It didn’t take long for Leo Castelli to establish himself as one of America’s premiere art dealers. In 1957, he opened the Leo Castelli Gallery on East 77th Street in Manhattan, and less than a year later, in January 1958, he took center stage with an exhibition of Jasper Johns. By painting signs and objects flatly as if without interpretation, Johns tried to erase the distinction between art and the everyday world and influenced a rising generation of artists fleeing the philosophical rigor of Abstract Expressionism. In the months to come, Castelli became the launch pad for the dominant art movement of the ’60s, Pop Art, with exhibits by Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein.
Little wonder that the Castelli Gallery was where Andy Warhol, then a commercial artist unknown to collectors, wanted to be shown. Long before Warhol painted his Campbell’s Soup cans, the European expatriate gallery owner became a leading tastemaker in American Art.
Castelli was born Leo Krausz in 1907, to a prominent Jewish family in the port of Trieste on the Adriatic, an Austro-Hungarian city that passed to Italy after World War I.
If ever there was a prototype of the quintessential dealer of high-end art, Castelli was made to order.
The son of a banker, Castelli grew up in a cosmopolitan setting of affluence. He spoke many languages fluently and passed easily across borders, including the gateway to the world of art. After graduating from the University of Milan with a law degree, his father secured him a position with an insurance company in Trieste, followed by a transfer to Bucharest in 1932. Because of rising nationalist sentiment, the Krauszes were forced to adapt Leo’s mother’s family name, the Italian-sounding Castelli. After marrying the daughter of one of Romania’s wealthiest financiers, Castelli was posted to the Paris branch of Banca d’Italia.
Paris proved to be one of the turning points of Castelli’s life. Influenced by his wife’s keen regard for art and their acquaintance with the French interior designer and architect Rene Drouin and his wife, the high-spirited foursome partnered their creative aspirations and opened the Rene Drouin Gallery in July 1939. Capitalizing on Surrealism, the avant garde movement of the moment, the stylish space on the Place Vendome featured modern furniture mixed with antiques and modern artwork including a painting by Max Ernst. The gallery attracted the interest of the cultural savants of Paris society and was well received in the international press. With the outbreak of World War II, Drouin was drafted into the army. Like the characters in the film classic “Casablanca,” Castelli fled Paris and traveled on a winding path to the safety of the New World. He eventually landed in New York in 1941.
Volunteering in the U.S. Army in 1943, Castelli served in army intelligence in occupied France, adding a veil of intrigue to his expanding multi-layered resume as the cosmopolitan man with connections.
After the war, Castelli was granted U.S. citizenship as a result of his military service. He settled in New York with his wife and daughter and found work managing a knitting factory. But his thought returned to art and memories of his prewar Paris gallery. Frequenting galleries and museums, he absorbed the cultural refinements of the city’s elite.
Establishing associations with artists and looking for trends, he perceived the direction of art was changing and had a hunch that the next big thing was just around the corner.
Castelli once told The New Yorker that having “a good ear” for art was at least as important as having a good eye. What he was hearing in the 1950s was that there was an enormous talent pool in the U.S. and the center of gravity in the art world was shifting from Paris to New York. With his old-world connections, Castelli was now poised to capitalize on the shift. He was becoming the bridge between the old and the new.
Castelli had established a working relationship with gallery owner Sidney Janis, who showcased the top-of-the-line European Modern Art and lesser-known Modernists such as Piet Mondrian. Castelli occasionally assisted Janis and suggested bringing American Modernists to the lineup. In 1950, with Castelli assisting, Janis exhibited “Young U.S. and French Painters,” and the stage was set. There was the American DeKooning beside the Frenchman Dubuffet, Pollack beside Lanskoy, Rothko next to de Stael and Klein showing with Soulages. Castelli reflected years later of the show: “It proved one thing, however, that there really was no connection, except on a very superficial level, between European and American painting.”
In 1957, when he opened Leo Castelli for business on the fourth floor of the brownstone where he and his family lived, he emerged as one of the most influential American art dealers of the century. The first exhibit included a powerhouse of European and American art by DeKooning, Pollack, David Smith and DuBuffet, Giacometti, Leger and Delauney. His gallery continued to develop and promote the cutting edge in new art, as the spectrum shifted from Pop through Minimalist, Conceptual and Neo-Expressionist movements. As a result of the attention given them by Castelli, the work of American artists found its way into British and European museums and private collections.
The American masters Castelli represented included Jasper Johns, whom he saw as the forerunner of a new American art, along with Minimalist painter and sculptor Frank Stella and Pop artists Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg. In a 1970 interview, Castelli commented on artists’ loyalty: “Although I knew already that Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg would be the stars of my gallery, I did not imagine that they would be the ones who appeared at the very beginning and would still be with me. There are no others except those two.”
After a long life in art, Castelli died in 1999 at the age of 91. In October 2007, Castelli’s heirs announced the donation of the gallery’s archives from 1957 through 1999 to the Smithsonian Institution. The Leo Castelli Gallery continues to operate at 18 East 77th St., in New York under the direction of his last wife, Barbara Bertozzi, showing many of the same artists from the gallery’s distinguished past. ?
Mary Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, Wis. A columnist for Antique Trader since 2006, Manion is a member of the New England Appraisers Association.
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