For many years Leo Castelli, who died at his home in Manhattan on Aug. 21, had been called both the pope of the art world and its capo de tutti capi. This was seen less a nod to his seniority than a tribute to his role in the careers of so many artists of stature -- Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Frank Stella, Cy Twombly and Bruce Nauman among them. It is fair to say that the story of American art in the second half of the 20th century would have read differently without Leo Castelli.
Castelli was a special sort of grandee, though. Fastidious, indeed a dandy, he was blessed with a huge appetite for shock, and he was a masterly game-player. "Dealers are like snakes. They strike without warning," he once told me. But he was also given to gestures of expensive generosity. Unlike most dealers, Castelli kept artists on his roster, paying them a monthly stipend, long after they had become busted flushes. And in May 1989, when the art boom was at its height -- with an eye cocked towards the history books -- he gave Rauschenberg's Bed to the Museum of Modern Art, when the museum acquisition committee would have been over the moon to get it for a mere million dollars.
The gesture was the more admirable because Castelli was by no means the biggest dealer in contemporary art. In Manhattan, both Arne Glimcher of PaceWildenstein and Larry Gagosian did more business, as did Lesley Waddingon and Anthony d'Offay in London, and others in Paris, Basel and Cologne. But that Leo remained in a certain sense numero uno was unquestionable.
So it is not surprising that, even in the cold-blooded contemporary art business, Leo Castelli was the object of rare affection. I was just one art writer who never liked to let too much time slide by without checking in with him. So, some years ago, when the art market was still hobbling through a slump, we agreed to meet for lunch. Accordingly, I arrived at 420 West Broadway, climbed a flight of stairs, walked through the two gallery rooms, unhitched a red velvet rope, and let myself into the back.
The back room of any gallery is at once the chart room and the engine room. It's where the deals that actually keep a heavy-duty gallery going are made, and Castelli's was as usual as busy as a trading floor. His various assistants -- they would ordinarily have included the sisters, Susan and Patty Brundage, and the registrar, MaryJo Marks -- were fielding telephone calls, tapping out schedules on laptops and sorting through slides. I went straight through to Castelli's small glass-walled office to the rear. He was sitting, one eye on a Marinetti catalogue, talking to a young Italian woman who was sitting opposite, clutching a notebook. Castelli introduced her, and explained that she was doing a research project. She had straight brown hair, dark eyes, and was polite but unsmiling, reserved. She closed her notebook, and Castelli and I went to lunch at Mezzogiorno.
* * *
A few months later, Leo Castelli was married the Italian woman I had met in the office. She is called Barbara Bertozzi. She is an art historian in her mid-30s, and she set to cleaning house straightaway. The Brundages and MaryJo Marks were soon gone, with contractual settlements that glue their lips tight shut. Castelli's long-time lawyer, Jerry Ordover, was gone likewise.
The art world is, of course, a mighty engine of gossip, and a dark picture was soon being painted. Both privately and in the press, Barbara Bertozzi was depicted as a gorgon and a gold-digger. Nina Sundell, who is Castelli's 60-year-old daughter by his first marriage, and Jean-Christophe, his son by his second, complained by way of a lawyer's letter that their access to their father had been restricted. Old friends were claiming that they seldom saw Leo now.
News that 420 West Broadway was to be redeveloped and that the gallerists there, including Leo Castelli, were being forced out followed soon after. The verdict of the gossip engine was unambiguous. The Castelli Gallery was through.
Gossip is often true. Maybe it is usually true. But it is not always true.
Just how true was this? A couple of years ago a British magazine commissioned me to find out.
* * *
Leo Castelli was born in Trieste, in North-Eastern Italy. He was intended for the business world by his banker father, but resolved to be out of it as quickly as possible. He took a job with an insurance company in Bucharest, and married Ileana Schapira, the daughter of a Rumanian industrialist. They spent much of their time foraging in the countryside for antiques.
The couple moved to Paris, where Castelli had taken a job with the Banca d'Italia. Soon his father-in-law agreed to finance a gallery splendidly positioned between Schiaparelli and the Ritz hotel. Castelli had intended to focus on Art Deco, but soon found himself caught up with the Surrealists. The fashionable monde showed up for the opening of the gallery. It was the spring of 1939 -- bad timing. The Castellis reached Vichy France before the German army came. They got to New York, by way of Marrakesh, in 1941, and moved into a fourth floor apartment at 4 East 77th Street on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
Castelli joined the U.S. army. After his discharge, he worked for his father-in-law's sweater factory in Manhattan. Soon he was dealing art privately out of his apartment, both for clients like the Baroness Hilda de Rebay, who was putting together the collection for Solomon Guggenheim, which was the nucleus of what is now the Guggenheim Museum, and for his own account. He bought, for instance, two canvases by Paul Klee and one by Mondrian for $2,000 apiece. A few years later, he sold the three for $11,000. "I thought I had done rather well," he said, adding that by now the trio would be worth millions of dollars. He spoke lightly. You have to be a quick healer in the art world, or you'll be poisoned by regrets.
By the end of the '40s, Castelli was very much part of the hurly-burly of a New York world, which was coming to full boil (though still little noticed by the culture at large). The humbling of the prideful Ecole de Paris and the triumph of New York was under way! Willem de Kooning became a close friend, and built himself a studio on the grounds of the Castelli summer house in East Hampton. Jackson Pollock, another friend, would rattle over in his Model T Ford to pick a more-or-less friendly fight with the Dutchman. Castelli was helping put together shows; for instance, with the dealer Sidney Janis, who he talked into taking on both de Kooning and Pollock.
On Feb. 1, 1957, Castelli opened up his own gallery. He was 50. He started modestly in the apartment on East 77th, using their living-cum-dining-room. "Leo opened the gallery when I went to college," said his daughter, Nina. "My bedroom turned into the office. He was just a regular father during my childhood. He became a celebrity when I was old enough to appreciate and understand what he was doing."
At the very beginning, Castelli showed both European and American work, but quickly decided that America was where the art action was. He could hardly poach his friends, de Kooning and Pollock, from another friend, Sidney Janis, though, and, as for the second generation of Ab Exes, while perfectly fine, to Leo's eye they lacked the fire of the first.
What to do? Well, art dealers spend most of their time -- indeed, the overwhelming majority spend all their time -- just like any other traders in commodities. What happened then with Castelli was one of those moments when a dealer finds himself dealing not product but history.
* * *
Ileana, Castelli's first wife, has herself become a mightily successful dealer under her second husband's surname, as Ileana Sonnabend. It is typical of her continuing closeness to Leo that, despite the womanizing that destroyed his marriage, her gallery was for years one floor above his. Leo's second wife Antoinette -- "Toiny" -- was a French girl from Limoges who had come to America as an au pair in the early '60s. But she died of cancer in 1987. When I visited Castelli's apartment some years before his third marriage, the place had an air of sedate bachelorhood, politely lived in, but its dove gray walls were covered with once-revolutionary art.
He seated me beneath a Rauschenberg and gave me coffee. On the opposite wall there was a Jasper Johns. This seemed almost too apt. Castelli had met Rauschenberg in the early '50s. Rauschenberg introduced him to Jasper Johns soon after he opened his gallery. Leo's show of Johns was an establishing event for both artist and dealer. "This is the most important painting in my life, in a way," said Castelli, indicating a Johns from that show: A painted target and a row of box-like cubicles, each containing a small, three-dimensional object. Alfred Barr, grand panjandrum of New York's Museum of Modern Art, had wanted it for the museum, but had been deterred by the fact that one of the three-dimensional objects was a model of a penis, painted green. Barr bought a smaller work instead. He paid $700 out of his own pocket. "So I got this one. And it has been with me ever since," Castelli told me.
The apartment is filled with work by the artists who began showing with the gallery during its glory days as the world's preeminent Pop Art gallery, including pieces by Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and on and on. None of which actually belonged to Leo Castelli any more, though. Toiny Castelli had taken care that the work be out of reach of a dealer's temptation. The collection is now in the name of their son. "Everything you see here is Jean-Christophe's," Castelli said. "Except for the Target." He added, "It is my most precious possession."
* * *
As the '60s wore on, more austere movements than Pop emerged -- Minimalism, Conceptualism -- and Leo checked out the comers with a seldom-erring eye. He took on Frank Stella after a visit to the studio of the artist, who was in his very early 20s, which Castelli describes as his most epochal studio visit since that meeting with Jasper Johns. "It was like bolt of lightning" he would tell me, much later. Castelli also took on the brutally simplifying sculptors Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Richard Serra, and the painter of hard-edged abstractions, Ellsworth Kelly. In 1971, Castelli moved his gallery from Manhattan's Upper East Side down to SoHo. His move was seen as a validation of the new art neighborhood, which duly blossomed over the next few years.
As the decade ended, though, fierce new vortices of energy were springing up in the art world. Castelli was 70. He hadn't taken on a new artist since 1971. It began to seem that his gallery would stick with the established artists in the roster, and leave the cutting edge to others. It was precisely then that, in a subtle move, Castelli entered into an alliance with a young dealer, Mary Boone. Together, they gave a brash young artist, Julian Schnabel, a two-gallery show in 1981. The huge success of this double exhibition served to launch both Boone and Schnabel, and command attention to a new movement -- it was soon being called Neo-Expressionism -- that had flounced center-stage. Not least, of course, it served notice that Leo Castelli still ruled.
In the '70s, Manhattan had remained the unquestioned capital of the global art world -- a world that was intense, but small. The work of the Minimalists and the Conceptual artists, after all, was anything but seductive, and its collectors were serious, but thin on the ground, so that a few thousand bucks could assemble quite a distinguished collection. The coming of Schnabelismo changed all that. Through the '80s, as new money was flung into the contemporary art world in increasingly giddy quantities, and even the work of the most "difficult" artists soared in value, Leo Castelli's rich trove of artists began looking particularly tempting to hungry, younger dealers.
Nor were the artists always too difficult to tempt. Where the Pop Artists had, in terms of group behavior, been a mostly affable bunch, the Minimalists seethed with all the ornery energies pent up in their pieces. Donald Judd, for instance, a brilliant, cantankerous man, told me that Castelli had made a poor deal to suck up to the collector, Robert Scull, at his, Judd's expense. The Minimalists, moreover, suspected that Pop had always been first in Leo's heart. "Leo liked Pop Art," said Ellsworth Kelly. "A lot of people left him because he was only interested in Lichtenstein and Jasper (Johns)." Kelly had been particularly nettled to be told by a collector that he had tried to buy one of his works from the gallery. The collector claimed Castelli had asked: "Wouldn't you rather buy a Rauschenberg?" "My first shows with him went well," Kelly said. "And then he wanted complete control. And I guess some artists give that. I didn't want other dealers involved. And he would send things off to other dealers." Kelly began to sell through another gallery, BlumHelman.
At the beginning of the '80s, Julian Schnabel took off too, tempted away by Arne Glimcher of the Pace Gallery, now PaceWildenstein. It was said that Leo Castelli, normally the politest of men, was so angered by the news of the young artist's defection that he actually slammed down the telephone. The art wars, along with the art economy, were surging into a new phase.
* * *
Leo Castelli might have lost the mutinous Minimalists, but he retained the courtly Jasper Johns, the ebullient Robert Rauschenberg and the sweet-natured Roy Lichtenstein, three of the bluest of Blue Chip artists, so his moves during the art boom were followed with the closest of attention. When he opened another space in SoHo in cahoots with the young Los Angeles-born dealer, Larry Gagosian, this was seen as a smart move -- a reprise of his strategic alliance with Mary Boone.
There were great differences, though. Gagosian, whose career had begun with a poster shop in the L.A. suburb of Westwood, had not only a phenomenal eye, but vaulting ambitions, and the appetite for risk of a high-stakes poker player. That, and Gagosian's controversial reputation -- his nickname is "GoGo" -- seem to have been part of his appeal for Castelli. "Leo's telling the opposition, you think you're a tough guy? Wait till you meet my tough guy," as an art worlder put it. The équipe who actually ran the Castelli gallery were not wildly enthusiastic, any more than they had been enthusiastic about Mary Boone a decade before.
The art boom collapsed when the Gulf War broke out in 1990, and a slump began from which the art world only started to emerge a couple of years ago. Castelli weathered it with reasonable aplomb, despite his advancing age. An article in the New York Times suggesting that Leo's time had passed, and noting that Richard Serra and other artists had left Castelli for Pace drew a letter from Serra, who wrote, "I have never left the Castelli Gallery and have no intention of doing so." Ellsworth Kelly told me "I have never really left him. I like Leo." Serra and Kelly hadn't left Leo Castelli, any more than a good Catholic can leave the church. It was just that they showed and did their business elsewhere.
(Such loyalty is long-lasting -- only last week, Frank Stella wrote a letter to the New York Observer reminding readers that a report of his forthcoming show at another gallery hardly meant that he had "left" Castelli.)
At that point, everything seemed to be running down organically. Neither of Castelli's children was involved with the gallery. Nina is married, and helps run the Yaddo Institute, a writers' foundation. Jean-Christophe Castelli had found the art world intimidating since he was young. "It was a little too big for me. It's sort of public, and that has just never been my style," he said. "I have never had any particular desire to work in the art world." Jean-Christopher is the story editor for Good Machine, a movie company. "I guess our most recent relatively large film was The Ice Storm," he said.
It was characteristic of the twilight aura that surrounded the dealer that at the beginning of the '90s a prominent group of art-worlders announced the inauguration of an award called the "Leo." There was also a rumor that the American government would be tailoring a position just for him, a sort of ambassadorship of art, which would make him the art equivalent of a Poet Laureate. But retiring, it soon became plain, was something that Leo Castelli wasn't planning to do at all.
* * *
Earlier this year, Leo moved his operation uptown to 59 East 79th Street, opening with a show of Jasper Johns monotypes. But some months before he moved, I went looking for him at his SoHo gallery for another conversation. Leo's office was dark. I had, I decided, missed him, but no, an assistant put on the light, as he got up from the sofa and seated himself at the desk.
He was wearing a charcoal grey suit, with perfectly creased trousers and the glossiest of shoes. His perfectly knotted tie was royal blue.
I asked about his future plans for the SoHo space. "We must move," he said, simply. "We must leave this building. We will have to go this summer."
Will he go to Chelsea, like Ileana Sonnabend?
"No. I will go back uptown. As I began." He paused, summoned up a smile, and added: "You see? I will have come full circle. I go back to my roots."
As it turns out, the picture was not as dark as much of the art world has been saying. Ileana Sonnabend said that clearly her former husband was being well cared for. Laura de Coppet, a close friend to the dealer for many years, told me "It forms a perfect arc. He will be dealing quietly, back in the upper 70s, where he began. He has a wife who takes care of him. It's better than having a nurse."
"I think the marriage is fantastic," said the collector Barbara Jakobson, "Leo is by nature a very passive person. He kind of allows the world to act upon him." He has had three wives. And in each marriage he did the most intelligent thing. His first wife was a brilliant young woman from Rumania, who he married, and made into an art dealer. And her intelligence and personality made it possible for him to do what he did. His second wife was French moralist Protestant, who was the sacred monster in his life.
"And then at this point of his life where he was facing perhaps a very lonely old age. What would have been in store for him? And into his life walks this young intelligent woman who he seized upon, brilliantly I think. She has enhanced his life immeasurably. She has taken control. The gallery was running him. He wasn't running it. Now he has a wife who is going to help him do what he needs to do -- wind down the gallery and have a dignified end of his life. Leo's done it again."
Jean-Christophe Castelli sounded resigned. "Oh, it's fine," he said of his young stepmother. "Basically my attitude now is if he seems happy and well taken care of, I'm perfectly fine with it. I basically don't have any problem with it at this point."
What would Jean-Christophe do with his rich bequest of art?
"I don't know. I suppose. Basically, I don't have a family yet ... I assume it would wait until my life gets a little more clear. I just want to make sure the major pieces get seen. I'll put them on loan at museums and things like that."
I called Nina Sundell. Was she happier with the marriage?
"I knew you were going to ask that," she said, and sighed. "I think that Barbara takes very, very good care of Leo. I guess that she's happy that she's more active in the gallery than she was in the beginning. And I must say that at first you don't know whether someone is in it for the long haul or not. And the longer that she is with him and treats him affectionately, and takes care of him, the better it gets."
Good news is no news. The British magazine never published my article -- some of which you are reading here.
Leo Castelli is dead now at 91. Post mortem legal battles over fast estates occur world-wide, of course, but they are positively a tradition in the United States. I would hope that this is one last tradition for the Castelli gallery to break. It happens that I live a block from the last premises on 79th, and I would occasionally run into the Castellis in restaurants like Sant' Ambroeus on Madison or on the street, spotting them often when they had no notion that they were observed. Barbara Castelli seemed always affectionate and careful. Her public mien, which had for so long been inwards and mistrustful, was cheerful. You could even have said radiant.
ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST is a writer, reporter and cartoonist. He is currently at work on Famous: Some Journeys through Celebrity Worlds (William Morrow).