The high points in the life of the art dealer Leo Castelli are common knowledge: Early years in Central Europe, marriage to a young heiress also from Central Europe, the couple’s move to Paris, their arrival in New York during World War II; the divorce, his remarriage not once but twice, the second time at 90 to a 35-year-old Italian journalist; the global expansion of his reach as an art dealer -- all of that and more has been documented in the press.
Leo and Ileana have been profiled in the New Yorker. Grace Glueck in the New York Times interviewed him several times as did Paul Cummings for the Archives of American Art. Clearly, Annie Cohen-Solal felt there was much left to discover or she would not have started a biography of him that ends up being 500 pages long.
Something of a French intellectual, with sexy good looks, Cohen-Solal first met her subject in 1989 at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York, where she had been sent by then-French president François Mitterrand. In New York at that time, her name was attached to the biography Sartre: A Life. From the day she arrived on these shores, Cohen-Solal cut a flamboyant if controversial figure. Though the media loved her exuberant sense of style and her unconventional private behavior, the academy that had greeted her as an intellectual felt betrayed by what appeared to be her rather crass notion of success.
And it seems to be the success rather than the persona of Leo Castelli that guided her research for Leo and his Circle, that is, his rags-to-riches story and how he mutated from rasta (the French expression for a rich cosmopolitan, usually from Central Europe, whose sources of revenue are not known) to esteemed global art power.
One of Cohen-Solal’s scoops involved finding a brother of Leo who now lives in San Francisco under the name of George Crane, from whom she learned a lot about Leo’s father, Ernesto Krausz. Crane told her about the man’s successful career as a banker in Trieste and Vienna, and how, though not a Finzi Contini, Leo Castelli née Krausz got a taste of the high life as a youth thanks to his father’s financial success. He also told her about "the meltdown" of the father’s wealth in 1929, followed by professional exile to Budapest during the later years of the Mussolini regime, and how this turn of events affected Leo, then in his 20s: Thanks to one of his father’s old contacts, the multilingual sportsman who, from his modest height of five foot five, had been more of skirt-chaser than a wage-earner/money-maker in Trieste, was to be found still a fine dresser, though an impoverished one, eking out a living as an insurance salesman in Bucharest, the birthplace of his future wife Ileana.
Cohen-Solal does a good job of looking into why Bucharest in the ‘20s and ‘30s was a fine destination for a young Jew with a good education. She reminds us of the number of Romanian intellectuals and artists active in the city at that time, from Constantin Brancusi to Tristan Tzara, Victor Brauner and Marcel Janko, and of the artistic ferment caused in part by its geographic position between East and West. "The Bucharest where Leo Krausz (finally) settled bore no relation to the Trieste of Mussolini. If Bucharest was a provincial, gaudy, multi-ethnic and thus heteroclite capital, it also remained, with its Cubist buildings, a city in full artistic ferment."
The pages on Ileana’s father, Mihai Schapira, whose home Leo came to know well, are also fascinating. It is hard to imagine now the luxurious life that Ileana enjoyed as a girl, and the elegant surroundings of her early life, and that of her sister. "The interiors were filled with tapestries, Aubusson carpets, antiques and paintings from France and Italy. . . . The dining room sat 20," remembered Mariève Rugo, a Schapira granddaughter, and the author of unpublished memoirs that Cohen-Solal uncovered. It took some chutzpah for Leo to court young women to whom he could not hope to offer much in the way of comfort and even promise. But then, Leo was a natural salesman as Jasper Johns was the first to note. He could sell insurance policies, he could sell himself, and he could sell as art a couple of empty beer cans.
Concerning Leo’s stint in the American army, Cohen-Solal has one last scoop, based on the testimony of a nephew of Leo’s named Robert Reitter, also living in the United States. Cohen-Solal, herself a Jew, tells through the voice of this Castelli nephew how Leo in U.S. military uniform appeared at his sister’s door in Budapest in May 1945, met the eight-year-old nephew, wrapped his jacket over the shoulders of the freezing youth, and eventually sat down with Leo’s sister to discover the fate of other relatives. "Since speaking of their Jewishness was taboo in the Krausz family, Leo and Silvia [the sister] did not linger on it that day," writes Cohen-Solal (pg. 159). Cold comportment indeed on the part of a charismatic figure who, we long assumed, chose to hide his vulnerability under impeccable custom-made suits.
Though essential material for understanding the construction of their American identity, the biographer’s description of Castelli couple’s first years in post-war America, trying to figure out where in New York society they might belong -- who was accessible, and who was not -- offers nothing new. I wish there had been more on the couple’s summers in the Hamptons in the ‘50s, a place that was far from negligible to their ambitions, and to my mind instrumental to their success. A savvy team, Leo and Ileana, like a lot of wealthy transplanted Europeans, gradually became part of a rather exclusive coterie that not only entertained and was entertained in private homes but also used the local beaches as some sort of egalitarian summer version of a Paris Salon.
Rather than look at informal social links to explain the couple’s ascent, Cohen-Solal focuses on the business side of their trajectory. Until 1957, the couple tended to resell works that they initially bought for themselves from René Drouin, a Paris dealer and a friend of Leo’s, among them major Kandinskys, and other modern Europeans.
Cohen-Solal revives a rarely talked about show that Leo curated at Janis Gallery in 1951 entitled "Young U.S. and French Painters." As an expert on Sartre she comments (pg. 197): "Just as Sartre trumpeted the impact of Faulkner and Dos Passos on Camus (as well as Sartre’s) writing, so Castelli, by setting Dubuffet against de Kooning and Rothko against de Stael, sought alliances and complicities beyond national label."
On one of the rare occasions when we hear Leo speak about art, he ascribes the inability of the French artists to compete in New York to their "arrogance [which] made them believe that only a European could produce a new aesthetic leap forward." (pg. 201). This is an interesting and rarely heard take on the failure of art from France to conquer New York after the war.
Cohen-Solal brings up the fact that, in 1952, Leo and Ileana joined The Club -- the meeting ground of Ab/Ex artists and a famous hotbed of critical thinking and discussion, as their interest shifted to contemporary American art. During the ‘50s, Leo floundered about, launching several projects that fell through, including opening a branch of the Janis Gallery in Europe (pg. 224). Then Janis got tired of his arrangement with Castelli, for which Castelli took the blame in an interview with Paul Cummings, quoted by Cohen-Solal.
Not unexpectedly she writes about how at the age of fifty, Leo opened his own gallery in a bedroom of his East 77th Street apartment with a group show of modernist masters from Europe and a few American pieces. Cohen-Solal reports on the lavish opening (pg. 236), and the positive reception of the show. On January 20, 1958, Jasper Johns’ exhibition opened. And in the same space a few months later it would be Bob Rauschenberg’s turn to have a show. After that, success came fast, Pop art made Leo Castelli, and Castelli made Pop art, followed by Minimalism and more. A display of close to 40 artworks from A/E to Pop and Minimalism that once belonged to the Sculls who bought art from Leo is currently on view at Acquavella. The handsomely presented ensemble attests to the change of sensibility from the ‘50s to the ‘60s that Castelli, thanks to his reputed "good eye and good ear," responded to decisively and brilliantly.
The verdict? In the first lines of Leo and his Circle, Cohen-Solal recalls meeting Leo two weeks after arriving in New York at a dinner party, and how the sprightly 80-year old dealer told her, "So you’re the new one. Well you’re going to take the city by storm with your orange skirt and your long gloves. . ." (pg. xi), and how he immediately invited her to come to his Roy Lichtenstein opening the following day and to the party afterward. Cohen-Solal misses a chance to comment on what her anecdote says about Leo’s ability to predict quickly and assertively "who was going to take the city by storm," whether it was an attractive woman or a promising artist.
If writing the biography of a recently deceased individual means consulting relatives of the protagonist, interviewing colleagues and visiting the places where the subject grew up, then Annie Cohen-Solal has done her homework and more. If it means fleshing out the person behind the mask by way of objective interpretations of his behavior, the author is too enamored of her subject to venture in that direction. And if what it takes to write a popular biography is divulging things the subject might have wanted to keep secret -- as Kitty Kelley does, say, in her biography of the TV host Oprah -- Leo and His Circle falls short on revelations, particularly on her subject’s complex love life, active almost to the day he died. No doubt this attitude reflects the French respect de la vie privée, a tradition that keeps secrets out of public domain until all the relatives and their heirs are safely in Heaven.
It is unlikely that Cohen-Solal’s biography is going to satisfy the many individuals who went through that period first-hand and who knew Leo Castelli much better and longer than she did. The shortage of artists’ testimonies is particularly regrettable, but here and there, particularly Part I, her book is a very good read.
Leo and His Circle, by Annie Cohen-Solal (translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti with the author) (A. Knopf, 2010)
MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and cultural historian.