Peter Plagens

Leo Castelli and the New World

     I’m always interested in younger artists,” Leo Castelli said to me. We were exiting his office in the SoHo iteration of his famous gallery in the loft building at 420 West Broadway. One of the first all-gallery edifices in the New York art world, it was known simply and, as the kids say today, with much respect, as “420.” The place was spacious home to one heavyweight dealer per floor, but Castelli was the kingpin. Mr. Castelli (I was never on “Leo” terms with the man) and I had just finished wrapping up an interview pursuant, on my part, to a feature article in Newsweek magazine tentatively headlined “When Leo Met Larry.” The title was an obvious riff on When Harry Met Sally, a popular movie comedy of somewhat recent vintage then, and the piece concerned the mentoring by the cloutiest dealer in New York of the aggressive and comparative upstart heir apparent, Larry Gagosian.
     At the time, SoHo was past its best-if-viewed-by date, and Chelsea, two neighborhoods farther uptown, was the livelier gallery venue. The vibe that early-1990s day at 420 was that Castelli was not going to relocate to Chelsea, that this was his finale. He still represented some of the best and most important artists in the world—Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Bruce Nauman, and Robert Rauschenberg, among others—but was his gallery still a living, breathing art enterprise, with an influx of younger, up-and-coming artists to complement the Castelli stable of mature and aging superstars? That’s why I’d asked him if he was still interested in younger artists. As Castelli answered, he spied a comely blonde in a very short skirt bent over a large drawing portfolio, which she was unzipping. “Why, there’s a young artist right now,” he said in his all-purpose Continental accent, and instantly veered away from me and toward her without a break in his graceful stride.
     My Castelli/Gagosian essay never made it into print. Art was always, I estimated, the domino standing fourth from the edge of the table in Newsweek’s culture section—ahead of symphonic music, ballet, and poetry, but way behind movies, pop music, TV, and novels that would get made into movies accompanied by pop music and eventually shown on premium cable TV. Two or three weeks of space crunches in which my article, unbuffered by tentatively scheduled reviews of the philharmonic or slim volumes of verse, was bumped from the magazine’s pages, caused it to go stale in the minds of the editors. Never mind that it would still be fresh to our readers, the piece quickly became discardable old news at the story meetings.
     One might conclude that this untoward experience of failing to get into print an essay on which I’d worked very hard (it was no picnic interviewing either Castelli or Gagosian; they were each more reluctant than Salomé to drop their professional veils) somehow soured me into the following precís of what dealers of modern and contemporary art do for a living: They sell very expensive, strange-looking, and impractical objects to rich people by convincing them that a) they’re actually quite beautiful, b) while they may not seem beautiful now, they will later, c) they will also come to be regarded as art-historically significant, and d) they will rise in value and the purchaser will be able to sell them for more than M or Mme originally paid. The previous sentence is simply a de-romanticized description of the art-dealing business, one that I, as an abstract painter myself, depend on for a good deal of my living. Art dealers are, in the main, good and necessary people. Some dealers, such as Leo Castelli was, are very, very good at matching up the right impractical objects to the right rich people at the right time—that time being, in the popular parlance, ahead of the curve. And there’s always a snowball effect: Do it once successfully, and it’s easier or more lucrative or more buzz-catching—or all three—the next time. Castelli did it first in 1958 with Johns, and for forty years thereafter his snowball (Castelli was a record-setting mountain-climber in his youth) just got bigger and bigger.
     In her biography of Castelli, Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), former French cultural attaché and Jean-Paul Sartre biographer Annie Cohen-Solal (and her helper in translation, Mark Polizzotti) labor mightily over 534 pages to turn the very long and—I accept the drawbacks of the adjective—interesting life of a high-end merchant of peculiar and exotic merchandise into something of real cultural consequence and dramatic sweep. The results are decidedly mixed.
     One of the problems with biographies-of-record is that so many details in the obligatory “you could look it up” category have to be shimmed into the text that such biographies are often long lists of events and dates recounted year-by-year, if not month-by-month, with barely enough action to add mortar to the author’s wall of brickish facts, along with a tad of philosophical speculation to give the barrier a bit of form. Cohen-Solal’s solution is to insert here and there a paragraph or two of the sort of summarizing voiceover common to documentary films of decades past. “Should we recall,” she writes midway through the book, “the mercantile Castelli brothers crisscrossing the Val di Chiana to foster their monopoly in paper, tobacco, and alcohol, enriching Monte San Savino in the process? Or the Castelli cousins, launching their merchant fleet worldwide to expand their coffee trade and share in Trieste’s golden age? Most of all, should we recall Leo Krausz, the young Assicurazioni Generali agent, who, as early as 1930, started selling life insurance throughout the world?”
     Krausz is, of course, the young Leo Castelli, who was born in Trieste in 1907. Castelli was Jewish, a fact which prompts Cohen-Solal to lavish considerable attention on the greater history—and oppression—of Jews in Castelli’s part of Europe. We learn, for instance, that in the late 1600s in Tuscany, Jews were required to seal their street-view windows with stone so that they wouldn’t “demean” Christian processions by looking at them. That Castelli came from a family of Jewish merchants, married into another one, and experienced a particularly fraught escape from the Nazis to arrive in New York in 1941 is crucial to what he became, but the inclusion of a lot of the more ancient history of Jews in Europe seems like, if not exactly filler, at least unnecessary panorama. Still, Jews made the New York world of modern art in the same sense that, as told in Neal Gabler’s wonderful book, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, they made the movie business. Since about 12 percent of the population of New York City is Jewish, and since Jews have been rather conspicuously involved in modern-style arts, Castelli’s Jewishness is hardly a surprising thread to be running through Cohen-Solal’s biography of perhaps the greatest New York art dealer ever.
     Leo Castelli didn’t start out looking like a player. In high school, he was only an “average student,” and at a diminutive five-foot-five felt compelled to see a psychiatrist over his difficulty “approaching girls”—a debility he later in life overcame in promiscuous spades. One of his assets was athleticism. A few months before the worldwide stock market crash in 1929, Castelli and a pal and a guide “realized the world’s first ascent via the Preuss Wall of the Campanile Basso, a daunting mountain in the Dolomite range, at an elevation of 9,459 feet!” (The exclamation point, as well as the rest of the quotation, is Cohen-Solal’s.) Nevertheless, Castelli in his early twenties “remained a pampered and frivolous scion,” although—that voiceover again—“the young Leo Krausz began to evolve an independent sense of himself. Amid the exaggerations, the lies, the failures, the malaise, the delusions of grandeur, he laid the groundwork for his future identity.” “Time,” as Westbrook Van Voorhis used to intone for Henry Luce’s newsreels, “marches on.”
     In 1933, Castelli married seventeen-year-old Ileana Schapira in Bucharest, acquiring not only an intelligent bride (who would eventually, as Ileana Sonnabend, become Castelli’s near-equal as an art dealer in New York), but a wealthy and indulgent father-in-law who’d essentially support him until he was finally ready to go out on his own—at age fifty. But first, Castelli had to go through the motions of being a junior banker. Through some string-pulling by Mihai Schapira, Castelli landed a job with the Banque d’Italie and was transferred to Paris. (Because of an edict by Mussolini’s fascist rulers of Trieste that all family names in the city be Italianized, Castelli’s mother’s maiden name was added to his in 1937 and he was known for a time as Leo Krausz-Castelli.) His duties included probably less-than-riveting research into whether it would be profitable to issue traveler’s checks in Italian lire on French territory. Paris afforded the couple, however, their first real dip into radical modern art. Leo put his tootsies in the water and then waded in right up to his waist, forming a partnership in 1939 with the dealer René Drouin and opening a gallery in the Place Vendôme that semi-daringly exhibited fine art alongside the decorative variety.
     Modern art was only one of two things that happened to the Castellis in Paris that set the tone of Leo’s life right up until its end in 1999. The other was having sex with women outside his marriage. (The hawklike-handsome Castelli was reputed to be a great dancer. That always helps.) Ileana was in the infidelity game, too, partly because of a nervous breakdown caused by her feeling so much an out-of-place foreigner in the City of Light. In one of the book’s many and varied euphemisms for schtupping other people, Ileana, who had an affair with her daughter’s pediatrician, told Cohen-Solal, “I wouldn’t say we didn’t get along, but we were both young and we formed other attachments.” When Leo and Ileana went so far as to separate, Leo’s father-in-law was distraught enough over their split and desperate enough to want them back together that he lent Leo the money to be the majority stakeholder in the Drouin gallery. The gallery was a big hit. The voiceover sums up the situation:

          During the first months of 1939, in the midst of this improbable political, economic, social,           and personal turmoil, Leo Castelli would find his path! [Point—exclamation variety—once           more to Cohen-Solal] How does a middling bank employee in his thirties, with an           eighteen-month-old daughter and a failed marriage, become virtually an overnight           success in the art trade—in a foreign country on the brink of war and economic collapse           to boot? How did Leo Krausz, well read and articulate, charming and urbane, but also           frivolous and a social butterfly, transform himself into Leo Castelli, art dealer? How, when           for eight years his professional path imprisoned him in administrative boredom, when his           family life was in pieces and Europe was itself about to shatter, did he manage to branch           off towards what would become, eighteen years later, his true vocation? It required           daring, luck, sheer obliviousness, and a solid instinct for opportunity! [See “point” and           “exclamation,” above]

     The reason why it took almost another two decades for Castelli to find his “true vocation” once and for all was—it should almost go without saying—the Third Reich’s conquering Europe and, with bad intentions, beginning to round up Jews. Leo’s and Ileana’s—and Mihai’s—escape from Europe to America involved a harrowing, skin-of-the-teeth flight with perilous stops in Marseille, Oran, Oujida, Casablanca, Marrakech, Tangiers, Gibraltar, and Cuba, before a landing in New York. Typically—and for the purposes of Cohen-Solal’s biography, admirably—Castelli spent only a few nights on Ellis Island before making haste to the Museum of Modern Art, in its spanking new Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone headquarters on 53rd Street in Manhattan. Leo and Ileana enrolled at Columbia University, he in economic history, she in psychology. Meanwhile, the Schapira–Castelli family—with Mihai dubbing himself an American-sounding “Michael Strate”—ensconced themselves in a brownstone at 4 East 77th street. That address should resonate with followers of American art from the Abstract Expressionists onward, because it turned into the site of the original Leo Castelli Gallery and its early, most groundbreaking shows.
     Three months after Pearl Harbor, Castelli enlisted. Cohen-Solal inquires, “What purpose could this novice gallerist, seasoned mountaineer, and erudite polyglot have served in the American army?”and then abruptly drops the subject. A possibility she might have considered is that Castelli’s being precisely an “erudite polyglot” might have been helpful to the cause. Castelli was first put into the Military Intelligence Service and then included in a unit of the Allied Control Commission sent to Bucharest, a posting of not inconsiderable danger for an expatriate Jew in a hotbed of anti-Semitism exacerbated by the ever-present Russian secret police. Castelli made sergeant and returned to the States in 1946.
     Nevertheless, according to Cohen-Solal, Castelli remained an “arrested adolescent” at forty and for the next ten years “would navigate between this ordered bourgeois household and the separate identity he was constructing.” This would be, one presumes, the same identity for which he “laid the ground” twenty years or so previously. Fortunately for Castelli and the reader of Leo and His Circle, in the midst of all this identity-building and, mais oui, his ongoing “open family life,” he had a “transformative” experience: MoMA under Alfred Barr. It taught him that America’s modern art world was about to be the world’s modern art world, and he wanted to be a crucial part of it. With one hand, he donated a small Arshile Gorky drawing to the Museum and with the other he sharpened his logistical skills by getting works by Kandinsky back from Drouin’s gallery in Paris for the artist’s widow. (Castelli did a yeoman’s job, but Nina Kandinsky was something of an ingrate.) Castelli’s old-world charm and his newfound eager-beaver personality got him an “arrangement” with on-the-way-up dealer Sidney Janis, who handled both European moderns and some of the new, scenery-chewing Abstract Expressionists. Castelli insinuated himself into the AbExer’s spit ’n’ argue forum, The Club, and parlayed that into participation in the bellwether Ninth Street Show, a giant do-it-yourself exhibition of nearly ninety artists ranging from septuagenarian éminence grise Hans Hofmann to twenty-two-year-old Bennington College ingénue Helen Frankenthaler, and including nearly every abstract New York paint-flinger in between.
     Accounts vary widely concerning what exactly Castelli contributed to that gnarly downtown extravaganza. Some say he actually had a big say in picking the artists, others retrospectively dismiss his role as merely financial (with the ever accommodating Mihai’s money), while most give him credit for some of each. It doesn’t matter. In terms of what we now call “cutting-edge,” Abstract Expressionism was at its peak among the hipper art crowd—which naturally meant that the only direction it could go, albeit passing through the riches of the “establishment” as it went, was down. But Castelli had gathered enough bona fides to—when the moment came—make his mark with the next big thing: Pop Art. His opening salvo was Jasper Johns’s first solo exhibition, in January–February, 1958. A couple of semi-amazing facts: Castelli initially went to see Robert Rauschenberg about that slot, was diverted to Johns’s studio immediately upstairs, and ended up showing Johns first; the exhibition lasted only twenty days. The show didn’t sell much, and Johns’s and Rauschenberg’s inclusion in Dorothy Miller’s benchmark 1959 MoMA exhibition, Sixteen Americans, didn’t get Castelli many points, either. It was critically lambasted, not just by the predictably hidebound John Canaday in the New York Times but by the progressive Emily Genauer in the New York Herald Tribune and el jefe himself, Clement Greenberg, in the Nation. Nevertheless, Castelli had planted the flag of Pop (although there’s an argument to be made that Johns and Rauschenberg were more proto-Pop), and would see it and himself sweep the field during the 1960s. On Flag Day, 1963, for instance, Castelli was photographed at the White House, giving President Kennedy a Johns shallow-relief (i.e., coin-deep) sculpture of the American flag.
     Next, he conquered Europe—in a way—by helping engineer Rauschenberg’s copping the top prize, the Golden Lion, at the world’s most prestigious international modern art fest, the Venice Biennale, in 1964. The detailed machinations of the coup, including a threatened withdrawal of all the American works if Rauschenberg’s off-site art wasn’t deemed eligible for consideration, are perhaps the best part of Cohen-Solal’s book. Presenting them as a Costa-Gavras–like drama in eight acts, she peps up her biography considerably. By the time of the fateful Biennale, Ileana had divorced Leo via the ingenious gambit of buying property in the state of Georgia and suing him from there because she was, as a local landowner, entitled to. Castelli married again, the bride being a young upper-crust French woman named Antoinette Faissex de Bost, whom he met in either 1959 or 1962, depending on whether you believe the photo caption on page 284 or the text on 281. Alas, she fell to heavy drinking when Castelli cheated on her, too—with his heart as well as his body. Bob Monk, who worked for Castelli for a decade, is quoted, “When Leo was uptown, Toiny was sober. When he was downtown, she started drinking. Ileana was always the biggest threat, much more so than the young girls.” Toiny died in 1987, and Castelli, late in life, was married once more, to Barbara Bertozzi.
     At the point in her book where Castelli discovers Jasper Johns, Cohen-Solal asks, “What, exactly, is so compelling about Castelli’s lightning metamorphosis from dilettante dandy and financial dependent to master gallerist?” There, the reader can answer with some confidence: the exotic lead-up in Europe, Leo’s hitting the ground running in New York, and his nose twitching presciently in the late 1950s at the possibilities of Pop. From the ’64 Biennale on, though, Leo and His Circle is, save for Castelli’s personal foibles, a litany of laurels, with such chapter titles as “The ‘Svengali’ of Pop,” “Castelli’s Network [of affiliated galleries in America and abroad] as the House of Savoy,” “A Promised Land South of Houston Street,” and, in full Van Voorhis mode again, “Tributes, Honors, a Name Carved in History.” (A Name Carved in History? I know times are hard for the book business, but can’t Knopf spring for editing software with a cliché-check?)
     In the end, Leo Castelli was a merchant of initially very hard-to-sell goods with more impact on American culture than expensive furniture, customized Rolls-Royces, or bespoke suits. And he believed, as good art dealers do, in his artists and their art. But he was a merchant nonetheless. He didn’t make revolutionary art, he only brokered it. “Gee, what makes him tick?” is an avenue of genuine fascination when pursued in regard to Johns, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, or (with “her” substituted for “him”) Lee Bontecou. With artists, what they continued to do after they got famous and rich is still worth reading about; you want to know how they kept on being original, how they tweaked old ideas into genuinely new ones or jumped wildly from style to style or medium to medium, and how they coped—standing in front of blank canvases and in empty studios—with the art world’s merciless expectations.
     But with merchants, the fascination rapidly wears off after the store is secure, the brand established, the famous customers in place, and the receptions dependable limo destinations. The first half-century of Leo Castelli’s life is a pretty good tale, the second one, frankly, a bit of a bore on the page. That’s not Castelli’s fault, of course. He didn’t live his life to make us interested in his biography; he lived to get what he thought was great contemporary art the recognition it deserved and to make a few bucks for the artists and himself in the process. And, bien sûr, to encounter the occasional attractive young artist in the act of unzipping something.