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Leo Castelli

I, dealer in heroes: Obituary for Leo Castelli

In memory of the man behind Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Cy Twombly, James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein

Leo Castelli, who died on 21 August, has been described as a European diplomat who happened to work with artists instead of foreign embassies. The pioneering dealer was almost fifty before he opened his gallery in New York to promote artists no one had yet heard of. He gave Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg their first solo shows while fostering international acceptance of contemporary American art almost single-handedly. Castelli was born in Trieste, Italy, of a Hungarian father who did well in banking and had then married into the old-established Castelli family. He and his family spent World War I in Vienna. Before moving to New York in 1941, Castelli lived in Bucharest and Paris.

The extracts here are taken from an interview with Castelli published in Alan Jones and Laura de Coppet Art Dealers (Clarkson N. Potter, New York, 1984).

Leo Castelli...My father felt I should have a career in business, so after I finished law school he managed to have me placed in an insurance company...I tried it for a year, but finally told my father that I wanted to quit and study comparative literature... My father was a wonderful man, a businessman, yes, but also very understanding. He made a bargain with me: if after working in a branch office of the insurance company in Rumania for a year I still wanted a career in literature, he would be happy to support my studies.

So in the spring of 1932 I went to Bucharest. I was as bored as ever with the insurance business, but my social life had surprises in store. After a few months I met Ileana Schapira, the daughter of a Rumanian industrialist, and we married the following autumn...[she was later to become Ileana Sonnabend, founder of the Sonnabend Gallery].

My father-in-law was very wealthy, so we could afford practically anything: travel, a beautiful apartment, antiques, whatever. I stayed with the insurance company for a while and then turned to banking. Ileana’s father had great pull so after a year or so I got a position with the Paris branch of the Banca d’Italia. I did not like banking any more than insurance, but Paris was more entertaining in every respect than hanging on in Bucharest. We made a lot of friends there, among them René Drouin, a young architect and interior designer with talent but no money. Drouin suggested we open a gallery displaying paintings, contemporary furniture, and objets d’art...Ileana’s father approved our project and put up the capital for our new enterprise. I quit the bank and plunged into the gallery full time.

I knew almost nothing about contemporary art at the time...but, somehow the proprietor of this extraordinary bookshop I frequented managed to procure everything that was important in art and other domains. I went in one day and bought a book called Since Cézanne by Clive Bell. Everything I know about art starts with that book.

But it was Leonor Fini who set the stage for our gallery at the beginning. I had known her in Trieste as a child, and she was now a well-known painter and member of the Paris Surrealist group. When I told her about our venture, she said, “We will accomplish great things there! I will introduce you to all the important painters: Max Ernst, Dali, Tchelitchew”...

The first show was of a single work: Pavel Tchelitchew’s “Phenomena.” Le tout Paris showed up for the opening, and we really seemed to be on our way. That was the spring of 1939.

From pre-war Paris to post-war New York

I was now in the thick of it in New York. Pollock, Kline, Rothko, de Kooning, and Still were in the process of creating a new revolutionary school of painting, assisted in their efforts by two enormously influential critical writers, Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg.

I have always been guilty of hero worship. For me, great artists and great writers are in the same class as great warriors and great statesmen. And if I had admired Max Ernst or Dali in Europe, other heroes appeared now in New York. The two greatest were Pollock and de Kooning...

In the early fifties Ileana and I had a house in East Hampton, and as de Kooning was our good friend we were delighted to provide him with space where he could work during the summer....Both he and his wife Elaine were wonderful company, and when they were around a lot of artists would gather at our house: ...Franz Kline, a very poor driver who bought a Ferrari because he wanted one; and of course, Pollock, who lived in the neighborhood. Pollock would come over in his model T Ford (immortalized in a marvelous photograph by Hans Namuth) jump out of the car without turning off the motor and storm into the house, perhaps to find de Kooning or just to make a nuisance of himself. I remember Ileana being terrorized by his behaviour, and both of us would wonder what he would do next. If de Kooning was indeed around, there was sure to be a fight. The truth is that they were actually good friends, but they would tease each other relentlessly, and sometimes the teasing would get out of hand...

Promoting the NY school

The time had come for me to open my own gallery, which I finally did 1 February, 1957. I decided to do it very modestly, in the apartment that Ileana and I had at 4 East Seventy-seventh Street, turning the L-shaped living and dining room into the gallery...

My first show was a declaration of intention: I wanted to indicate that the American artists were just as important as the European artists, perhaps more so. I placed three of them—de Kooning, Pollock, and David Smith—next to a number of recognized Europeans including Dubuffet, Lèger, Picabia, and Mondrian...

It soon became apparent that all the interesting new art was being done in America, and that for the time being at any rate, Europe had had its day...

The tremendous upsurge of Abstract Expressionism in America transformed the way people looked at art, but by the late fifties, I came to feel that it had lost its fire. Although there were some good painters among the second generation Abstract Expressionists, they were not inventing something new as the artists of the first generation had done...

There are certain moments in the evolution of art when it seems that it is not enough to create in the spirit of the previous generation. There is a feeling that new ideas must appear, and perhaps great contradictions. A dealer must be able to pinpoint these moments when they occur, and to identify which artists embody these new ideas. When I opened my gallery I felt it was one of those moments, and when I came upon them, I felt that Jasper Johns, Bob Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly, each in his own way represented the quantum leap to something new.

In March, 1957 Meyer Shapiro assembled a show of the younger generation Abstract Expressionists. It was held at the Jewish Museum and included Rauschenberg... There was one painting in the show that puzzled me. It was a green painting done in an unfamiliar medium: wax. I couldn’t quite make out what it meant, nor had I heard of the name that appeared next to it: Jasper Johns.

Discovery of Jasper Johns

I thought about that painting long after I went home. I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. Two or three days after seeing the show at the Jewish Museum, I went down to Rauschenberg’s studio to select paintings for a show that I was planning to do. Somehow, the name Jasper Johns came up, and I told Bob about the green painting I’d seen. “Jasper Johns? His studio is just below mine.” Jasper later came in to bring ice for the drinks, and I suggested going down to see what he was doing....It was an extraordinary experience: incredibly mature paintings by a young man of twenty-seven, many of them done since 1955. They were masterpieces, an amazing array of images—alphabets, numerals, flags, targets—a treasure trove. To say that I was tremendously impressed is understating it. I was bowled over...

In January, 1958 I had my first Jasper Johns show. It was probably the crucial event in my career as an art dealer, and, I think, an even more crucial one for art history....When Alfred Barr [director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York] came to see the show he could hardly contain his excitement. He felt, quite simply, that it was a major event in the history of art. He wanted to buy several paintings and he spent hours picking out this one and that one, talking out loud to himself about who could be found to provide the funds. A problem came up about the flag image. Would it offend the Daughters of the American Revolution? What could be done?

Barr called Philip Johnson [museum trustee]. Would he, as a favor, buy the painting and hang onto it for the museum until this issue of flag desecration was solved? Philip didn’t care much for the painting, but he gave in and bought it for $900. When the flag image did not turn out to be the problem we thought it would be, Barr went back to Philip Johnson and said, “You can give me my flag now.” He said, “Your flag? It’s my flag. I’ve grown to like it very much and want to keep it.” Eventually, he donated the painting to the Museum of Modern Art as a homage to Alfred Barr...

Mistaken about Warhol

Bob [Rauschenberg] got his first show one month after Jasper’s...It contained many of the now famous combine paintings to which all kinds of found objects are attached: a rooster, ties, shoes—anything. I bought “Bed” for my collection: a real pillow and quilt heavily splattered with paint, in which some horrible act—a rape or murder—seemed to have occurred... The only other sale, a small “Collage with Red,” was returned by the lady who bought it saying that she had been forced to relegate it to a closet because the tradesmen and delivery boys broke up laughing whenever they saw it.

Rauschenberg’s show, compared to Jasper’s lightning success, barely got off the ground, unless one counted the level on which it succeeded in annoying so many viewers. Very few people understood Rauschenberg this early on...It was not only the general public who had trouble with Rauschenberg. Alfred Barr did not repsond positively to the work at all, and, to his own acute distress, was never able to relate to it...

Soon after Roy [Lichtenstein] joined the gallery, I became aware of other artists who were drawing on the same subject matter: the mass media and the consumer product...I have a precise recollection of Andy [Warhol] coming to see a show of Jasper John’s drawings. He bought a drawing of a light bulb.

Warhol very badly wanted to join my gallery, to be with artists he admired, like Johns. I turned him down at first because I felt his work was too similar to Lichtenstein’s. Warhol told me I was very much mistaken. Was there another gallery interested? Yes, I was told. If I didn’t take him, Andy said, then he had no choice but to go to Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery. And he did. His show there a year later was fantastic: the Brillo boxes, the Marilyns, and the Elvis paintings. I realized I had made a big mistake...

Grocery to supermarket

Most of my artists were young with no prior gallery experience to speak of before joining mine. We grew up together... I’ve always identified with my artists’ needs and problems, financial or otherwise. I never demanded things from them, and while there wasn’t that much of it around, I tried to advance them all the money I could. Above all, I’ve never told my artists what to do, especially when it comes to their art. Although sometimes I may be unsure of the new work myself, I encourage them to proceed with it—because I know that there has been a tremendous effort on their parts to do something new, not routine, and that they have struggled to get there....For whatever reason, most of my artists have remained loyal to me and the gallery throughout the years...

I was never satisfied with saying to myself, I’ve done my job, I can’t have much more, so why bother. There is still that spirit, let’s call it the vanguard spirit, which moves me. And I’ve always liked breaking away from the familiar and starting over with those artists who redefine what is and what is not art...

The art scene today is a supermarket compared to the grocery type of operation it was when I first opened my gallery over twenty-five years ago. You can no longer keep your artists today by saying imperiously, that you will help them survive from month to month on a modest stipend... The artist of the eighties has grand ambitions and the dealer who fails to realize it will soon lose his artists to the enormous competition.

It has always been part of my ambition to have every major artist and every important movement represented by my gallery. Over the last twenty-five years the only ones to escape me were the color field painters who emerged in the mid-sixties under the sway of the critic, Clement Greenberg: artists like Kenneth, Noland, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Poons, and so forth. But perhaps it was all to the good. Otherwise it would have been a total dictatorship.

The real question for me has always been one of historical importance. After all, a museum has to pick all the good paintings of a period. I felt I should do the same. Obviously, it was not possible, so I forgive myself for overlooking a few...

My motivation was to do something of lasting value, and especially something that would help the artists to go on with their work...

What has been my greatest satisfaction as a dealer? I feel, perhaps arrogantly, that any artist would come to me if I asked him... As long as you feel the whole world is at your disposal you’re satisfied.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 96 October 1999