charms as a peacock spreads its tail.”

Some chafed at Castelli’s style, and at his increasing power — his gallery was the art world’s beating heart and dominating force from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. He was accused of being a schemer, of manufacturing scarcity, and among younger gallery owners there would be a backlash against his brand of showmanship. But Ms. Cohen-Solal defends him against nearly all of these charges. She points out that what mattered to him was the art, not the money. He was loyal to those he championed, supporting them with monthly stipends and buying their work even when he suspected it wouldn’t sell. He never became vastly wealthy.

Castelli opened a new gallery in SoHo in 1970, but his influence declined in that decade and especially in the 1980s. He was no longer young, and times were changing. Some of the artists he cared about (Donald Judd, Dan Flavin) simply didn’t sell as well. He came to regard them as a “real ball and chain.” Castelli died in 1999, four years after marrying his third wife, a much younger Italian art critic.

This biography is not quite as stylish as its subject. It takes forever getting off the ground, as the author chases subjects like the history of the Tuscan Jews. Ms. Cohen-Solal seems unable to waste any research or reading, and some sections are notebook dumps. Ms. Cohen-Solal also has a jarring passion — in this translation, at least — for exclamation points. They leap at you out of nowhere, like cats in a horror film. Castelli had “a solid instinct for opportunity!” His first wife “maintained a stunning professional complicity with her ex!” SoHo became “the international art world’s white-hot center!” After a dozen or so of these, I penciled in the margins: What are we, deaf?

Ms. Cohen-Solal gets her man, though, and delivers the silky story of a classic American immigrant overachiever. “He built his myth,” she writes, “he sold his myth, and rare are those who didn’t buy his myth.”