Annie Cohen-Solal’s biography of Leo Castelli, reviewed by Amanda Vaill
By Amanda Vaill
Sunday, June 13, 2010; B07
Leo And His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli
By Annie Cohen-Solal
Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti and the author
Knopf. 540 pp. $35
Leo Castelli (1907-1999) — the man variously referred to in the press as “the Metternich of art,” “the Svengali of Pop” or “the Italian who invented American art” — doesn’t actually hang out his art-dealer’s shingle until page 234 of Annie Cohen-Solal’s 500-plus-page biography. The 17 preceding chapters are devoted to a multi-generational saga spanning Renaissance Tuscany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, fascist Trieste and places in between. If you are seeking a juicy gossip-stuffed dish about the New York art world in the go-go 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, your patience with the myriad details of this familial, economic and social history — the explorations of arcane documents; the descriptions of bustling ports, palatial houses and family patriarchs — may wear thin.
But Cohen-Solal is an intellectual historian, not a gossip maven. The author of a highly regarded study of Jean-Paul Sartre, former cultural counselor of the French Embassy in the United States and currently visiting arts professor at New York University, she believes “the true space in which Castelli abided” was “History with a capital H, which endures.” Leo Castelli, she implies, was the product of his context and, as a result, the last of his kind.
In the world of Castelli’s ancestors, as Cohen-Solal portrays it, wealth, negotiation, manipulation, networking and style all commingled; and it is this principle that guided Castelli’s emergence from the cocoon of his privileged European upbringing — sailor suits, private tutors, skiing holidays, the best tailors — to dominate the rowdy New York art world. His banker father built a career on connections and access; the son — although he had no taste for finance — made a wealthy and influential marriage that provided him with the means of escape from Europe in 1939 when others (including his own family) were left to the ravages of the Nazis. And in New York, from the base of his father-in-law’s mansion off Fifth Avenue, Castelli began to put the strengths of his forbears to work.
Always attracted to contemporary art — he’d had a brief fling as partner in a surrealist gallery in Paris on the eve of the war — Castelli sought out Alfred Barr, the legendary curator of the Museum of Modern Art; went to all the 57th Street galleries and befriended their artists, asking them to parties at his father-in-law’s mansion; and became one of only three non-artists to be a founding member of the Abstract-Expressionist conclave The Club, because, as he said, “the point was to be with these people, to live their lives.”
He sidled into the business side of art by becoming an agent for Wassily Kandinsky’s widow — thus initiating, as Cohen-Solal says, “the modus operandi of selling through personal networks that would be one of the keys to the future gallerist’s success.” Importantly, he didn’t want to sell older European artists, or even the now-established American abstractionists like Pollock and de Kooning, both personal friends: When Castelli opened his eponymous gallery in his father-in-law’s house, the art he wanted to show was whatever was next. “I tried deliberately to detect that other thing,” he said, “and stumbled upon [Robert] Rauschenberg [and Jasper] Johns.”
The shows Castelli devoted to the two artists in early 1958 created a sensation, launching each as a contemporary master and propelling the gallerist himself to the white-hot center of the New York art world. They also established Castelli’s method: He would nose out the best new talent by poking around galleries and studios, leverage his friendships with museum directors like Barr into sales or shows that increased his artists’ market value, and use his connections with journalists to promote coverage of the results. At the same time, so as to free the artists from dependence on individual sales, he pioneered the practice of giving them a drawing account from the gallery, to be repaid when their paintings sold. It was an old-world, imperial gesture, in the service of ultra-contemporary work — but then, as this book suggests, so was everything else about Leo Castelli.
Castelli represented virtually every major American artist of the next two decades, from Frank Stella, James Rosenquist and Richard Serra to Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Indeed, Cohen-Solal suggests that his championship of American artists won them “new stature at home and abroad” and “introduce[d] major new currents into the flow of art history.” Castelli was at the center of controversy numerous times — for, among other things, the alleged arm-twisting at the Venice Biennale that led to Rauschenberg’s receiving the top prize in 1964; for his feud with the Metropolitan Museum’s hard-charging modern curator Henry Geldzahler; for maintaining (and allegedly manipulating) “waiting lists” for certain painters’ work and excluding would-be collectors from it. But by actively searching out provocative new work, by understanding the nexus between art and fashion, and art and commerce, and by creating tentacles of affiliate galleries to promote his artists worldwide, this slight, diffident man changed the way the art world worked. If, in the end, new waves in art formed and other dealers (many mentored by Castelli) caught them, none had his effect. As the collector Eli Broad says, “They don’t make Castellis anymore.”
Annie Cohen-Solal knew Castelli and many of the participants in his story, and had access to his papers, including datebooks that bear witness to his wide-ranging curiosity and passion for detail, and dozens of candid photographs to illuminate the text. So it may be inevitable that the story she tells is skewed towards the gallerist’s own perspective. It is also — despite her personal knowledge of her subject — not an intimate portrait: Castelli the man, as opposed to the persona he created, remains elusive in these pages, an elegant but somehow unknowable figure. But perhaps that’s how Castelli himself would have wanted it. As he remarked, straight-faced, to a reporter once, “There is no such thing as adequate myth-making.”
Amanda Vaill’s documentary “Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About” won both the Emmy and Peabody Awards; she is currently at work on a nonfiction narrative entitled “Hotel Florida: Love and Death in Spain, 1936-1939.”