Ten Juicy Tales from the New Leo Castelli Biography

Ten Juicy Tales from the New Leo Castelli Biography

For four decades, from the late 1950s to late 1990s, Leo Castelli ran a gallery in New York City that introduced the world to many of postwar America's greatest artists, including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella. Along the way, he almost single-handedly launched the contemporary art market as it exists today — a global souk filled with jet-setting artists, trans-national gallery networks, and collectors vying fiercely for a limited supply of goods. “You can see them really shining with desire,” Castelli once said of those last besotted unfortunates. “There are some really primitive compulsions there.”

The long, remarkable career of Castelli is documented in Annie Cohen-Solal's deeply-researched new biography, Leo and His Circle (Knopf). For your condensed beach-reading pleasure, ARTINFO has digested ten of the biography’s most fascinating tales:

LEO CASTELLI, THE LATE BLOOMER
Despite a short stint helping to run a gallery in Paris right before the outbreak of World War II, Castelli did not begin his career as a full-fledged gallerist until he was 50 years old. Cohen-Solal writes that until that time he was “[g]liding among many activities, but steadily headed from the periphery to the center of the action while embodying multiple identities: dilettante, European with no occupation, collector with no money, husband with many girlfriends.” [p. 200-201]

CASTELLI'S SECRET WEAPON:Marcel Duchamp
Castelli said that Duchamp was the measure he used when assessing the quality of artists he was considering representing. “The key figure in my gallery is somebody that I never showed, and that was Marcel Duchamp,” Castelli is quoted as saying. “Painters who are not influenced by Duchamp just don’t belong here.” [p. 267]

THE COLD BEVERAGE THAT LAUNCHED Jasper Johns' CAREER
When Rauschenberg offered Castelli a drink during a studio visit in the late 1950s, the dealer asked for ice, leading the artist to invite him downstairs to Johns’ apartment, where the building's shared refrigerator located. The artist's flag, number, alphabet, and target paintings were on display, and Castelli was thunderstruck, offering a solo show to Johns on the spot. Only after much urging from his wife, Ileana, did Castelli finally organize a solo show for Rauschenberg. [p. 243]

 

LEO CASTELLI, ARTFUL SEDUCER
Art dealer Larry Gagosian, who collaborated with Castelli on a joint SoHo space, reminisces about Castelli’s notorious exploits with women, describing one particularly memorable tale: “There was a girlfriend with lipstick waiting on a couch in his office for two hours and he said to me, ‘Come, let’s have a drink with her, and we’ll go to her studio and you can tell her you like her paintings.’ And I said, ‘Leo, that’s a bit much for me’ — they were unspeakably bad.” [p. 408-9]

ILEANA'S UNUSUAL DIVORCE FROM LEO
Determined to separate from Castelli, Ileana flew in 1959 to Atlanta, where old laws allowed landowning women to freely divorce their husbands. “She bought land, divorced Leo, resold the land on the way back to the airport, returning to New York the same day,” art historian Robert Pincus-Witten recalls. She would go on to start the Sonnabend Gallery with her new husband, Michael Sonnabend, outflanking her former husband in later decades as she presented artists like Jeff Koons to the world. [p. 254-255]

FIGHTING MOMA FOR Frank Stella
Art historian Leo Steinberg recalls that Castelli was alarmed to hear that the legendary MoMA curator Dorothy Miller was planning to show Stella’s spare black paintings in 1958, before the dealer could organize a solo show for the 23-year-old artist. He dispatched Johns and Rauschenberg to Princeton, where Stella was living, to try to talk him out of appearing in Miller's show. He lost the battle, one of his rare defeats in those years. [p. 262-3]

HOW LEO THWARTED A TONY SHAFRAZI GRAFFITI ATTACK
The day after being arrested for spray-painting “KILL LIES ALL” on Picassos Guernica at MoMA in 1974, then-artist and future art dealer Tony Shafrazi visited the Castelli Gallery, which was hosting a Johns show. “I walk into the room, I have a spray can in the pocket of my leather jacket," Shafrazi says in the book. "Right away, I have thoughts in my head, and I say, ‘Truth, Honor, Power, Glory.’” Shafrazi told his notion to Castelli, who had heard about the Guernica incident. The dealer replied calmly: “Tony, that’s very interesting, but really? Well, I would like to talk to you further about that. Let me just finish what I’m doing, and I’ll go downtown with you....” The dealer went back to his office for a few minutes, and Shafrazi decided not to add his graffiti. [p. 397-8]

Dan Flavin: NOT A FAN OF JOHNS AND RAUSCHENBERG
Artist Keith Sonnier claims that Flavin, best known for his fluorescent light sculptures, asked Castelli, “Why are you letting these Dada homosexuals into the gallery?” Flavin was lobbying for more Minimalists to join the gallery. Sonnier plainly adds, “Flavin was just terrible.” [p. 391]

LEO THE HORSE
Art collector Peter Brant, who was 19 years old when he first met Castelli, asked the dealer if he would like a horse named in his honor. Castelli heartily agreed to the tribute. The horse went on to place “fifth or sixth in the Kentucky Derby” in 1987, according to Brant, and won a race at which the dealer was present. “Leo always loved the idea that this horse was named after him!” Brant says in one of the book's rampant exclamatory sentences. [p. 433]

CASTELLI ANNOINTS DEITCH 
When Castelli decided to close his print business, Castelli Graphics, in the late 1980s, Jeffrey Deitch stepped in. The future gallerist had been denied a job with Castelli back in the 1970s and had gone to work at the gallery of John Weber, but never lost touch with the revered dealer. Selling off a chunk of the print business's inventory for $2 million, Deitch pocketed a $200,000 commission, which he used to launch his independent consultancy. Castelli additionally provided the ambitious young dealer with his complete mailing list as a reward. “This was unimaginable,” Deitch says, “the most entrusting gesture that nobody else would ever do!” One wonders: who is Deitch handing his mailing list over to now that he's left for Los Angeles's MOCA? [p. 429]