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Leo Castelli’s New York Story


Release: 2010-6-15 15:31 |  Author: XianBao |   View: 205time



Ernesto Krausz, Leo Castelli’s father, was a successful banker in Trieste, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


Mr. Castelli, whose original name was Leo Krausz, was born in 1907.

Left, a family portrait taken in Vienna in 1918. Leo is on the left.


Mr. Castelli’s father found him a job in Bucharest. There, he married Ileana Schapira in 1933, the daughter of a financial titan.


Mr. Castelli opened a gallery in Paris in 1939.

Left, a model posed for Harper’s Bazaar in front of “L’Ange du Foyer,” a Max Ernst painting displayed in the gallery.


Mr. Castelli and his wife fled to the United States in 1941 and he quickly volunteered for the Army, serving in the intelligence service in Europe.

Left, Mr. Castelli in Bucharest in 1944.


Back in New York, Mr. Castelli began collecting and making connections in the art world. He opened the Leo Castelli gallery in 1957.

Mr. Castelli, left, with the painter Jim Rosenquist in the artist’s studio, 1966.


Mr. Castelli, left, at his gallery with his assistant, center, and Andy Warhol, 1966.


Mr. Castelli, left, with Jasper Johns, 1966. Johns’s art hangs over the fireplace.
Johns had his first one-man show at Mr. Castelli’s gallery in 1958.


Leo Castelli, between the gallerist Gian Enzo Sperone, left, and the artist Joseph Kosuth, 1969.


Mr. Castelli, left, with Keith Haring, center, and the dealer Tony Shafrazi in 1985.


From left: Jeffrey Deitch, the dealer Barbara Jakobson, Mr. Castelli and Laura Grisi, 1988.

Most art dealers, by definition, sell pictures and make money and enter the history books only as footnotes. But Leo Castelli, who opened a gallery in New York in 1957 and became the leading dealer of Pop Art and early Minimalism, deserves to be remembered in full-size type. A trim, courtly émigré who had worked as a banker in prewar Europe, he was fluent in at least five languages and able to extol a Warhol soup can or a Richard Serra lead-pipe sculpture even in Romanian, which had tangible benefits. His achievement was to globalize American art in an age when Europeans still thought that “made in the U.S.A.” was a label best reserved for washing ­machines.

One never knew what lay behind the smiling mask, the easy-seeming urbanity. Annie Cohen-Solal, in her lively and detail-laden “Leo and His Circle,” provides the widest glimpse so far. He was no stranger to desperation. He fled France soon after the Nazis marched in, but his parents did not escape. They died heartbreaking deaths in Budapest, hounded by Hun­gary’s fascist Arrow Cross Party. Castelli’s life story has traditionally been presented as an art-world fable about an elegant Italian man in nicely cut suits who had the look of a little prince as he stood in his gallery, welcoming visitors with a kiss on both cheeks and describing everything as ­fan-TAS-tico. But this biography reminds us that America’s cultural dominance is inseparable from the historical nightmares that scattered the Jewish population of Europe into safe exile in New York and elsewhere.

Castelli, who was loath to discuss his past or acknowledge his religion, began life in 1907 as Leo Krausz, the son of a prosperous Hungarian banker. Trieste, the city of his birth, was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but it was annexed by Italy after World War I; with the rise of Fascism, citizens were required to adopt Italian surnames. So the Krausz clan took the name Castelli (his mother’s maiden name), and the future dealer learned firsthand about the frightening malleability of identity. National boundaries can be erased overnight, and even your name can be taken away. By the 1930s, the one unalterable piece of his identity, his Jewishness, had been twisted under evil circum­stances into a reason for his extinction.

He was, in other words, an Old World figure whose dearest wish was answered in the New World. Finally, he could assimilate and take proud citizenship somewhere — i.e., inside the unrestricted borders of the American art scene, which at the time was staging its own repudiation of Europe. These were the heroic years when New York was toppling Paris as the capital of art, and Castelli assisted in the upset by opening his gallery in time to provide the first-ever glimpse of paintings of Coke bottles and cartoon girls, of Liz and Marilyn and Elvis — brightly fetching, accessible images whose rascally audacity gave establishment critics like Hilton Kramer a case of permanent heartburn and only enhanced Castelli’s love for his adopted homeland.

You cannot say he was shady. In terms of his business practices, Castelli emerges from Cohen-Solal’s book as a gentleman dealer who understood that an artist’s worth does not reside in his sales figures. He had a touching regard for the achievements of artists, or at least of his artists, conferring on their shaggy-haired heads every blessing his profession had to offer. He gave Jasper Johns and Frank Stella their first one-man shows. He spoke about Roy Lichtenstein and Donald Judd as if their legacy were roughly tantamount to that of Rembrandt.

Did he have a great eye? Probably not, but he certainly had the good sense to listen to people who knew more than he did, and the good fortune to be sent to Bucharest as a young insurance agent. There, in 1933, he met Ileana Schapira, a 17-year-old Romanian heiress whose taste was genuinely rarefied and extreme. He married her that year, and eventually she became the legendary art dealer Ileana Sonnabend. “Leo had no idea, no vision of his own,” Robert Storr, the critic and dean of the Yale School of Art, tells the author, not implausibly. Castelli, he feels, was “a go-between with an exceptional gift for public relations.” Once, on a visit to Bruce Nauman’s studio for an advance peek at the artist’s latest homemade video, Castelli fell asleep.

He owed a substantial debt to his inordinately wealthy father-in-law, Mihai Schapira, who bankrolled Castelli’s first gallery in Paris and kindly dragged him along when the family fled to America. Arriving here in 1941, Castelli hardly seemed destined for great things, and you can even see him as a pioneer of the slacker life. He lived on the top floor of his father-in-law’s elegant town house, at 4 East 77th Street, and worked for the Romanian’s garment company. For a dec­ade he managed a knitwear factory. He was almost 50 years old when he finally opened the Castelli Gallery — in his living room. Visitors who climbed the four flights in the Schapira town house to see the debut exhibition found two enormous works hanging in the entranceway: a Jackson Pollock drip painting and a Cubist-style view of the Eiffel Tower by the French painter Robert Delaunay — in other words, a face-off between American culture and French culture, a contest in which Castelli had already decided the victor.

By then his marriage was in ruins, perhaps because he was not built for monogamy. His amatory conquests were so numerous that even his biographer appears to lose interest in cataloging them. After the divorce from Ileana came the inevitable second and third marriages, but Castelli and his first wife remained quaintly entwined through the years. His SoHo gallery, which opened in 1971 amid deserved fanfare, occupied the second floor at 420 West Broadway — one flight below Sonnabend’s gallery. In their later years (he died in 1999), they talked regularly and at last settled into the kind of untroubled companionship that had eluded them during their marriage.

For all its interesting disclosures, “Leo and His Circle” is compromised by careless writing and a breezy indifference to humble facts. The book is long on hyperbole and short on insight. The author deposits exclamation points at the end of too many otherwise unsurprising sentences, as if she were composing advertising copy for Champagne. “Nineteen fifty-eight: to all appearances a banner year!”

Misspelled names are rampant. The artist George Maciunas is identified as “Marciunas”; Max Kozloff, a former editor of Artforum magazine, surfaces as “Kozlof”; and the august critic Rosalind Krauss becomes “Rosalind Krausz,” as if she were Castelli’s long-lost Hungarian grand­mother. Patterson Sims, an esteemed curator of American art now in his 60s, is referred to as “she.”

In her acknowledgments, Cohen-Solal graciously lists her assistants — all 23 of them. Is there such a thing as too many accessories to a biography? It would have been nice if one of them had taken a break from the demands of document digging in order to read a draft of the manuscript and pick out the sentences that contradict one another. For instance, the author refers admiringly to Castelli’s “program of stipends for . . . artists, a practice harking back to the Medicis, but completely innovative in the context of New York.” That’s incorrect, as the author surely knows; a few chapters earlier, she lauded the munificence of another Manhattan art dealer, Peggy Guggenheim, who in the ’40s had furnished Pollock with “the famous monthly stipend that had ensured his financial stability.”

Moreover, the author seems unfamiliar with the basic conventions of art dealing when she credits Castelli with “planting . . . satellite galleries, one after the next,” outside New York. She mentions David Mirvish in Toronto, Janie Lee in Dallas and Margo Leavin in Los Angeles, among many others — well-regarded dealers who did exhibit Castelli’s artists from time to time, but can no more be called his satellites than can the Louvre Museum. The strangest page of the book features a black-and-white illustration, a computer-generated “map of Castelli’s satellite galleries in North America” that imputes to him an expansionist mind-set and marketing stratagem that seem more applicable to the management of Red Lobster.

“Leo and His Circle” was translated from the French, which may explain the clunky prose and factual blackouts. ­Cohen-Solal, whose well-received biography of Jean-Paul Sartre was published here in 1987, befriended Castelli during her stint as a cultural counselor at the French Embassy in New York. It is noteworthy that an officially sanctioned French intellectual has written a non-hostile book about an American art dealer, in contrast to the days when so-called cultural exchange was a one-way street that sent American students to France to conduct worshipful research on Picasso and Ma­tisse and the School of Paris. The French have been known to accuse Americans of cultural cluelessness. Now, with this new book, it’s our turn to roll our eyes and bemoan the failure of the French to grasp the intricacies of American culture, a rise in our standing that owes no small debt to the escapades of Leo Castelli.
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