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A Very Wily Believer

Bob Adelman/Magnum Photos
Leo Castelli and Andy Warhol at Robert Rauschenberg’s studio, New York City, 1965

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, OhhhAlright…, 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 between money and art is a long-cultivated, almost genetically based, gift forged by centuries of political and social persecution,” she writes in her biography, which in the end never does quite unravel the mystery. Perhaps there was none.

He was born Leo Krausz, in Trieste in 1907, the middle child of a rising and powerful Hungarian banker who was married to an Italian heiress, Bianca Castelli. They were both Jewish. The family patronymic had to be Italianized in 1935, from Krausz to Castelli, on orders from Mussolini’s government. Leo’s younger brother, George Crane, has recalled how their father, Ernesto Krausz, hung two photographs in the family dining hall, one showing Jacob and Esther Weisz, Ernesto’s maternal great-grandparents, still shtetl Jews, in traditional attire with Jacob wearing sidelocks; the other showing David and Rachel Weisz, the grandparents, prosperous and now assimilated landowners in modern suit and dress.

Trieste had long welcomed Jews. On the Castelli side of Leo’s family, Giacobbe Castelli, Leo’s great-great-grandfather, had settled in the city in 1799 from Monte San Savino, in Tuscany, to escape the attacks by locals against Jews that followed Napoleon’s arrival. Aarone Castelli, Leo’s great-grandfather, Giacobbe’s son, would make a fortune in Trieste and settle into the Villa Prandi, where Leo grew up.

Leo’s childhood, as Cohen-Solal describes it, was an unruffled, precious sort of existence, with family holidays looking at Titians in Venice and staying at the Hotel des Bains on the Lido. The Castellis were pro-Garibaldi but Ernesto, conservative and ambitious, was a monarchist who, for business reasons, moved the family to Vienna in 1914, where among Leo’s classmates was the young Raimund von Hofmannsthal, son of the poet. Bookish, distracted, Leo read, became adept at sports to compensate for his small build, and paid scant attention in school.

Around him, the war drove people into the streets of the Austrian capital hunting for bread and coal. But the Krausz children avoided the ration cards and corn bread, and suffered only the minor discomfort of returning to a cold house after long winter walks with their governess. By 1918, back in Trieste, Ernesto’s expanding career enhanced the family’s wealth while still never quite opening doors to the houses of the city’s aristocrats and socialites. No doubt Leo took note. He would choose to ignore his Jewish roots, to avoid talking about them, an impossibility in Italy and the German- speaking countries by the 1930s, of course, but not uncommon in New York, where he arrived in 1941, became a citizen, joined the army, and found a permanent home. His son Jean-Christophe has recounted how Jewishness remained “one of the most personal things of all for my father, therefore, one of the most difficult to access. He built his myth, he sold his myth, and rare are those who didn’t buy his myth.” A classmate of Leo’s in Trieste, Giorgio Voghera, is quoted by Cohen-Solal saying, more pointedly, that even as a teenager Leo had showed “all the gifts of a very accomplished smooth talker and no scruples whatsoever in using them to his advantage.” Either way, he was suited to life as an art dealer.

For his part Castelli imagined himself more a “Renaissance man…extremely cultured; I wanted to know everything.” His father first wanted him to get a job, and in 1932 Leo resignedly accepted one with an insurance company in Bucharest, then a hotbed of avant-gardism and also home to a young daughter of a Jewish business tycoon, further up the social ladder than the Krauszes, Ileana Shapira. Leo and Ileana married. Transferred to Paris in 1935, the young couple strove to find acceptance in the city’s creative circles, as apparently oblivious to the coming calamity as Leo had been as a child during the war in Vienna. Ileana recalled feeling “marginalized, out of place, a foreigner without a home of my own,” but Leo was in touch with a network of acquaintances.

After the birth of their daughter in 1937, his eye increasingly wandered. Desperate to shore up the couple’s faltering marriage, Ileana’s father lent money to Leo to start a Paris gallery, which opened in 1939 with a display of furniture and commissioned works by Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and others. It was a success but short-lived. With war approaching, the Castellis retreated to Cannes along with Ileana’s parents. Cohen-Solal writes about Leo at this juncture that he was “apolitical, insulated, naïve, callow, and pampered.” By 1941, with the Côte d’Azur no longer a guaranteed haven, Leo and Ileana crossed the Atlantic.

Back in Trieste, Ernesto Krausz had joined the fascists, but soon recognized the inherent precariousness of his position. During the next few years, his fortunes crumbled, and he struggled desperately to preserve almost the only thing he had left, his dignity. He and Bianca finally ended up in Budapest, living in hiding on a spoonful of tomato sauce per day, and as the war ended she drowned, fleeing across the Danube; he succumbed to a shrapnel wound shortly afterward. “Too Hungarian for the Austrians, too Austrian for the Italians, too Triestine for the Romans, too much a parvenu for Trieste’s Two Hundred Families, too arrogant for his in-laws,” Cohen-Solal writes about Ernesto, who was ultimately too Jewish as well.

In Europe, identity was inescapable. It was malleable in America. For Castelli, life in New York became a way to erase this calamity from his past in a country turned toward the future.

It is easy to forget that Castelli was already fifty years old when he first opened his New York gallery. He converted his L-shaped living room and his daughter’s bedroom at 4 East 77th Street, where he had settled with Ileana and her parents, painted the walls white, installed track lighting, affixed a copper plaque onto the façade, and hung, by all accounts with great style, various Pollocks next to Delaunays to devise a dialogue between America and Europe. The dialogue paralleled Castelli’s life.

Author of a biography of Sartre, Cohen paints a humane and engaging portrait of him, rich in detail, only occasionally off-key about art world minutiae. She opens with a personal recollection. After being posted to America by the French government as a cultural adviser in 1989, she writes, she met Castelli, then eighty-two and wearing a hearing aid. He charmed her, as he charmed so many women over the years, and invited her into his circle.

The charms worked wonders. The book’s later chapters about his business arrangements, his alliances with colleagues, and his sometimes troubled dealings with competitors like Arne Glimcher and Joe Heller, although they should be the climax of the biography, covering the years when Castelli presided over the art scene, in many ways lack the eloquence of her earlier chapters. They seem too polite and earnest in concocting an elaborate transatlantic network of influence, which is not really how the art world works. One could imagine a less scrupulous and more theatrical writer dramatizing Castelli’s reign differently.

But then how fascinating, really, are the daily machinations of an art dealer, even one who sold now-famous pictures for small fortunes? In our period of intractable unemployment and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, contemporary art enjoys a level of popularity based in no small measure on gaudy news about collectors supposedly paying (who can really know for sure?) ever more incredible amounts of money for works like the Warhol and the Lichtenstein. That a contemporary art dealer, distinct from his artists, should be lionized says something about this moment. But what, exactly, it does say is not a question of particular interest to Cohen-Solal.

Her question instead is how such a cipher, such an insecure, frivolous luftmensch, as she calls the young Castelli—well-read and fluent in various languages but fundamentally a dilettante, a middling banker and insurance salesman who relied for his comfortable, Continental life on the money his very rich father and even richer father-in-law provided—how did he suddenly come to change the art world? It’s a good question. Short, trim, dapper with slicked-back hair, a man of economical movements and measured remarks, Castelli exploited his silken persona as a counterpoint to the raucousness and peculiarity of his American artists whose personal contrasts with his image made him that much more effective as their representative. “Leo had the survival instincts of an Italian diplomat” was how Joe Helman, the dealer, put it.

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