The next big find, the following year, was the sensationally dour “pinstripe” black paintings by the twenty-three-year-old Frank Stella. Leo Steinberg recalled that Castelli, distressed to learn that before he could launch the work some of it would appear in a group exhibition at MOMA, dispatched Rauschenberg and Johns to Princeton, where Stella, a recent graduate of the university, was living, to dissuade him from showing at the museum. (They failed.) Then came Castelli’s years of miracles. Starting in 1962, with a show of Lichtenstein’s comic-book-panel paintings, the revelatory débuts came in a torrent. Steinberg remembered Ivan Karp remarking, “We should discover a genius! It’s been two weeks since we last discovered a genius!” Castelli, to hold on to his artists, paid them regular stipends, on a scale unheard of in America, whether their work sold or not. In 1963, Castelli married a Frenchwoman twenty-one years his junior, Toiny Fraissex du Bost. They had a son, Jean-Christophe, later that year, and she began managing a branch of the business devoted to prints.
Castelli’s repeated efforts on behalf of Rauschenberg, in the teeth of stubborn resistance from Barr and some of his successors at MOMA to the artist’s extravagant style, are a leitmotif of Cohen-Solal’s detailed and savvy account of the dealer’s doings in the sixties. His chief coup, which doubled as a somewhat obnoxious triumph for postwar American art in general, occurred at the Venice Biennale of 1964, where Rauschenberg became the first American to win the Grand Prize for Painting. Under the auspices of the United States Information Agency—beefed up during the culture-smitten Kennedy Administration—predominantly outsized works by Rauschenberg and seven other artists, including Johns and Stella, arrived in an Air Force Globemaster C-124. The scale of the effort, extending to an auxiliary show at a palazzo on the Grand Canal, was imperial, if not imperialistic. Cohen-Solal’s chapter on the Biennale presents it as a play in eight acts, complete with an extensive dramatis personae. The politicking was intense. Ileana, who represented Rauschenberg in Europe, remarked, “I hate the game of politics that goes on here, but I think if we are going to play it at all, we should play to win.” In the end, arrogant French opposition proved more off-putting to the mostly Italian judges than arrogant American ambition. (It may also have mattered that Rauschenberg’s art was wonderful.) Castelli’s labors for the artist were crowned in 1989, when he was hailed for the munificence of his personal donation to MOMA of Rauschenberg’s iconic “Bed” (1955), a paint-slathered quilt, sheet, and pillow. He dedicated the gift to Barr, who had died in 1981.
Castelli was a quick study, obviously, though not an instantaneous one, the Johns epiphany aside. He was wary of Warhol, who frequented the gallery as a collector, and craved admittance as an artist. (Rauschenberg and Johns disparaged Warhol, as they had Lichtenstein; a kind of crisis recurred whenever the gallery’s artists begrudged a newcomer, activating Castelli’s skills as a conciliator.) He was reluctant, too, to take on James Rosenquist, whose billboard-derived montages of commercial imagery struck him as too akin to Surrealism. In both cases, he was swayed by advisers in his network. Castelli’s recruitment of Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and Robert Morris confirmed his sovereignty by conjoining the yin of minimalism to the yang of Pop, in a catholic overview of the new. He even played host, briefly, to exponents of color-field painting, a mode of abstraction that took its bearings from Greenberg’s nostalgic ideals of progressive modernism and aesthetic purity. But color-field couldn’t be squared with Castelli’s loyalty to art that gratified the intellect as well as the eye. Another dealer, André Emmerich, absorbed the Greenbergian artists, marking a historic fissure in the avant-garde, which soon fragmented beyond Castelli’s power to unite it under his hallmark.
He débuted his last genius early in 1968: Bruce Nauman, who, with Richard Serra and Eva Hesse, established the context-sensitive aesthetics of post-minimalism that still condition new art today. Later that year, Castelli opened a temporary annex, the Castelli Warehouse, on West 108th Street, with a stunningly innovative show, organized by Robert Morris, of environmental sculpture by nine artists, including Nauman, Serra, and Hesse. But Castelli’s anxiety to corral the spread of artistic novelties, including the newfangled medium of video, grew frantic. He was stung by an immense exhibition at the Met, “New York Painting and Sculpture, 1940-1970,” organized by the then thirty-four-year-old curator and scene-making gadabout Henry Geldzahler. The spectacular yet soft-headed survey included many of Castelli’s artists, but its heavy emphasis on color-field marginalized his painstakingly discriminated vision. Meanwhile, Castelli mistook a trend in art—conceptualism—as a movement along classical lines, with leaders and followers. But conceptualism proved to be a miscellany of ploys for exalting ideas over objects. His anointed conceptualists—Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, Robert Barry—were faces in a crowd.
In 1971 came the expansion to SoHo, in a five-story building bought with a coöperative of dealers. Castelli took the second floor and the Sonnabend Gallery the third. Ileana outflanked him with a wave of new European artists and outrageous Americans, including Vito Acconci (who, in his performance piece “Seedbed,” hid under a ramp and masturbated while vocally fantasizing, via an amplifier, about the viewers above him). Sales of Johns and Lichtenstein kept Castelli afloat, but, what with production costs for grandiose minimalist and post-minimalist works that sold slowly, if at all, and the never interrupted outlay of stipends, amid a recession, the business was hard put by the time I declined the chance to trigger a Castelligate. Judd left, ending up at the Pace Gallery. Rauschenberg was lured away by the Knoedler Gallery. One after another, gallerists arose, including Mary Boone and Larry Gagosian, who usurped Castelli’s primacy even as they voiced tribute to him as a hero. Castelli took it as a “truly poisoned shaft,” Cohen-Solal writes, when, behind his back, Arne Glimcher, of Pace, arranged the watershed million-dollar sale of Johns’s “Three Flags” from a private collection to the Whitney Museum, in 1980. Joint shows with Boone, of Julian Schnabel, in 1981, and David Salle, in 1982, amounted to strategic capitulations. Castelli’s once mighty business model began to seem almost quaint. For one thing, he rarely worked the secondary market in already owned works, a money machine for Gagosian. Of the top galleries today, only Marian Goodman’s hews closely to Castelli’s paradigm.
Castelli’s prestige began to count against him, with his former partisans in the press “growing weary of the art scene’s more-fabulous-than-thou aura,” Cohen-Solal observes. His competitiveness waned. He took victory laps. He received the rosette of the French Legion of Honor, apparently in exchange for donating works by Johns to the Pompidou museum, and he visited Trieste four times (with as many female companions), where he was hailed by journalists as the “lord of art” and the “magnificent Triestine.” The mayor made him the honorary director of the Revoltella Museum, where, however, the real director vetoed a show of Castelli’s artists, declaring, “No merchants in the temple!” (The polyglot city had not ceased to be a twisty place.) Castelli collapsed in public more than once from a heart ailment that required surgery and a pacemaker. But he strove onward, if not so much in art and business, at least in love. His union with Toiny had inevitably faltered, given his wandering ways, but they remained married until she died, in 1987. Gagosian recalled the dealer’s invitation to join him and an artist girlfriend: “Come, let’s have a drink with her, and we’ll go to her studio and you can tell her you like her paintings.” Marriage to the Italian critic Barbara Bertozzi, in 1995, finally slowed him down. She “took away his Hermès appointment book,” Castelli’s gallery manager, Susan Brundage, said. The SoHo space closed in 1997. But Castelli remained socially active, refulgent with verve. He died at home, at the age of ninety-one, on August 21, 1999.
At a memorial service at MOMA, Jean-Christophe Castelli confessed his jealousy of the art world, for so consuming his father, but added a note of gratitude: “Instead of baseball, my father gave me the Italian Renaissance.” It was no flip remark. A friend, Bob Monk, related an astonishing scene after the funeral of Jean-Christophe’s mother: “When Leo saw that I had arrived, he lit up, came to me, and said, ‘You must see Toiny, you must see Toiny, she is beautiful.’. . . They removed the red roses, undid the screws, opened the top, and we looked at Toiny together. ‘Doesn’t she look beautiful?’ Leo asked.” I can’t decide if that story is more touching than macabre, or vice versa. Either way, it feels close to the incomprehensible core of the man, whose grief, no doubt tinged with hysteria, found outlet in aestheticism. Perhaps art was the mode in which he assessed everything and everybody, himself included, as if fitting each passing sensation, personality, and event into an evolving composition. ♦