Dapper Dealer

Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli BY Annie Cohen-Solal. Knopf. Hardcover, 560 pages. $30.

The cover of Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli

In 1950, few Americans bought modern art. Fewer still bought modern American art. The rags-to-riches story of the next fifty years, when New York transformed itself into the hothouse of the art world, is well known. Usually, the story centers on art and artists. However, powerful dealers also played a significant, if less examined, part. Two in particular, Sidney Janis (1896–1989) and Leo Castelli (1907–1999), are now emblematic figures from those glory years. They had a telling touch. Something more interesting, that is, than a Midas touch.

Janis was the pioneering market maker of the period. His gallery opened in 1948, when New York’s galleries mainly exhibited safe European art. Cash was still short, and the memory of the war and the Depression vivid. But New York was recovering its animal spirits, well before a prostrate Europe would, and the Museum of Modern Art was promoting the world’s best collection of European modernism. Janis’s first step was to develop a market for lesser-known European modernists, notably Piet Mondrian. But he soon took a more radical step. In a 1950 exhibit called “Young U.S. and French Painters,” he juxtaposed contemporary French and American modernists: de Kooning and Dubuffet, Pollock and Lanskoy, and so on. The subtext was polemical. The Americans were just as good as, maybe better than, the French.

There was a moneyed gadabout, and sometime assistant, who helped Janis develop the idea of juxtaposing American and European art. His name was Leo Castelli. Everyone at the time thought Castelli would open his own gallery, and he finally did so in 1957. Initially, his exhibits resembled Janis’s, except that Janis had the major Abstract Expressionist talent, such as de Kooning and Rothko. When Castelli first saw the work of Jasper Johns in ’57, he had what he would subsequently call an epiphany: that Johns was the harbinger of a new American style. In short order, Castelli gave shows to Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and set about claiming the evolving generation of Pop artists, at the center of which was Roy Lichtenstein. In an attempt to recapture the initiative, Janis, in 1962, mounted a huge Pop-oriented show, which caused an uproar among the Abstract Expressionists he still represented. Some of them accused Janis of selling out. And so the ’60s went to Leo.

Leo (as everyone called him) had an extraordinary manner, a kind of brilliant counterpoint to the art he sold. He did not act Pop; he did not go Pow!; in fact, he hardly seemed American. Trim and short, playful and silky—you’d want to stroke him like a cat—he was a purring continental dandy with an accent so refined you could not quite place it. As you approached him, he would have a flirtatious twinkle in his eye, as if he were about to confide some delicious piece of gossip (if only discretion would permit). He was diplomatic to a fault. His suits were exquisitely tailored. If Janis’s garment-district mien had once reassured collectors anxious about snobs and recondite art, Castelli’s European elegance gave confidence to collectors buying comic-strip Pop. Castelli went on to establish the prototype for the modern major gallery. He globalized the market for his artists, fostered relationships with museums, tailored exhibitions to a scholarly standard, and helped clients develop world-class collections.

In short, Castelli is an excellent subject for a biography. But Annie Cohen-Solal struggles, in Leo & His Circle, to present a deep or rounded portrait of the man.

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Castelli was born Leo Krausz in Trieste, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was a Jewish banker from Hungary. His mother came from a successful family of Italian Jewish merchants who fled to Trieste from Tuscany to escape persecution. The Krauszes were wealthy, and Leo and his brother and sister grew up pampered. But their situation as Jews was precarious. Leo’s father faced difficulties on the job both because he was Jewish and, once Trieste was ceded to Italy after World War I, because he was not Italian. (The Italianization of names, mandated by royal decree in 1934, turned the Krauszes into Krausz-Castellis.) Leo’s parents took refuge in Budapest. They would die there, victims of the war.

Cohen-Solal has done extensive research into both the lively and polyglot cultural history of Trieste and the backgrounds of Castelli’s parents. She finds in him an almost genetic predisposition, especially through the trading Tuscans of his mother’s family, for art, global commerce, and the cultivation of the right connection. What comes across most strongly is that the young Castelli was a floater, largely indifferent to his roots. He never developed much connection to family, place, or nation. His family was not religiously observant. (Leo himself never expressed any interest in being Jewish.) His father was sort of Hungarian, his mother sort of Italian, in anti-Semitic Italy. Trieste itself was a pot that would not melt.

Cohen-Solal emphasizes that Castelli, at a young age, became a master of social networking. No less important, he aroused no serious resentment from others for living off his connections. On the contrary. The world was delighted to take care of him. For the first fifty years of his life, he was a dilettante who enjoyed living off other people’s money. He took no particular interest in school or, during his twenties, in working. Politics just passed him by. He preferred literature and mountain climbing (the latter an interesting avocation for a man concerned about being too short). His father arranged posts for him in banking and insurance. As conditions in Italy worsened, a job was found in Bucharest. There Leo quickly made the useful acquaintance of the Schapiras, an extremely wealthy Jewish family, and began courting their daughters. Cohen-Solal writes: “In this sumptuous environment Leo Krausz would thrive. He first courted Eve, the older sister—and the more outgoing if also the more superficial of the two—who was considered to be the most beautiful woman in Bucharest. . . . After not quite succeeding with this gem, Leo turned his attention to her younger sister, Ileana.” Cohen-Solal goes on to describe, in turn, Ileana’s interest in Leo: “So Leo came to my house and my parents invited him to dinner. Since I found my life rather stifling, I had only one wish: to get married. As a child, I’d always known a stranger would come and take me away. I met Leo. He wasn’t like everyone else. He was going somewhere. He was going to leave Romania, and as I wanted to get out of Romania at any cost, I married him.”

So much for young romance. In 1935, the couple moved to Paris, where Leo worked in a bank and lived well on Schapira money. He was already philandering, and Cohen-Solal reports that Ileana was often “depressed” and sometimes sobbed as her chauffeur drove her around the Bois de Boulogne. Both took an interest in art; of the two, Ileana was the more energetic, adventurous, and opinionated. In 1939, Castelli, with a loan of five hundred thousand francs from his father-in-law, opened Galerie d’Art Décoratif. He and his partner, René Drouin, staged one dramatic exhibit before the war. It included Surrealist furniture and a painting by Pavel Tchelitchew, called Phenomena, that was shown by candlelight.

Once the war broke out, Leo and Ileana faced obvious risks in Paris. Not surprisingly, given his son-in-law’s general passivity, Ileana’s father took the situation in hand and ordered the couple to meet him at his villa on the Riviera. He then worked tirelessly to obtain visas for every member of his family. All finally escaped to the United States, where Ileana’s father settled the group in a town house at 4 East Seventy-seventh Street that would many years later become the site of Castelli’s first gallery. Eventually, his Parisian connections gave Leo credibility in an art world still enamored of Europe. He had time and money. And he networked, not only with Janis but also with artists. The legendary Ninth Street show in 1951, to which most of the Abstract Expressionists lent work, was not Castelli’s idea—but he was indispensable in organizing it.

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Castelli was fifty years old when he opened his gallery in the family town house. He depended, as usual, on Ileana. It was she who championed Rauschenberg, for example, about whom Leo had early doubts. As for the gallery favorite, Johns, Castelli may have immediately recognized his gifts, but the art world, while giving Castelli enormous credit for showing Johns, has traditionally believed the epiphany was planned, probably by a young painter working at the gallery named Ilse Goetz. (Young artists are always the first to know of a change in art.) I recently asked the historian of the period, Irving Sandler, whether Castelli had a great eye. He answered, “Leo had a great ear.” Castelli listened to those with an eye for talent. He relied a great deal on Ivan Karp, an indefatigable scout for the new, whom Ileana—concerned that Leo could not manage the gallery alone—pressed him to hire. When he was considering whether to represent an artist, Leo would often place the artist’s work in his office and listen to the art-world insiders as they passed through.

In an interview with Milton Esterow, cited by Cohen-Solal, Leo described the reason for his success: “The secret was, in part, knowledge about art of the past. I studied art history and figured out that one movement followed another and that there were changes that occurred periodically. . . . [The Abstract Expressionists] dominated the scene for a while, so I felt that something else had to happen. I tried deliberately to detect that other thing and stumbled upon Rauschenberg [and] Johns.” What Castelli did not say is that he personally identified with a style, that it spoke to something necessary or unrequited in his own sensibility. (He would characteristically describe an artist or a work in the most general terms—new, great, important, wonderful, and so on—but rarely with pungent particularity.) A rather dispassionate art-historical emphasis on stylistic progression was also the favored approach of the Museum of Modern Art, which presented art as an ever-shifting evolution of styles, a this-begat-that genealogy.

This perspective served the gallery well in the ’60s and ’70s, when styles emerged clearly, one after another. Ear to the ground, Leo was able to show major figures in Pop, Minimal, and Conceptual art, many of whom had sharply contrasting views. If American painting established itself in the ’50s, only in the ’60s did fashion and money really take over the scene. Leo found the sweet spot. His social skills and European roots enabled him to plant what Cohen-Solal calls “satellites” and make alliances abroad. His urbanity entranced collectors, curators, and the press. He liked to tell new clients, eager to buy a work by “Roy” or “Jasper,” that he maintained a “waiting list.” You had to prove you were a serious collector, devoted to the gallery, before you were allowed to spend your money. But he never became a victim of fashion. He did not let the celebrated vulgarian Robert Scull buy an entire Johns show, for example, and he remained open to serendipity. Cohen-Solal has a lovely account of the shy Panza di Biumo—then an unknown Italian aristocrat—approaching the gallery and asking to buy Rauschenbergs. Leo brushed him off. When Panza’s devotion to art became clear, however, Leo helped him form one of the great collections of American art.

Although Cohen-Solal describes the gallery’s flowering, she spends little time on the grubbier nuts and bolts of money and deals. She keeps her eye elevated, in order to make the highest possible claims for Castelli as both a man and a “gallerist.” (She rarely uses the less seemly term “art dealer.”) She considers Castelli a greater man than the dealer Joseph Duveen, and Castelli appears in her portrait as a figure on a par with the artists he represented. Often, she adds exclamation points to lend éclat, and she likes to create importance by association. About Trieste in the first decade of the century, she writes: “A city, a powder keg, that in the same explosive decade gave birth to Ulysses, the Futurist manifesto—and Leo Castelli.” She repeatedly asserts, but only in general terms, Castelli’s mastery of the traditions of both literature and art. One of the fascinations of this book is that Castelli—a cultivated man indeed—has not one interesting thing to say about either.

The problem is Castelli’s fine manner. It both enhances and diminishes this biography. Cohen-Solal is worshipful; she has no inclination, therefore, to bring a Balzacian eye to bear on Castelli’s public, private, and inner lives. She has qualms, to be sure, and alludes to narcissism, concealments, and “self-fashioning.” She wonders, “What was Castelli so determined to achieve by his self-portraiture, by his relentless rehashing of the same few stories that however elegant were, with regard to understanding him, ultimately a dead end?” But she is too charmed to provide a rich or penetrating answer. (Cohen-Solal was befriended by Castelli in the 1990s when she was the cultural counselor of the French Embassy.) If there is something unpleasant to recount—such as the pain Leo’s compulsive womanizing caused his first two wives—she does so quickly, as a matter of duty, as if to avert her eyes. Like a gallant friend.

Leo and Ileana finally divorced in 1959; Cohen-Solal mentions, almost in passing, that one day at lunch Ileana, “fed up with her husband’s passive-aggressive behavior and his silences . . . yanked the cloth off the table, and all that went with it.” Ileana went on to marry Michael Sonnabend and, in 1962, opened the Sonnabend Gallery in Paris, which showed many of Castelli’s artists. She and Leo were soon best friends. Their relationship was obviously extraordinary, as Cohen-Solal says, but she does not bring it to life through the subtle interplay of time, texture, and the telling detail. We learn hardly anything about Leo’s personal relationship with his second wife, a Frenchwoman named Antoinette Fraissex du Bost, known as Toiny (we do hear that she was high-born, a “Haviland”), or his final wife, Barbara Bertozzi-Castelli. We don’t know what kind of father he was to his daughter (by Ileana) or his son (by Toiny). We don’t know what his apartment looked like or what he hung on the walls of his living room or bedroom. He loved a dalliance; his affairs are acknowledged; he enjoyed, Cohen-Solal writes, a “boy’s night out and talk of women.” But no mistress speaks up to describe Leo’s dallying ways. This, by the art dealer Larry Gagosian, has a fine sting: “There was a girlfriend with lipstick waiting on a couch in his office for two hours and he said to me, ‘Come, let’s have a drink with her, and we’ll go to her studio and you can tell her you like her paintings.’ And I said, ‘Leo, that’s a bit much for me’—they were unspeakably bad.”

It may be that Cohen-Solal considers certain details indiscreet or cheap. Why go through a man’s laundry? And many biographies, it’s true, are vulgar paw-throughs. But vulgar is as vulgar does: No human detail is beyond the telling if properly put. Perhaps in Leo’s case, the surface suffices; perhaps, beneath the surface, there was . . . more surface. In the latter part of the book, Cohen-Solal interviews many who joyfully remember the Castelli spell. What created that spell? It was, in part, Leo’s calculated indifference to money, which was old-fashioned: that of a gentleman who’s always had money. Castelli was often in financial trouble despite his gallery’s success. He didn’t seem to mind very much. He paid his artists monthly stipends; he preferred to work without contracts. If a collector did not have the biggest bucks but was forming a major collection—as with Panza—Castelli would give him a break. He was not a quibbler. He did not die a particularly wealthy man, and his wives seem to have been more financially astute than he was.

The best of it was that Castelli loved artists. He even deferred to them. It must have been a shock to two southern boys like Johns and Rauschenberg to be treated with great respect by such a European gent. Castelli never asked an artist to hurry up or to make work of a certain kind. He never let his gallery develop a slick, corporate feel. It remained, with Ileana in the background, an elegant mom-and-pop shop where the art world could gather and talk about the new. Castelli had a beguiling authority—others always looked out for him, but surely he managed that—and there was nothing cold about his manner. The smile wasn’t illusory. He seemed designed to enjoy the moment. “Life goes on,” Ivan Karp once shrugged during a passing argument with Castelli. Leo answered, in a rare piece of metaphysical assertion, “No, life does not go on!”

Mark Stevens is a coauthor of De Kooning: An American Master (Knopf, 2004).