Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli
By Annie Cohen-Solal
(Alfred A. Knopf, 540 pp., $35)
Annie Cohen-Solal’s new biography of Leo Castelli, the art dealer who will forever be associated with the meteoric rise of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in the years around 1960, has set me to thinking about the interest that men and women who run galleries inspire among a fairly wide public. It seems that even people with no burning interest in the buying and selling of paintings and sculptures are curious about the lives of art dealers, or so one would be led to assume based on the substantial number of books by and about dealers published over the years. Some of these memoirs—especially the recollections of Paris and New York by Peggy Guggenheim, Julien Levy, and John Bernard Myers—achieve the rollicking charm of picaresque novels, reminding us that formidable tastemakers are often considerable characters, and that artistic or intellectual perspicacity is not all it takes to be an arbiter of the avant-garde. It goes without saying that dealers, even the ones who start out with money, are interested in making money, but their financial operations have nothing whatever to do with the corporate mentality that now dominates our world. Art dealers maintain an antediluvian approach to commerce. They reject the impersonality of the boardroom; they are free agents, the most glamorous of small business owners, do-it-yourselfers in a mass-market world.
Art dealers used to come in two groups: the entrepreneurs, who are the moneymakers, and the evangelists, who are the tastemakers. Now there is a third group: let us call them the opportunists. The entrepreneur is essentially a dealer in luxury goods, selling rarity and pedigree in much the same way as a jeweler or a furrier, except that art is a luxury item with some appeal to transcendence. The ultimate entrepreneur was Joseph Duveen, who in the early twentieth century made his money selling old masters from cash-strapped European aristocrats to people with new money, often in the United States. The evangelist is essentially a member of the avant-garde, or—in the years since the collapse of the avant-garde—of a strenuously envisioned counter - avant-garde. The great evangelists were figures such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Julien Levy, who presented the work of unknown or lesser-known artists, Picasso and Braque in Paris or Gorky and Cornell in New York, and through their support for these artists made an argument about the present and the future of art. The evangelist can be an intellectual on the model of Kahnweiler, who produced two classics in the literature of twentieth-century art, The Rise of Cubism and a monograph on Juan Gris. Naturally, every successful dealer incorporates elements of both types. Evangelists want to make money. And entrepreneurs often give an evangelical spin to their moneymaking, as Duveen did when he hired as a key advisor Bernard Berenson, whose aestheticism was itself an avant-garde vision in the years around 1900.
But who is the opportunist, the most perfect representative of the type? He is Leo Castelli. Although Castelli—who died in 1999 at the age of ninety-one—has been described as both an entrepreneur and an evangelist, the facts do not support either characterization. Many people have testified that money was never for Castelli the primary thing, so he is not exactly an entrepreneur. And the range of stylistically contradictory artists and movements that he supported—Pop, Minimal, Conceptual, Neo-Expressionist—suggests that he lacked the focus of an evangelist, who tends to stand ardently for some particular artistic viewpoint. What really interested Castelli was making a sensation. What he wanted most of all was attention.
It is interesting that the reviews of Cohen-Solal’s life of Castelli, many of them written by people who knew Castelli to some degree, almost invariably leave one with the impression that, as Peter Schjeldahl put it in The New Yorker, “something impenetrable survives the best efforts of Cohen-Solal.” This impenetrability is inherent in the art business, of course: dealers have many reasons for keeping much of what they are thinking to themselves. In the case of Castelli, however, the impenetrability is built into the role of the opportunist that he did so much to define. For the opportunist, the most important thing that is going on is the illusion that things are going on. The opportunist is basically a social animal, a scene-maker, a trend-spotter, an enemy of all fixed or even evolving concepts of value. And that was Leo Castelli. Whatever was happening, he wanted to be there. And if it was no longer happening there, he would go elsewhere. And finally he would go anywhere.
We live in an art world where all that is any longer happening—or at least all that anybody is willing to talk about—is the search for the next happening. The rise of the opportunist mentality, far from defining a certain segment of the art world, has by now transformed the nature of art dealing, of art collecting, and of the art museum. The publication of Cohen-Solal’s book is certainly timely, coming only months after it was announced that Jeffrey Deitch, the New York dealer who as a young man was taken under the wing of the aging Castelli, has become the new director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. Amid general agreement that this move from the world of commerce to the world of the museum was unprecedented, there was debate as to whether it represented a shot of evangelical (or perhaps entrepreneurial) energy into an increasingly moribund contemporary museum scene, or a final collapse of culture into commerce.
Any discussion of Deitch’s ascension—and it is certainly symptomatic of where more and more museums are headed—must begin with the fact that he is one of the supreme opportunists. Deitch learned from the master. In a New Yorker profile, Calvin Tomkins observed that “like Leo Castelli, whose style he emulates, [Deitch] is a congenital optimist.” Deitch had been trying to get a job with Castelli ever since he graduated from Wesleyan in 1974. Eventually, after receiving an MBA at Harvard and returning to New York as a vice president in charge of a new art advisory service at Citibank, Deitch partnered with Castelli on a deal to sell $2 million worth of prints to Japanese investors. After that he started his own business, with Castelli feeding him contacts and advice.
Like many high-flying opportunists, Deitch is nothing if not a canny businessman. Beginning at Citibank, he made a great deal of money for his clients—and did pretty well for himself, too—by deftly coordinating acquisitions and deacquisitions with the inevitable swings in the contemporary art market. What earned him the directorship of MOCA, however, was not his skill as a money-maker but his sure instinct for the sort of spectacles that professional money-makers crave. Deitch Projects, his gallery in SoHo, has always been known for mounting exhibits that were not about the bottom line but about giving a high-end clientele some edgy amusement: “Session the Bowl” was a show about skateboarding; “Nest” was an installation featuring shredded telephone books; “Black Acid Co-op” included a reconstruction of a burned-out home methamphetamine lab. Eli Broad, the Los Angeles realestate mogul and art collector who engineered Deitch’s appointment at MOCA, had more money than he knew what to do with long before he bought anything by Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst. And although Broad could have learned about skateboarding and home methamphetamine labs without Deitch’s assistance, it is Deitch the opportunist who knew how to bring it all together—the art and the money and the spectacle—in a way that was to Broad’s liking. Whatever is worrisome about the simple fact of an art dealer becoming a museum director pales before the particulars of this case. For Jeffrey Deitch has always been a certain kind of dealer, more involved with art as contemporary spectacle than with art itself. And that is not the kind of person you want to see at the helm of a museum.
Those who say that change is inevitable, and that too much can be made of the distinction between the museum and the gallery, often argue that history is on their side. It is true that both museums and galleries emerged along with the decline of royal and religious patronage in the eighteenth century, and in this regard they are parallel ways in which modern society has sought to make art available to the public. But to define the challenges that now face us in terms of an evolving relationship between culture, represented by the museums, and commerce, represented by the galleries, is to miss the essential role now played by the opportunists, who are far less interested in evolving relationships than in startling juxtapositions.
In Cohen-Solal’s biography, Deitch tells of asking Castelli “how he defined his aesthetic vision.” Castelli’s response: “My aesthetic vision is a fusion of Marcel Duchamp and Piet Mondrian.” It is a considered if deeply wrongheaded response, grounded in a line of thinking that goes back to the 1940s and holds that the absolute purity of the most simplified Mondrian and the absolute impurity of the Duchamp “Readymade” somehow amount to the same thing, perhaps under the mistaken notion that all absolutes are equal. What we are really witnessing in such an equivalence is the birth of the opportunist, whose stock-in-trade is improbable if not impossible combinations. Deitch once called the diamond-encrusted skull created by Damien Hirst “a very sophisticated fusion of conceptual art and publicity stunt.” He said this admiringly. And it is really another way of saying that the Hirst is a very sophisticated fusion of bogus evangelism and bogus entrepreneurship. (At least one suspects that the entrepreneurship was bogus, given reports that the diamond-encrusted skull was “purchased” from the artist and his London dealer, Jay Jopling, by a consortium that includes Hirst and Jopling.) What we are talking about here is opportunist-think, and it all goes back to Leo Castelli.
The rise of the opportunist has in recent years even spawned a new term for what art dealers do. They are often referred to now as gallerists, a title that does away with both the art and the dealing. It may even suggest that the dealer is a kind of artist. “I am not an art dealer. I am a gallerist,” Cohen-Solal quotes Castelli as saying on more than one occasion. But she completely misunderstands the meaning of his statement, referring to the gallerist as “a less glitzy-sounded [sic] métier.” Actually, it is pure glitz.
Nobody, in any event, can be surprised by the eagerness with which Leo and His Circle has been received. Castelli was the ultimate gallerist, and so it seems to follow that if we can only understand Leo we will understand the history of art in New York. But the man did not make it easy for his biographer. Castelli was not one to bare his soul or offer even a glimpse of his psyche, and his secrets have gone with him to his grave. Mark Stevens, the co-author of a very skillful biography of de Kooning, has observed with perfect accuracy in Bookforum that Cohen-Solal “has no inclination ... to bring a Balzacian eye to bear on Castelli’s public, private, and inner lives.” What Stevens leaves unanswered is the larger question. I doubt Castelli’s life could be illuminated by Balzac’s approach, because even Balzac’s most nihilistic protagonists are fired by a sense of good and evil, and Castelli does not appear to have had a moral—or even a determinedly amoral—bone in his body. He was just going with the flow. Occasionally he invented the flow.
Although Cohen-Solal’s book is divided into three sections—one for Castelli’s European period and two for his American years—stylistically it falls into two parts, the Old World and the New. Castelli was born in 1907 in Trieste, to a wealthy Jewish family. In her first eighty or so pages, Cohen-Solal attempts to discover the secret of Castelli’s later success in what amounts to a wild goose chase through Jewish involvement in the European business world since the Renaissance, but her wobbly researches prove tiresome and irrelevant, a desperate attempt to find some biological (or, sad to say, racial) theory as to what made Leo tick. His mother’s family was Tuscan, and Cohen-Solal’s opening chapter actually begins in the town of Monte San Savino in 1656, with an eyewitness exclaiming that “those people”—the local Jewish merchants—“bristle with ideas,” an example of the deep-background concept of biography carried to a truly weird and remarkably unpleasant extreme.
Ernesto Krausz—Leo’s father: in the 1930s, the family adopted Castelli, Leo’s mother’s maiden name—was a successful banker. The boy grew up in Trieste and Vienna, read a good deal of first-rate literature in his adolescence, and as a young man began a career in banking, although with little conviction. In 1933 he married very well, to Ileana Schapira, the daughter of a Romanian industrialist who set the young couple up in Paris. Castelli worked for a time at the Banque d’Italie. Leo and Ileana had a daughter, even as they were discovering that whatever else their bond was, it was not sexual. In 1939, as the situation was becoming increasingly untenable in Europe, Castelli made his first foray into the art business, mounting an exhibition of pictures and decorative works by a group of fashionable Surrealists and Neo-Romantics that included Max Ernst, Eugene Berman, Meret Oppenheim, and Leonor Fini.
Castelli began his career on the edge of a volcano. Lucky for him, his father-in-law was a man whose political instincts were as sure as his instinct for business. He had begun transferring assets to the United States as the European cataclysm unfolded. And so in 1941, when the family made its way to New York, Castelli found himself very comfortable indeed, taken care of until eventually, at the rather extraordinary age of fifty, he got around to launching his glorious career. Once Cohen-Solal ships her reticent protagonist to New York, her book is little more than an extended magazine article about a celebrity. The story emerges as a succession of sound bites, fleeting glimpses of the chic protagonist, an anecdote here and a story there, generally gleaned from interviews and hardly integrated into any larger context.
Castelli served in the U.S. Army in Europe, and upon his return to New York spent more than a decade as a well-connected gadabout and helpmate in the downtown New York art scene, certainly not what anybody would regard as a major player. He was a presence at the Artists’ Club, although Cohen-Solal may give a somewhat exaggerated sense of his involvement. Castelli did have a hand in the organization of the “Ninth Street Show” in 1951, the large and casually installed group exhibition that brought together the Abstract Expressionists and all their friends and disciples. Castelli was wealthy, a playboy still involved in a marriage that was understood to be open. He and his wife hosted Willem and Elaine de Kooning in their summer place in East Hampton in 1953. And Castelli’s European connections also began to bear fruit. He represented the estate of Kandinsky in New York for a time, and he organized for the Sidney Janis Gallery a show that juxtaposed contemporary French and American artists.
All of this, however, was nothing but a prelude. Only at the end of the 1950s did this genial sleeping prince wake up, his deepest instincts gradually coming to life as the swaggering sincerity that had animated the Abstract Expressionists since the hard days of the Depression was eclipsed by postwar prosperity and the world-weary skepticism of Duchamp, whose star had been rising, slowly but steadily, since the 1940s. The story of how, in 1957, Leo and Ileana paid a visit to Robert Rauschenberg’s studio in a downtown loft building and ended up on another floor in the same building, looking at the work of his then-partner Jasper Johns, has been told a great many times. Cohen-Solal, by her own admission, has nothing to add. Actually, it isn’t much of a story. Castelli was bewitched by Johns’s paintings of targets and flags, and decided to give Johns a show in the gallery he had recently opened in the Schapira townhouse on the Upper East Side.
Then everything started to happen very fast. A painting by Johns was featured on the cover of ARTnews; Alfred Barr reserved four paintings for the Museum of Modern Art; and the young critic Leo Steinberg, taking a turn as a mid-century Apollinaire, hailed Jasper Johns as a radical whose work was as astonishing as—well, as Picasso’s. What was not clear was in what sense this astonishment was different from plain old bafflement. In any event, the blandly enigmatic quality of Castelli as a dealer fit perfectly with the blandly enigmatic quality of Johns’s “targets” and “flags.” If Johns and Rauschenberg were draining all the affect out of art, Castelli was draining all the affect out of dealing. If Rauschenberg said he was operating in the gap between art and life, Castelli was operating in the gap between art and commerce. He was a cipher selling ciphers. The opportunist had been born.
There is something slippery in many of the descriptions of Castelli. Mark Stevens describes him as “short, playful and silky—you’d want to stroke him like a cat.” Others have seen a hard-to-pin-down mix of European suavity and American chutzpah, perhaps not unlike the mix in Johns of Southern manners and New York smarts. Calvin Tomkins saw “an engaging blend of European elegance and American enthusiasm,” and Schjeldahl writes that Castelli “crowned his Continental glamour with a faintly comic and completely endearing American-style openness.” The trick, in other words, was that the real Castelli never seemed to appear. One of the most revealing comments comes from the collector Victor Ganz, an enthusiastic client who apparently had no illusions about the man. In Tomkins’s telling, “Ganz, a connoisseur as well as a collector, cannot even recall an instance of Castelli’s discussing a work of art in aesthetic terms, although he says that once, not long after he remarked to Castelli that a Johns painting on the wall reminded him of a late Beethoven quartet, he happened to overhear Castelli tell another visitor that Johns’s paintings were like late Beethoven quartets.”
Was Ganz saying that, so far as Castelli was concerned, any analogy would do? I am reminded of the quietly belligerent arbitrariness of a statement that Johns made for the “Sixteen Americans” show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959: “Sometimes I see it and then paint it. Other times I paint it and then see it. Both are impure situations, and I prefer neither.” Perhaps, so far as Castelli was concerned, whether the painting reminded you of a late Beethoven quartet or not amounted to the same thing—and he, too, had no preference.
Although those who knew Leo Castelli generally report being charmed by him, few confess such warm feelings for the dealers who were his disciples and still reign, including Mary Boone, Jeffrey Deitch, and Larry Gagosian. I did not know Castelli, but I was well acquainted with his various SoHo galleries in the years when he ruled the roost, and they exuded an aggressively promotional spirit that can hardly be topped even by the infinitely larger and sleeker spaces that now dominate Chelsea. In its day, 420 West Broadway, the building where Castelli had a floor and his ex-wife’s Sonnabend Gallery had another floor, exuded as much raw power as any Chelsea picture palace does today, and I suspect it is only tricks of memory that have convinced some observers that the SoHo of the 1980s was a kinder, gentler time. Wishing does not make it so.
Cohen-Solal could have said more about Castelli’s complicated relationship with his first wife, who would by many estimates remain the woman in his life through his two other marriages and many affairs. After divorcing Castelli, Ileana had a Parisian phase with her second husband, Michael Sonnabend. They opened the Sonnabend Gallery, which became the European flagship for the Pop Art explosion. Later, after moving back to New York, Ileana turned the Sonnabend Gallery into a SoHo space that often made the Castelli Gallery look tame. It was at Sonnabend that Vito Acconci did his masturbation piece, Seedbed, and that Jeff Koons became a superstar. There is something truly weird about the symbiosis between Castelli and Ileana, these two well-to-do and cultivated Europeans who maintained an extraordinary professional collaboration and became in time the aging pimp and procuress of the hipper regions of the blue-chip art world.
When Larry Gagosian was starting out, he rented a loft on West Broadway, just across from Castelli’s and Sonnabend’s places at 420, perhaps hoping, not without reason, that Leo and Ileana would train a telescope on the windows of the tall, good-looking young art dealer from California. Robert Pincus-Witten, a critic and dealer and close student of the New York scene, is quoted by Cohen-Solal as explaining that by 1982 “Leo and Ileana were speaking about this young man, very ambitious, who had a loft on the top floor across the street, a very elegant space with a big Eric Fischl.” And Gagosian picks up the story. “Leo legitimized me. He would call me to go have a margarita with him at Tre Merli after work and would tell me all the bad things people said about me—it made him laugh!”
Castelli and Sonnabend saw in Gagosian a man with their kind of sure instincts. But what was the nature of those instincts? Money was a huge factor, naturally. But it wasn’t everything. For Castelli, Sonnabend, Gagosian, and their clients, the real point has always been what the money can buy. And what it buys them is not so much art as excitement, controversy, relevance, spectacle. Castelli’s and Sonnabend’s poker-faced and genial demeanor—which owes more than a little to Duchamp—was just the thing to put over these spectacles, which did not invite explanation for the simple reason that they were utterly meaningless. Years ago, at Castelli’s place at 420 West Broadway, there were Bruce Nauman’s neon sculptures of men in profile, with their penises flashing erect and then slack and then erect again. Now there is Dan Colen’s show at Gagosian’s on West 24th Street, where you are confronted with a brick wall erected in the middle of one huge gallery, an inverted skateboard half-pipe (don’t ask) in another huge gallery, a row of motorcycles that have been knocked over in yet another huge gallery, and large abstract paintings made of chewing gum.
Sophisticated gallerygoers have by and large not been amused. Then again, a spectacle may by its very nature be criticism-proof. In keeping with the worldly-wise charm that Calvin Tomkins has over the years brought to his New Yorker chronicles of the doings of Johns, Rauschenberg, Castelli, Deitch, and sundry others, all of this can sound like rather innocent fun. And if the opportunist were a marginal figure in the art world, I could gladly go along with the fun.
The trouble is that the opportunists are now running the show. They combine a fundamentally reckless entrepreneurial spirit with an impersonation of the old evangelical spirit that is in fact little more than a determined search for the next new thing. We cannot just dismiss this as market forces run amok, because we desperately need committed dealers, the kind who over the years have been forces for good. Reading Meryle Secrest’s biography of Joseph Duveen, or a new volume of essays that Colnaghi, the London gallery, published to celebrate its 250th anniversary, I am reminded all over again that many of the masterworks in our museums are there because dealers put them into the hands of the right collectors—collectors who were determined to share their treasures with the public. Dealers have always been intimately involved with the revival of interest in underappreciated artists, as well as in building an audience for contemporary artists of all stripes. The finest art dealers have also been sensitive to what was going on in artist-run spaces, among critics, among historians, among curators. Through their individual exhibitions and even more through their ongoing programs of exhibitions, the art dealers have helped to define affinity groups and aspects of the high art traditions that museums and art historians were not quick to see. There are certain artists—Morandi is a prime example—who for years were known in New York mainly through the work of galleries, in Morandi’s case beginning with the shows at the World House Galleries in 1957 and 1960.
Some will argue that the conditions in the galleries today are not in any essential way different from the conditions a generation or two ago. And it is true that the gallery world has always been a mixed bag. There has never been a gallery that could satisfy any gallerygoer all the time, and even those who have been dismayed by the spectacles engineered by Dan Colen, Damien Hirst, and Mike Kelley at Gagosian in recent years will point out that Gagosian has also mounted beautiful exhibitions of the sculpture of David Smith, and shows of paintings by Picasso and Monet that are routinely and quite accurately described as “museum quality.” This past spring another of the Chelsea behemoths, the Matthew Marks Gallery, mounted the most beautiful show New York has ever seen of the slender, sensuous painted columns of Anne Truitt. Gagosian and Marks are not much of a guide when it comes to contemporary art, but there are certainly many other galleries that have made a specialty of presenting younger and mid-career artists on a regular basis. So there are evangelists and entrepreneurs who still ply their trade.
But there is no question that the opportunists now rule. As I make the rounds of the galleries, I find myself more and more with the sick-making suspicion that even the most principled dealers are hankering for a little of the opportunist’s fool’s gold. This is not an unnatural desire. The legendary avant-garde dealers of the mid-century years—Levy, Guggenheim, Myers—were not above offering some hijinks to get the public’s attention. Neither, for that matter, was Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art. But when Jeffrey Deitch, a master of high-priced hijinks, has become the director of a major museum, the marginal gesture has become the status quo, and there is reason for concern.
What the opportunists do not understand is that when it comes to the paradoxical nature of artistic value, it is the work of art that justifies the dollar value, and not the other way around. Opportunists love it when this year’s spectacle doubles in value—who wouldn’t? But what really holds everybody’s interest is not the work of art and its sky-high price, but the artist or the collector or the dealer who is associated with this ever-loftier valuation. The cult of personality has replaced the cult of the work of art, which is perfectly understandable, considering how bewilderingly shallow so much of the work sold by Castelli and now by Gagosian and Deitch turns out to be. When Deitch muses as to why Warhol is “rated so high now,” he has this to say to Tomkins: “No other artist has changed the way people make art and think about art more than Warhol.” He is talking not about Warhol’s paintings but about Warhol the man. Everything is about personalities. The impersonality of art is a thing of the past. In its place we have Castelli, the impersonal personality, the gallerist par excellence. He is his own art work, as inscrutable as a Jasper Johns. And Deitch, who is apparently as inscrutable as Castelli, also appears to be as artful as Castelli, considering that he now finds himself at the helm of MOCA, with its distinguished collection of Abstract Expressionist paintings.
Works of art need to be treated with more delicacy than the opportunists can ever muster. In the never-ending dance between art and money, money must have some fundamental respect for art. Some years ago, Allan Bloom, in an essay titled “Commerce and ‘Culture,’” argued that “the notion of ‘culture’ was formed in response to the rise of commercial society,” and there may be no place on earth where that tension is more explicit than in an art gallery. In Bloom’s dark view of the modern situation, the arts lost their central place in experience as a result of the rise of science and liberal society, so that the very idea of culture implied a marginalization of the arts. “Men and women,” he lamented, “die for their country, for their gods, and perhaps even for the truth, but not for culture.” Bloom did not seem to believe that art, having relinquished its role as the expression of religious or political values, could achieve the kind of private intensity that was in fact inaugurated by the paintings of Watteau and Chardin.
If there has always been a dark—and even tragic—dimension to the situation of the arts in the modern world, it is that artists freed themselves from the church and the state only to find that they were now beholden to commercial culture. Perhaps the most important thing that an art dealer can do is demonstrate that art’s material dimension and art’s moral dimension are not entirely unrelated. This may not be something that art dealers generally set out to do, but it is a corollary of their profession, at least when it is carried out honorably and at the highest levels. In a memorable show in a commercial gallery, transcendent objects are for sale. If the conditions are right, and culture and commerce meet, some sort of détente is achieved. That spirit of détente is now dying in Chelsea. Leo Castelli has a lot to answer for. He set culture and commerce on a collision course half a century ago, and the wreckage is still piling up a decade after his death, with no end in sight.
Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic. This article ran in the November 11, 2010, issue of the magazine.