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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 7 MAY 2010 — Whether Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, the Picasso painting that a few days ago sold for a record-breaking $106.5 million, is a work of artistic genius or an example of the painter beginning to relax into stylistic gimmickry is open to debate. What is inarguable is that it is iconic Picasso, and as such, will hold its value as a commodity. Equally inarguable is that at the nucleus of the concentric circles of events that led to this week’s sale is the man who can be credited (or blamed) for having single-handedly created the art-as-commodity phenomenon that bolstered the careers of many of the 20th century’s brand name artists: Leo Castelli.

The question that serves as the through line of Leo & His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli by Annie Cohen-Solal (Alfred A. Knopf, 525 pages) is this: How did a dandified dilettante, after two decades of living (in good part) off his father-in-law’s money and his own personal charm, turn himself, at the age of fifty, into one of the formative influences on the art of the second half of the twentieth century? It is not spoiling the book to say that the author never really answers her own question, but that is only because it is a question that probably cannot be answered.

New York, 420 West Broadway. Jasper Johns and Leo Castelli
pose before one the Seasons (1985–86) by Johns
Photo: Hans Namuth
Photo courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf

Cohen-Solal’s technique is to devote a long opening section to the background of her subject, who was born Leo Krausz to a bourgeois Jewish family in Trieste, in 1907. She begins in the Tuscan town of Monte San Savino, where, in the seventeenth century, the first records appear of the Castelli family. She then draws long, swirling lines through Jewish and European history and culture in an effort to build the case that the milieu and the times helped shape the man. That is likely a good basis for an answer to her question, at least in part; but genius of any degree cannot be easily attributed to any source except genius itself, especially when it appears in a late bloomer like Leo Castelli (or Cézanne, for that matter). To take a more extreme example, it is pointless to look into Elizabethan history and life to try to explain how a glover’s son without a higher education became the William Shakespeare we know. But as any therapist will tell you, family does exert its influence, and the Krauszes were one of those European Jewish families that, as Jews were emancipated in the nineteenth century, obtained and held some wealth and position, made an effort to dodge the question of their Jewishness and, in the person of Castelli himself, were smart enough to get out of Europe when the situation became untenable.

Leo became Krausz-Castelli, adding his mother’s maiden name to his father’s in response to a decree of 1934 that mandated the Italianization of surnames, and eventually became known simply as Castelli. He was a short man, always thin and well dressed. He worked in insurance in Trieste and then in Bucharest, where he married the daughter of one of Romania’s richest men (also Jewish). Next came Paris. After a brief but formative partnership with René Drouin in an art gallery that opened on the Place Vendôme on the brink of the Second World War, Castelli fled with his family to the United States (under the guidance of his father-in-law, who had shrewdly bought up factories in America in the 1930s). He ended up in New York City and volunteered for the Army soon after the United States entered the war. He returned to manage his father-in-law’s knitwear factory in Jamestown, New York but pursued modern art as a hobby — and passion.

Not until 1957 did Leo Castelli open his first American gallery space — in the bedroom of his daughter, Nina, while she was at Radcliffe. From there it was a short leap, by dint of his skill and insight to becoming a new kind of art dealer: a combination of gallery owner, broker, market maker and fame maker. As chronicled in detail by the author, it was Castelli who took the credit (by American reckoning) and the blame (by French reckoning) for the award of the grand prize at the Venice Biennale of 1964 to Robert Rauschenberg. He helped shift the center of the art world from Europe (that is, Paris) to the U.S. (that is, New York), and Cohen-Solal takes obvious delight in quoting and reporting about enraged French reactions to the passing of the baton to movements, such as Pop Art, that were initially alien to Europe. (In keeping with the author’s theme of the shaping force of milieu, to be Jewish in America since World War II is to understand fully the concept of payback.)

Castelli set up a network of worldwide dealers to build an international market for painters such as Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Roy Liechtenstein, Willem de Kooning and many others who would turn the United States, long a sideshow on the stage of fine art, into the main event of the era. Castelli invented his own profession, recasting the gallery owner as impresario — a person second in importance to the art he touched only to the artists themselves. Before Castelli, art galleries were retail stores; after him, they were temples to the Janus-faced contemporary god of art and money.

New York, 1 February 1982. 25th Anniversary Lunch of Castelli Gallery at The Odeon
Standing left – right: Ellsworth Kelly, Dan Flavin, Joseph Kosuth, Richard Serra, Lawerence Weiner, Nassos Daphnis, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenberg, Salvatore Scarpitta, Richard Artschwager, Mia Westerlund Roosen, Cletus Johnson, Keith Sonnier
Seated left – right: Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Leo Castelli, Ed Ruscha, James Rosenquist, Robert Barry
Photo: Hans Namuth
Photo courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf

Following Castelli’s lead, his first wife, Ileana Sonnabend, with her second husband, Michael Sonnabend, became both competitor and collaborator, owning galleries in Paris and New York that worked closely with Castelli. In 1999, Leo Castelli died while at home with his third wife, Barbara, having lived nearly all the century whose art he had championed. The Leo Castelli Gallery is still in operation, but Castelli would not be worth a biography merely for the storefronts and storage spaces he maintained.

Cohen-Solal is good to the promise of her title and uses her biography to portray the artists, dealers and others in the world of Leo Castelli. She does not dwell on postwar art history and theory but provides solid reporting on how the art of the period was sold and ever-higher prices obtained.

The author interviewed Castelli and was able to form part of her text from that experience and from personal interviews with others who knew him; that material, along with quotations from interviews conducted by others, help bring something of the feel of a documentary film to many passages. Cohen-Solal is clearly knowledgeable about her subject, and she presumes that her reader is well educated — that he already knows the art of the period and has a basic understanding of existentialism (she previously authored a biography of Jean-Paul Sartre) and of German. There are, however, what could be called mechanical problems with the book. The one that stands out is the title, Leo & His Circle, which would seem better suited to a children’s story. Another is her style, which is entertaining but which has a gushing, chatty quality in places, accented by a surplus of exclamation points. And the first paragraph of the first chapter offers a grammatical error.

Were the book a screenplay, the producer might politely ask to see another draft before giving the green light for production. For example, there are insightful passages such as this: “…Castelli was undertaking an important innovation in the art world — a functional link between market and museum, that is, between commercial agents (gallerists) and cultural arbiters (curators and directors).” That good line runs face-first into the brick wall of the obviousness of what follows: “As such, he perfectly epitomized the dealer as entrepreneur.” The statement is conclusory — and any dealer who seeks to earn a living from operating his own gallery is, by definition, an entrepreneur.

In the end, you have to admire the author’s fearlessness in daring, simply by publishing her book, to put the art dealer on par with the art maker. Art left in a closet isn’t art; it only becomes art when the expression of the artist is perceived by the viewer. The engine that drives the art from the closet to the viewer is money. Leo Castelli understood that essential but formerly hushed truth perhaps better than anyone else in the art world. Annie Cohen-Solal has helped us better understand Leo Castelli, and for that alone, her book deserves attention.

Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli
By Annie Cohen-Solal

Hardcover:  576 pages
Alfred A. Knopf (May 2010)
ISBN-10: 1400044278
ISBN-13: 978-1400044276