BY Louisa Buck in Profiles | 20 AUG 91
Featured in
Issue 2

King of New York

A profile of legendary dealer Leo Castelli

BY Louisa Buck in Profiles | 20 AUG 91

'That sonofabitch, give him two beer cans and he could sell them.' The sequel to Willem de Kooning's painterly pique is now art history. Jasper Johns made them and Leo Castelli sold them - to Robert Scull for $960. Johns's bronze Ballantine Ale cans are now ensconced as a pre-Pop icon. In a perspect shrine they formed the opening salvo of the Royal Academy's recent Pop Art blockbuster, and today Leo Castelli is treated with the kind of respect-bordering-on-reverence which is usually meted out to artists, not their dealers. 'The grand seigneur of an often dubious profession', is how the New Yorker sees Castelli, but while no one calls the 85-year-old major domo a sonofabitch anymore, his current position is rather more ambiguous than the plaudits would suggest.

There's no questioning the track record. Whether as the first comprehensive showcase for Pop, a home for heavy-metal minimalism, a seed bed for the gurus of '70s Conceptualism or an annexe for the '80s bad boys and their backers, the Castelli gallery has managed to have a slice of or a stake in virtually every art movement since the '50s. A roster of artists who have shown at the gallery reads like a checklist of post-war art heroes. It would therefore have been easy for Castelli to coast on the reputation and revenue of early blue-chip protégés such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella as well as a subsequent stable of major Popsters that included Lichtenstein, Rosenquist and Warhol, but instead Castelli's career and reputation rests on an apparent aversion to standing still. 'I like to move from one thing to another and find the best artists of a certain moment in history,' he says, and over the years this urge has led to his reinforcing the floors for an unknown Richard Serra, letting Joseph Kosuth write all over the walls, covering the space in Buren stripes and Schnabel plates and allowing Mike Bido's post-modernist lookalikes to send up some of the gallery's most prestigious artists on their own home turf.

Yet a scythe through the Castelli hagiography reveals not so much a possessor of an intuitive affinity with the artistic avant-garde but rather a consummate statesman with impeccable manners and highly tuned antennae. Robert Hughes is on lunching terms with Castelli but he's clear-eyed about how his friend has provided the right place for a number of different times. 'People now see him as an elderly Pope, because he's known as the dealer that launched Pop Art. But his track record has proved that he was pretty unideological; he was prepared to take on a range of artists of very different persuasions. He has good ears and a good nose and he's tended to listen to other artists and go on their taste as much as on his own.'

And it's not just artists. Apart from his ex-wife Ileana Sonnabend whose gallery is in the same block as Castelli's, among the first of what Hughes calls Castelli's 'seeing eye dogs' was the ebullient Bronx-born, Brooklyn-raised Ivan Karp who was Castelli's gallery manager and right-hand man between 1959 and 1969. Karp, who now owns the O K Harris Gallery across the street from Castelli on West Broadway originally brought John Chamberlain over from his previous employer Martha Jackson, and claims that it was his enthusiasm for Warhol, Lichtenstein and Artschwager which played a large part in influencing Castelli's thinking. 'I've known Leo for 32 years and he's a graceful charming man, but he's always allowed himself to be pushed around, especially over the last 15-20 years. When he said that you have to have a good ear as well as a good eye, that was when we fell out. I said, 'Leo it's only your eyes and your ears will follow', but he insisted on showing certain artists that he didn't even like because he said that it was politically sound to show them, and that everyone told him that he ought to show them.'

More recently this flexibility - or malleability depending on your point of view - has manifested itself in a series of alliances which somewhat tarnished the Papal aura. 'For the last ten years Leo's activity has consisted not of discovering artists but of discovering dealers,' states Robert Hughes, and according to Karp 'He's raised up any dealer who requested a lift, and his name has added luminosity to the enterprise.' While Castelli has always made a point of collaborating with a network of commercial galleries throughout America and Europe - by the mid '70s approximately 70% of his sales were to other galleries - from the early '80s onwards his choice of associations have caused the simultaneous raising of eyebrows and dropping of jaws within the art world.

'Enterprising enfants terribles' is how Hughes describes figures such as Mary Boone, Tony Shafrazi and Larry Gagosian with whom Castelli has shared artists, exhibitions and, in the case of Gagosian, a joint gallery space at 65 Thompson St. 'Lately Leo has had an almost 100% batting average of picking absolute crooks,' says a despairing but determinedly anonymous friend. Castelli's account is more optimistic: with convincing sincerity he calls Gagosian 'a great genius' and when he makes the earnestly-stated claim that 'I wanted to be involved in the great flowering of the secondary market, and Larry gave me a way to do it,' Castelli manages to make the sharkish sales practices of the '80s boom sound like a new Renaissance, with Gogo at the helm.

But then, Castelli is famously persuasive. In person this small, animated figure bears little resemblance to the hawkfaced, hood-eyed eminence grise of Warhol's and Mapplethorpe's portraits. Only the immaculate Italian suits are the same. Sitting in the middle of the open plan office at the back of the 420 West Broadway gallery Castelli confounds more preconceptions: he doesn't hide himself behind anterooms and acolytes and as he beams and gesticulates into a telephone receiver it's hard to believe he's an octogenarian with a pace maker. 'I am sort of gregarious, and not the solitary man who sits out of sight and directs other people,' he admits in a surprisingly thick Italian accent, and, with another roguish grin, 'l always sit out here and see everybody - too much sometimes for any work to get done.' His frank engaging manner bears out lvan Karp's claim that 'Leo wants everybody to love him and hold him in high esteem,' but during our conversation I'm increasingly aware that his considerable social skills also act as an effective smokescreen. By showing an intense interest in everyone else, Castelli manages to reveal very little about himself.

It's always been to Castelli's advantage to present a moving target. Eminent art world figures such as William Rubin may describe him as 'a model art dealer', but in fact Castelli was almost fifty when he opened his first gallery in 1957, and his image as a cultured European figure coexists with a reputation as a shrewd operator whose history is entwined with the culture of postwar America. He is as famous for keeping his own counsel as he is for being talkative, and as renowned for being formal as for being friendly. 'People who know Leo feel comfortable with his mixture of European charm and American ease,' explains Karp. 'In fact he's not all that patrician, but he could always convey it, which was what people really admired. Americans love the idea that the art dealer should have some mysterious ancient origin.'

Castelli's origins may not be patrician, or even especially ancient, but they were undoubtedly comfortable - and colourful. Born in Trieste in 1907 where his Hungarian-Jewish father was a successful banker, Leo and his brother and sister grew up in comfortable bourgeois surroundings, which Castelli has described as 'lots of pretty girls, tennis and swimming.' He remembers Trieste as 'a city of minorities' which was both the port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and an ancient Italian city, and the five languages which he now speaks were picked up at an early age. 'My background is a product of many cultures' he told me, 'And that has made me flexible.' It also broadened his ambitions: 'I wanted to be a Renaissance man, not only intellectually but physically.'

In between skiing in the Alps and mountain climbing in the Dolomites, the aspiring polymath picked up a law degree at the University of Milan, and via strings pulled by his father Leo began a half-hearted career in insurance. But there was a silver lining. It was while Castelli was working for a Bucharest company that he met and married his first wife, Ileana Shapira, whose father happened to be one of Rumania's leading industrial magnates. It was Shapira's influence and revenue which enabled the couple to launch themselves upon Paris and for Castelli to make his first foray into the art world.

His first gallery had a brief life but a lasting reputation. With the architect and designer Rene Drouin he set up shop in May 1939 in the tres chic Place Vendome, strategically situated between the Ritz Hotel and the couturier Elsa Schiaparelli, whose trademark 'Shocking' pink and outrageous Dali-designed outfits were then covering the backs of the demi-monde. Although neither Castelli nor Drouin knew much about contemporary art, they had the then novel idea of showing furniture and objects made by Drouin alongside pieces designed by the major artists of the day. Since the Parisian avant-garde was still dominated by Surrealism, the gallery opened with an exhibition of fantastic objects cooked up by a handful of group members. 'The atmosphere was very special, chic and decadent,' Castelli remembers, and all fashionable Paris flocked to see a golden-hair-framed mirror by Meret Oppenheim, a cupboard with doors in the shape of life-size swan-women, designed by Leo's childhood friend Leonor Fini, and the breathing chair by Salvador Dali which never materialised since he couldn't find a mechanism to make it work. Reeling from their triumphant debut, the partners closed up shop for the Summer, and in September war broke out.

Via Cannes, Morocco, Lisbon and Cuba, and accompanied by their dachshund and their baby daughter's English nanny, the Castelli entourage arrived in New York in 1941. The well-heeled refugees bypassed Ellis Island for an apartment on upper Fifth Avenue, thoughtfully provided by Schapira, who was already established in Manhattan. 'As for earning a living, l hadn't ever given it a thought,' Castelli subsequently admitted, and apart from a brief spell as a post-graduate history student at Columbia University and another in the American army most of Leo and Ileana's time was spent amongst artists.

Castelli's arrival in New York coincided with the international centre of Modern art shifting from Paris across the Atlantic, and he soon found himself 'in the thick of it.' His new friends were the Abstract Expressionists: Willem de Kooning painted in the Castelli's East Hampton Summer house and Jackson Pollock regularly hurtled over in his model T Ford and disrupted dinner. Castelli claims that the Abstract Expressionists begged him to set up a gallery and represent them, but Robert Hughes thinks that the reverse is more likely. 'Leo couldn't get a footing except with new art, as the Abstract Expressionist market was pretty much sewn up.'

In any case, Castelli's first New York gallery couldn't have been on a smaller scale. It opened in the living room of his 3rd floor apartment. 'I was uncertain about my capacities and there was very little money around at the time,' he remembers. (A token stake in the father-in-law's knitwear factory paid the rent but little else.) The patrician streak played its part, too: 'I also considered myself too much of a gentleman, in the old European sense, to indulge in commerce.'

The evolution of Castelli the connoisseur-collector into Castelli the art dealer was a gradual process - some say that psychologically he has never fully made that transition - but it was accelerated by one incident which Castelli calls his 'epiphany.' The story has now become etched into the annals of art history and it goes as follows. In 1957, at the instigation of Rauschenberg who lived on the floor above, Castelli walked down a flight of wooden stairs into a studio in New York's financial district and was confronted by the paintings of a young artist called Jasper Johns. 'It was an extraordinary experience: incredibly mature paintings by a young man of 27. They were masterpieces, an amazing array of images. Alphabets, numerals, flags, targets... a treasure trove. To say that l was impressed is understating it; l was bowled over. Then and there I asked him to join the gallery.' By taking on Johns and his friend Robert Rauschenberg Castelli has been credited with bridging the gap between Abstract Expressionism and Pop. In the next few years the stream of names that were to become text book classics - Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Cy Twombly, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Christo and Claes Oldenberg - all went on the roster. The Castelli gallery became an indispensable part of the '60s.

But some of the era's eccentricities were to prove too excessive for Castelli's sensibilities. He already knew Andy Warhol as a successful graphic designer who regularly visited the gallery and who had once bought a Jasper Johns drawing of a lightbulb. Now Andy wanted to transform himself into a 'real' artist and a member of the Castelli stable. In the summer of 1960 Castelli accompanied Ivan Karp to Warhol's studio. The visit was not a success. 'Leo was put off by the work and especially by Andy who was shy and rather eccentric looking.' Karp recalls. 'As well as wearing one of his new silver blonde wigs, Andy had put on a theatrical mask, and when we came in he offered one to each of us. A rock and roll record was blasting out over and over again.' A nonplussed Castelli decided to pass on Warhol. He says that it was because Warhol's paintings of cartoon heroes seemed too close to Roy Lichtenstein's, but according to Karp it was social. 'He was turned off by the mask, the music and the background of elaborate furnishings.'

Yet there are indications that Castelli has not always been so fastidious. Before becoming the patron saint of the art world Castelli was accused of being a mere manipulator of prices and reputations. A pioneer, in fact, of the bullish market practices from which his current elevated status now exonerates him, if not his partners. Today Castelli condemns the raiding of rival galleries as 'a bad habit that's getting more and more prevalent.' But his critics point out that while he initially rejected Warhol, Castelli was only too happy to take the artist off Eleanor Ward's hands after the runaway success of Andy's debut show of Brillo boxes and Mona Lisas at her Stable Gallery, and more tongues started wagging two years later when the Castelli gallery put on the famous show of James Rosenquist's 50-foot F-III billboard painting just after the artist had jumped ship from Richard Bellany's Gallery. Castelli admits that he welcomed both these figures (and several more since) into his fold 'with open arms' but he looks pained at any mention of robber barons. 'When an artist leaves another gallery and joins mine there are often bitter feelings, but in the end I have kept a good relationship with dealers from whom I have got important artists.' His attitude becomes distinctly papal as he sternly assures me that 'There are many very complex reasons why an artist can leave one gallery and go to another.' 'Leo was never greedy, never!' protests Ivan Karp. 'He loved fame, he loved attention but as far as money was concerned, it never interested him. When David Rockefeller invited him to lunch at the Carlisle, Leo paid! I said, 'Leo, how could you do it, when we can't pay the fucking light bill!' He said, 'It seemed like the right thing to do, somehow.' He has absolutely no selling techniques or devices and no real business acumen.'

Castelli himself admits that 'no reasonable businessman would run his enterprise the way I do. 'The gallery's gross turnover may now run into millions, but from the beginning the major beneficiary has been the artists. Whereas most galleries take between forty and sixty per cent of the sale price, since the mid-60s it has been policy for Castelli's stable to receive a regular stipend whether their work sells or not. Often it hasn't. lvan Karp remembers one occasion when the sculptor John Chamberlain was having an unproductive period and his debt to the gallery stood at more than $40,000, so Karp suggested that his monthly payment be halved. 'Leo looked at me as if I had suggested murder.' remembers Karp, 'His response was: "How could l? He couldn't get along on that".' The money continued, and history has proved that the investment has paid off.

However great Castelli's gallery extravagances, they are not reflected in his lifestyle. Unlike most top league dealers, Castelli lives on a more modest scale than many of his artists. For the past twenty years he has occupied (alone since the death of his second wife Toiny Fraissex du Bost in 1989) a medium-sized apartment on 5th avenue overlooking Central Park, and he spends every summer in--house in the South of France. Apart from a sharp line in Italian suits, Castelli's only conspicuous acknowledgement of his status is the customised number plate on his silver Mercedes which echoes his artists' favourite name for their artworks: UNTITLED. It's just as well that he has the numberplate since he now owns very few of the works themselves. Apart from a few classic pieces such as Jasper Johns's Target with Plaster Casts which has been hanging in his living room since he bought it from Johns' first show in 1958, Castelli's art collection is modest. 'I should perhaps have made a better effort to keep something out of every show,' he says, 'but it wasn't easy, money was needed and the pressure of the collectors was very high. Now it's even worse because the works of the major players have become so expensive. I couldn't even afford a drawing by Jasper - which is about $40,000 - anymore.'

Castelli may no longer accumulate artworks, but it also seems that he's not so interested in promoting their makers, either. His practice of teaming up with some of his less revered commercial colleagues may have stopped his gallery from becoming a monument to past movements, but many of his friends give a more personal explanation for Castelli's decision to dabble with the bad boys of the 80s poisoned playground. Robert Hughes sees Castelli's surprising metamorphosis into a champion of hot and heavy Boone-baby neo-expressionists as part of a quest for eternal youth. 'A lot of that stuff acted like liver extract for Leo. It's all about him wanting to feel young again.' And Hughes puts the same interpretation on Castelli's relationship with the infamous secondary market operator Larry Gagosian. 'If you're not au courant then you fall into the posture of an old fogey, and that's death in this youth-obsessed artworld.' Ivan Karp agrees: 'The man wants to be loved, he wants everyone to hold him in high esteem and that's put him in a vulnerable position.'

Yet it now seems that Castelli's magnanimity is acting against him. The cuckoos nurtured in the Castelli nest are not just biting the hand that's tended them, they're also tipping out the remaining eggs. 'My relationship with Leo really has to do with artists, both artists he's discovered me showing and artists I've discovered him showing,' Mary Boone told me in a carefully-phrased, reluctantly-yielded interview last spring. Her words took on a new meaning when, during the week that we met the news broke that Richard Artschwager, who had been with Castelli since the mid-60s, had unexpectedly jumped ship to join her gallery. Castelli can take some solace in the fact that his partner Larry Gagosian has poached David Salle from Boone's stable, but many fear that Gagosian is now putting pressure on Castelli to help Gogo win the prized estate of Willem de Kooning, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

But Castelli is unbowed. 'The art scene today is a supermarket compared to the grocery-type operation that it was when I first opened my gallery,' he says, 'And I think I still have a respect from those around me and' - he laughs - 'that is good. After all, I'm still here!' In the inhospitable terrain of today's deflating art market Leo Castelli is living proof that in order to be a Pope, you also have to be a pragmatist. And it also helps to be a Peter Pan.' Of course you have to be trendy, what else is there but trends?' It's hard to argue with him.

Main image: Ugo Mulas, Jasper Johns, 1964, vintage gelatin silver print, 25 × 37 cm. Courtesy: Ugo Mulas Archive, Milan; photograph: © Ugo Mulas Heirs

Louisa Buck is a writer based in London, UK.