PRINT May 2010


Annie Cohen-Solal’s Leo & His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli

Annie Cohen-Solal; translated by Mark Polizzotti with Annie Cohen-Solal, Leo & His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli (New York: Knopf, 2010), 576 pages.

IF JOHNS AND RAUSCHENBERG, Lichtenstein and Warhol, Rosenquist and Twombly, Stella and Serra (among many others) are household names, their currency is not solely the result of their art but that of the efforts made on their behalf by a diffident, courtly European—a counsel-keeping, omniscient eye at the center of a swirling storm. Hardly in the first flush of youth, Leo Castelli was fifty when he opened his New York gallery at 4 East Seventy-seventh Street in February 1957. After the briefest of hesitations, during which he allowed himself a retrospective glance at his European origins, his essentially American roster began in the second season, marking the beginning of an incremental ascent of prestige, with exhibitions of the encaustics of Jasper Johns, the implacable rationalism of Frank Stella’s shaped canvases, the classic Roy Lichtenstein ’toon paintings, the pensive heroics of Cy Twombly, the billboard dreamscapes of James Rosenquist. Often enough, these works would then suddenly be acquired by Alfred H. Barr Jr. for the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York or be those making premonitory debuts in Dorothy Miller’s taste-creating surveys of new American artists for the same museum. This was all long before proper “dues” had been paid, as people commented at the time; early recognition was troubling if not anathema to the prior generation of artists, a generation beaten on the anvil of the Great Depression and the tragic horrors of the World War II, and appalled by the very notion of “success.” The seemingly instantaneous recognition granted to Castelli’s artists was an affront to the poverty particularly associated with the Abstract Expressionists, with whom he was actually deeply embedded; yet when he opened, he was not in a position to represent them, for all their kinship—that place was already occupied by Sidney Janis, Betty Parsons, and Sam Kootz, among others. Nor would he ever represent them, despite close friendships with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and others. By contrast, Castelli will ever be associated with the neo-Dada proclivities of Johns and Rauschenberg, the reductivist analyses of Stella, and the embrace of Pop in Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, as he “kept up” with, or seemingly anticipated, each successive wave of stylistic differentiation. Minimalism, post-Minimalism, Conceptualism, and neoexpressionism—the cutting edges of the numerous modes that arose between the 1960s and the ’80s—all came to be represented by Castelli.

Yet it was not only his alertness to such innovations that distinguished Castelli but also that he placed service to the artist far above the bottom line, pioneering alternative, experimental spaces (expanding into SoHo, for instance), placing bibliographic and photographic services at the disposition of critics and researchers gratis, and long paying out monthly stipends to gallery artists, even those who one imagines never knew lean periods. In so doing, he not only ratified but reified these shifts in taste even when, often enough, such support brought him precipitously close to financial ruin. Given neither to confidence nor to complaint, Castelli regarded me as sufficiently close—we met some sixty years ago when I was a high school classmate of his daughter, Nina—to share with me, for example, that an installation of a Richard Serra show had set him back more than eighty thousand dollars (it was an earlier moment) with not a jot of criticism to show for it, forget about a sale.

It is, however, the five decades preceding these accomplishments that provide the bedrock on which Annie Cohen-Solal—a lauded biographer of Jean-Paul Sartre and a former cultural counselor to the French Embassy—has built her monumental biography. Her ample monograph is really three complex studies. The first, a section subtitled “Persecutions, Wars, Ruptures, Displacements,” investigates Castelli’s family roots in Renaissance Tuscany, his Habsbürgerlich childhood in Trieste and Viennese education during World War I, his marriage to Ileana Schapira (later Sonnabend), and the sequence of events from his birth in 1907 until 1946, including the Castellis’ flight from Vichy France and arrival in America in 1941. The second section is devoted to “The Years of the Metamorphosis” (1946–56), when Leo and Ileana became necessary fixtures of Abstract Expressionist society—as rare dealer-members of “the Club” on East Eighth Street (the other was the hard-drinking Charles Egan), and when Castelli played a primary role in the organization of the “Ninth Street Show” in 1951, that first giant overview that demonstrated the growing disaffection for European painting becoming manifest in American art. By the third section (1957–98), Castelli has become “Absolute Leader of American Art.” Thrilling chapters here ensue, on the famous coup de foudre with Johns that took place serendipitously while the Castellis were visiting Rauschenberg’s adjoining studio; the tumult of the Venice Biennale of 1964, where Team Leo—Leo, Ileana, and Alan Solomon, the director of the Jewish Museum in New York, who had been gang-pressed into becoming commissioner of the American pavilion—were supposed to have “bought” the grand prize in painting for Rauschenberg; the fallout from Henry Geldzahler’s disputatious exhibition “New York Painting and Sculpture, 1940–1970,” held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1969, with its stunning contingent of Castelli artists; and the global expansion of the gallery and the network of Castelli affiliates.

These boom years were, as Cohen-Solal recounts, followed by more difficult times, soured not only by the depredations of age—growing deafness, fibrillations, pacemakers—but also by the very success of the subsequent generations of art dealers who had in considerable measure been rendered successful through direct affiliation with Castelli and his artists to begin with. Things certainly got tougher as the turf expanded, even if this transformation was largely the result of Castelli’s own efforts. It was not so much that Castelli had lost his intuition for what was dans l’air—Ileana was the eyes, Leo the ears (and Ivan Karp’s liberal lieutenancy at the beginning should also be noted)—but that the terrain of what constituted the art of the moment had grown immensely broader, with new artists emerging alongside galleries and dealers of their own generation. Not that Leo was above poaching, but by the ’80s, his preeminence was predicated rather more on the classical stability of his roster and less on his vaunted flair for the discovery of the coming thing.

CLAIMING THAT CASTELLI’S “unrivaled knack [can] only be fully grasped” by delving deep into history, Cohen-Solal begins her story with far distant events. A band of wandering Jews, among them a certain Castelli family, who had been driven from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 by the murderous pieties of Isabel la Católica, eventually reached Monte San Savino, a village in northern Italy. Here they lived in relative tranquility for some three hundred years and came to hold a monopoly on the manufacture of paper—possibly the paper on which Michelangelo drew the Libyan Sibyl. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, violent anti-Semitism was on the rise once more and the Castellis were forced to move again, finally arriving at the Adriatic port of Trieste, a city open to Jewish settlement by edict of its Enlightenment autocrat, the Hapsburg empress Maria Theresa of Austria.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Castelli brothers headed a grandly successful coffee-importing business situated on the Neoclassical quay of this beautiful city. The arrival on the molo of a certain Ernesto Krausz, the Hungarian-born father of the dealer-to-be, must have made them yet more cognizant of their Hapsburg debt when he married into the clan and incrementally mounted to the highest rung of the Triestine banking world. Cohen-Solal creates gripping portraits of Krausz and his surmounting of his modest origins, as well as of the Romanian industrialist Mihai Schapira—the most fantastic of the key characters in Leo’s life and the father of Ileana.

Cohen-Solal’s disclosure of the distinguished Jewish family history of which Castelli himself was only in part aware—when he was not ignoring or suppressing it for purposes of social advancement—is a miracle of scholarship. Her reconstruction of the incinerated Austro-Hungarian golden age, including the world of Eastern European and Italian banking, is astonishing. And her telling of Castelli’s own life story makes for a great bildungsroman. But there is also, perhaps, a touch of exceptionalist pride in Cohen-Solal’s interpretation of the motivations of the dealer and his forebears, as when she postulates that his “background suggests the hypothesis that Castelli’s exceptional skill at negotiating between money and art is a long-cultivated, almost genetically based, gift forged by centuries of political and social persecution.” This recalls the near-atavistic determinism of race and milieu promulgated by the naturalist critic Hippolyte Taine, whose original critique of culture was, in the twentieth century, negatively twisted into the obsession with racial differentials concomitant with fascism’s successful years. In positive terms, nevertheless, it was absorbed into an aspect of the Annales school of historiography, of which the chief exponent was Fernand Braudel; latterly, Cohen-Solal has distinguished herself as a biographer working along similar lines. The Annalistes see history not as a simple narrative but rather as the record of a “total history,” one focused on “globalizing concerns” and committed to the longue durée, a history evocative of climate, geography, sociology, and anthropology, one that reveals the slow and deep transformations of societies, of personalities—of mentalités, as they are wont to say. In that sense, that Castelli ultimately became a grand merchant-prince was in measure the flowering of seeds cast centuries before. To achieve her end, Cohen-Solal interviewed everyone from the most distant surviving relations of the dealer to the most recent of his associates, and uncovered precious documents in Hungary, Romania, Trieste, Paris, and New York, remnants and clues leading to still further clues. Small wonder that the French edition of this biography (published by Gallimard last year) was recognized for its exemplary scholarship with the Artcurial prize for the year’s best book on modern art.

TO RETURN, HOWEVER, to the story at hand. The twenty-year hiatus of “peace” preceding World War II was, for most Europeans, a nightmare of political mutilation, Spartacist insurgency, Bolshevik civil war, inflation, economic depression, Fascist triumph, and hand-to-mouth grubbery. Not so for the Krauszes, the Castellis, and the Schapiras, families now linked by marriage. (At least, not at first: Even their creamy train of life would disintegrate, as Leo discovered firsthand in 1945 when back in Europe from the United States on assignment to Hungary and Romania as a member of the Office of Strategic Services. There he learned from his sister, Silvia, that their starving mother had drowned while attempting to cross the Danube, and that their father had died from the results of a gangrenous wound for which no treatment could then be obtained.)

Still, the rise of Italian Fascism in the 1920s quickly insisted on the Italianization of seemingly German or Slavic names; hence we meet Castelli first as a Krausz, then bringing in his mother’s maiden name to become Krausz-Castelli, and finally as Castelli tout court when he is placed in uncongenial banking or insurance posts owing to a network of family alliances. The Duce’s irredentismo—the beginning of modern identity politics and ethnic cleansing, a weapon even more cruelly employed in the hands of the Nazis—did not deeply disrupt Leo and Ileana, however, as they left Italy for France in the ’30s and set up housekeeping in a Neuilly town house, replete with the requisite butler, cook, chauffeur, and maids, all paid for by the forbearing Schapira. (Wassily Kandinsky was a neighbor, a detail that had postwar consequences when Nina Kandinsky, the painter’s exacting widow, granted Castelli representation of the master’s work in the United States, leading to his first bouts of serious art dealing here.) The couple embraced the last-gasp indolence associated with swank Europe between the wars—that of Art Deco and the streamlined Paris ’37 style.

By the end of the ’30s, the fainéant Castelli had managed to open a chic emporium beside the Ritz in Paris, having entered into a partnership with the designer-decorator René Drouin (who had “done” the Castelli house in Neuilly), an enterprise once again paid for by the limitlessly patient Schapira. Finally, the young couple realized that they had to escape the threat of German occupation—first traveling to the south of France, to the Villa Isabelle, another Schapira property situated on the Mediterranean. There they deluded themselves into believing that the Vichy “free zone” (created collusively with the Hitler and Pétain governments) would grant at least temporary protection to deep-pocketed and assimilated Jews. But soon enough, the villa harbored Varian Fry’s crème de la crème intellectual and artist refugees—among them André Breton and Peggy Guggenheim—all desperate for the visas and clearances that would allow them to reach the United States. As money ran out, the Castellis were cornered, repeatedly turned back at every port and border by a Fascist bureaucracy and extortionary pettifoggery in which the French were disgracefully complicit. Fear became their daily bread. Two dei ex machina were their saviors: a fellow clubman from Castelli’s halcyon days, by then a Fascist officer in charge of signing the final papers of transit, and a former banking colleague who had become an Italian spy in love with Nina’s English governess. With this governess in tow, the family disembarked in New York in March of 1941, just months prior to the American entry into the conflagration, settling into the marble town house (yet another Schapira possession) that eventually became the seat of Castelli’s first galleries.

WITH EUROPE AT LAST having been left behind, Cohen-Solal turns to a curious interpretive paradigm—that of the cultural volte-face. As Paul Durand-Ruel had brought Impressionism to America in the nineteenth century, so did Castelli, in the twentieth, reverse that course of instruction—across a range of farsighted European collectors, Count Panza di Biumo and Peter Ludwig among them—by impressing the superseding importance of American art upon a largely incredulous and smug European audience. John Russell emphasized this fact as among the reasons for Castelli’s “special place in the trade” in his obituary in the New York Times in 1999, noting that the dealer “convinced Europeans that the new American art of the 1960s was of the highest international importance. Nothing like that had happened before.”

It is interesting in this regard to note that for all of Castelli’s desultory reading in the literature of modern languages, while in Europe he had remained largely unaware of the history of modern art, even granting his flirtation with dernier cri Surrealism in the Paris gallery he opened in 1939. It was the great Barr himself who, shortly after Castelli’s arrival, introduced him to the rationalized history of modern art he promulgated as first director of MoMA. His famous diagrammatic version of the history of modern art, though often assailed, remains, in my opinion, an unshakable armature onto which subsequent stylistic particularities continue to be appended: It has been transformed—yes—but not superseded. For Barr, in turn, it would be Castelli who revealed to him the younger reaches of American modernism: The MoMA director would often stop by the gallery in strolling from home to museum, thereby sharpening the focus of his model to reflect more contemporary developments.

Both deeply reserved in speech and manner, Barr and Castelli understood each other well, but others, as Cohen-Solal relates, insistently confounded admiration with affection for the dealer when his diffident affability really warranted restraint. Castelli’s lovehate relationships with a raft of younger dealers—Irving Blum, Arne Glimcher, and Joe Helman among them—tell of long business friendships atrophied by bitterness, as tutelage gave way to abandonment, which was presumably tutelage all the more. Observing Castelli’s fluent movements as he greeted the crowd, Helman on one occasion turned to me and commented, “Fastest unicycle in the East.” Several pages of the biography are also devoted to the antagonism between Castelli and Geldzahler. With the latter’s appointment as first curator of contemporary art at the Met, and the exhibition of recent New York art he organized there, he “invaded” Castelli’s “proprietary niche,” she writes. There was also the question of Geldzahler’s close friendship with Warhol, the last of the major Pop artists to be taken on—reluctantly, it so happens—by Castelli, who was put off by Warhol’s swish manner. Cohen-Solal wonders whether Castelli’s “unease” with such flamboyance constituted “a blind spot in this consummate professional.” (For my part, I recall how Castelli fussed awkwardly about Warhol, needlessly fearful of his son Jean-Christophe’s schoolboy reaction to the artist, which one might sum up with the present-day catchphrase “He’s so gay”—an opinion with which Warhol, who did possess a certain irony about himself, despite his famous absence of affect, would have concurred.) The “don’t ask, don’t tell” of Johns and Rauschenberg was more congenial to their dealer, who clearly idolized them. This is perhaps the sole area—necessarily one of speculation—that is largely glossed over in Cohen-Solal’s book; it is linked, no doubt, to the male chauvinism typical of the period (and of the gallery roster, despite the discovery of Lee Bontecou) that is left unexamined in her 360-degree tour d’horizon.

Yet at times Cohen-Solal is unsparing of her neat, sportive, well-stitched, well-shod, polyglot, uxorious hero. (He was to marry three times, the last in 1995 to Barbara Bertozzi, an Italian journalist some forty-three years his junior, who maintains a downsized version of the gallery to this day). “Apolitical,” Cohen-Solal says, “insulated, naïve, callow, and pampered.” These are but some of the more than convincing adjectives she reserves for Castelli, her deep personal affection for him notwithstanding. (It often struck me in years past that Cohen-Solal, along with MoMA trustee Barbara Jakobson, enjoyed one of the dealer’s great platonic friendships.) Despite Castelli’s conscientious desire for the appearance of domestic rectitude throughout his life, there was always the issue of the contrast between his extramarital sorties and the public displays of nuptial consideration he insisted on even as they were being traduced. The alcohol-inflamed misery of his second wife, “Toiny” Fraissex du Bost (Jean-Christophe’s mother), was, as Cohen-Solal recounts, exacerbated by Leo’s clockwork complicity with Ileana once they had consummated their divorce made in heaven in 1959. After the opening of the Sonnabend Gallery (with her husband Michael Sonnabend) three years later in Paris, Ileana and Leo shared many of the artists they had jointly discovered. Such complex personal issues conspired to create an occasionally strained gallery atmosphere, for all the confetti and champagne.

In more recent times, Castelli’s friendly feelings for Larry Gagosian provoked enormous art-world speculation—who was using whom? Yet Castelli made it quite clear to me that he simply liked the brash, steel-haired poster dealer from Los Angeles, and admired the louche vagueness that then attached to “Gogo”’s ascent (and now to his empire of galleries). Gagosian’s audacity was of an order that Castelli himself always felt constrained to suppress or disguise. At the end it seemed that Gagosian was to be Castelli’s anointed successor (there never really was one), though boyish, bookish Jeffrey Deitch made direct overtures to Castelli, hoping to be taken on as a member of the firm. Indeed, Deitch’s career as an art dealer, like that of Gagosian, is an impressive achievement in itself, and his youthful hopes for apprenticing with Castelli speak only to his sound good sense. Whatever disappointment Deitch may have felt (if any) is amply parried by his recent appointment as the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, an appointment that may be read as a final Leonine victory: It was a dealer, after all—not an academic or an institutional suit waiting in the wings—who was chosen to head the museum, a choice echoing the prestige, initiative, and credibility that Leo Castelli, undisputed impresario of contemporary American art, brought to the profession.

Robert Pincus-Witten is a writer and critic based in New York.