You could almost picture Leo Castelli smiling from beyond the grave a few weeks ago, that small, canny smile of his. First an Andy Warhol, Men in Her Life, from 1962, sold for $63.3 million at a Phillips auction in New York. Then at Christie’s a work by Roy Lichtenstein, from 1964, Ohhh…Alright…, of an anxious young redhead clutching a telephone, sold for $42.6 million.
Two pictures, exceeding $100 million, by two artists closely associated with Castelli—but money was never the ultimate measure of success to him. He came from the Old World. Cost still implied something different from value, and even as a businessman Castelli worried, despite his own influence in driving prices sky high, about market excesses already beginning to erode the barrier between fine art and a wilder, unregulated universe of pop culture. He worried, a little anyway, albeit not too much.
From his perch in a townhouse gallery on the Upper East Side, then in a converted industrial loft at 420 West Broadway, as the virtual maitre d’ of newly fashionable SoHo, Castelli promoted various isms that followed from Abstract Expressionism and helped turn what had been the still relatively small village of the contemporary art world into a global empire. He ushered in an era of the contemporary dealer as headliner. After the war it had been art critics like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg who manned the barricades in America against what remained a skeptical and often hostile establishment and who slowly won grudging acceptance for American artists. Castelli, opening his first gallery in New York in 1957, capitalized on this shifting environment, cultivating associations with places like the Museum of Modern Art and the Jewish Museum, where Alan Solomon, as director during the early 1960s, organized groundbreaking contemporary exhibitions indebted to Castelli’s stable. In the process of burnishing the reputations of Castelli’s artists, these institutional alliances also flattered his clients and, not incidentally, inflated prices.
His imprimatur, more than any critic’s, came to be what mattered by the 1970s, and in the process, his gallery became a kind of clubhouse for the leading artists and critics, as integral in its way to the New York scene as the Whitney or the Guggenheim or MoMA. Today one finds heirs to Castelli in gallerists like the excellent Marian Goodman or the globe-striding Larry Gagosian, but there is no one whose gallery plays the same role or who has shaped the conversation as he did, not because he was inimitable or a polemicist or intellectually original, but because the world he occupied has largely evaporated.
Beneath the tailored suits, ingratiating manner, and womanizing reputation, he always seemed something of a mystery, as if withholding some deeper, darker past. Annie Cohen-Solal takes pains to uncover it, locating his business acumen in generations of Jewish experience. “Castelli’s exceptional skill at negotiating …