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Leo Castelli - Art of The Deal Part 4

I’m back with Art of the Deal Part 4!


A series where I look at the best art dealers in history and give you a whistle stop tour of their greatness!


Today we are looking at the almighty Leo Castelli who was one of the cornerstone dealers who shaped the New York art scene in the 50s, 60s, and 70s!!

Who was Leo Castelli?

Leo Castelli was an Italian art dealer who made his name in New York in the 1950s/60s/70s. He represented some of the worlds greatest artists and is known for catapulting the links of Japser Johns and Robert Rachuenberg into superstardom.

Born into a relatively wealthy family in Italy, Castelli did not start dealing in art until later in his life. He began his career working as an insurance broker and then as a banker in Paris where art first caught his eye. After moving to New York to escape the Nazi occupation of France in 1941, Castelli spent 10 years managing a factory before finally opening a gallery.


He opened his first gallery at the age of 50 with a then unknown Jasper John - which changed instantly over night.


Did Leo Castelli have connections in the art world?

No, he did not - but art was always interesting to Castelli - he even dated known Surrealist painter Leonor Fini who also came from the same small village he came from in Italy.


It was working as a banker in Paris that art started to peek his interest. He and a friend who was a furniture maker and dealer, acquired a shop in Paris and through moving in artistic circles, began to show the work of the Surrealists such as Max Ernst and former girlfriend Leonor Fini.


It is also important to note he was mentored by a lot of people when he moved to New York especially gallery owner Sydney Janis. Castelli helped organise exhibitions out with his day job with Janis and eventually moved into dealing full time.

Where did Castelli operate?

Castelli’s was a charismatic character and excellent networker. After leaving his job in banking, he used his connections gained though his old job to find buyers and get the word out about his Paris gallery.


In 1939 war was once again on the horizon, Castelli and his wife closed the gallery. In 1940, Leo knew his position as a jew in Europe was dangerous. He fled Paris only a few weeks before it fell to the Nazi’s.


In 1941, via a rather long route, the Castelli’s arrived in New York where he would eventually open up his gallery and leave a lasting impact on the art world. After serving in the US army - he did this to gain citizenship for his wife and himself - he took a job within his father-in-law’s knitting factory. Castelli spent 10 years working there, skipping out early more and more to visit museums, galleries and visit artists.


He established a gallery in the early 1950s in New York and never looked back.


What group of Artist did he promote?

Castelli’s career saw him working with an unbelievable amount of big name artists from Andy Warhol to Max Ernst and Salvador Dali to Jackson Pollock.


He is best known however, for being the artist to ‘discover’ Jasper Johns and pushed him for little know obscurity into immense collectable / mega start status.

To name but a few artists that Castelli worked with - in no particular order:

Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Roy Liechtenstein, Robert Morris, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Cy Tombly, Bruce Nauman, Dan Flavin, Max Ernst, Dorothy Tanning and the list can continue - but you get the idea. The man was a tastemaker.

Castelli is quoted as saying he never worked with an artist merely because they were good. For Castelli, good was not enough. They needed to be about to kick start something massive, ahead of the pack…or even better - starting a new movement all-together!!


Andy Warhol and art dealer Castelli
Dealer Leo Castelli with Andy Warhol

What did he do that was so influential?

Castelli was fearless in his representation and did many things which many dealers thought twice about doing - such as show Andy Warhol’s now iconic Soup Can paintings for the first time. He took risks but most importantly believed in his artists with everything he had.


With every ounce of himself he believed ‘the Gallery’ was a crucial meeting point of minds, trends and tastemakers; helping direct an artist’s career and that it played an active role in impacting the history of art for future generations.


He was in no way wrong and this forward thinking of the impact an artist and gallery could have is no doubt for of Castelli’s unique selling points.

For Castelli he forged the first kind of life long representations with artists, seeing their relationship as something which needed to be worked on from both sides.


Watching an interview with Castelli recorded in 1979, Castelli told the reported when asked about his career as a dealer:


‘The function of an art dealer, well can be various, certainly a good art dealer, one who really cares about making art and not making money, should be to find new artists, make them known to the public before museums can do it, they function in a much more cumbersome way, they have to figure out schedules well ahead of time.


We are the real vanguard, we are really the lead. We, - the good dealers - we can just make things happen so much more rapidly than if we only had to rely on museums. The museums will then, sometimes rapidly, sometimes more slowly, judge what you are doing and go on from there.”


He is best known however for the Leo Castelli Method.

The Leo Castelli Method:

Castelli devised a new model for how to treat his gallery roster—one that was so influential, it’s now referred to as the “Leo Castelli Model.” Under the ‘old system’, galleries simply sold artwork and split the sale’s profit with the artist, a transactional relationship that did not assume the artists would have lifelong loyalty to the dealer/gallery!


‘But under the Leo Castelli Model, the gallery and the artist have a bond, with the dealer providing him (it was usually a him) with money for a studio and art-making supplies, and tracking his market to make sure prices don’t get too inflated. The gallery also carefully nurtures the brand of the artist, handling press and public relations, and making sure that they were regularly slotted into the exhibition schedule. One practice of Castelli’s that was not adopted by many of his followers, though, was his insistence on giving each artist a stipend every month, regardless of whether their work was hot at the moment, or if they were regularly making work at all.’


This may seem like nothing new, but the fact Castelli managed the brand of his artists was everything. He helped curate collector’s tastes while making sure his artist’s reputations was intact - especially when they began to sky rocket into fame like Jasper Johns and roy Lichtenstein!


How did he select the artists he would show?

Castelli was forever on the hunt for the best new artists in town and used his network of artists and thinkers to point him in the right direction of interesting people. He constantly visited other galleries and was not afraid to approach dealers to split representation of artists he liked but they got to first.


Another interesting thing about Castelli was he was open to artist pitches and even if he could not - or did not - want to represent them, he was more than happy to point people in the direction of other dealers and galleries whom he felt might benefit from showing their work. This for me speaks a lot about his character and a love of art. It was not always about making money but just liked helping artists realise their full potential, even if that was not under his representation!


Anything we should know about him – but we don’t?

He condemned galleries that tried to steer the direction of an artists to fule sales. Stating that he believed a gallery’s involvement with the artist should be:


‘Almost totally passive - the artists should be in no way influenced by the gallery’

Continuing he says:

“I let the artists do what they want, sometimes I don’t agree what they have done but the artist is not to be disturbed above all.’


Did he ever do anything with British Artists?

Not that I can find in my research, although he did use his connections in Europe to champion and show American artist in Europe and the Uk leading to some major European and British institutions purchasing works for their collections.


If you know of any direct UK artist he worked with - please do let me know!


Castelli with Larry Gagosian and Charles Satchii

How does Leo Castelli effect the art world today?

Giving an artist a monthly stipend regardless of sale is known is some circles as the Castelli method. Although, I would argue Paul Durand-Ruel came up with the concept first - see art of the deal part 1!!


As well as this he was a:


Mentor

Apart from making sure the world would never forget Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg - which by all means is enough achievement for most in their life - he also mentored a selection of the next generation of dealers.


There is a great photo of Castelli on what looks like a boat with his then mentees, Larry Gagosian and Charles Satchii; who have gone onto form two of the greatest galleries/ collections of modern and contemporary art.


Castelli is also created for helping a young Gagosian secure his first stable of artists to represent, helped him acquire exhibition spaces and put him in touch with some of his top clients to help him get started.

Photography enthusiast

Castelli also championed photography as a respected art form when the art world was all to keen to dismiss it as a hobby. Castelli set up an editional gallery which championed and exhibited photography as a worthy art form and something which should be respected.

The gallery was run by his second wife who loved photography.


Leo Castelli used his connections in Europe to host shows of American Artists

Much like Peggy Guggenheim, Castelli used his connections in Europe to stage shows of American abstract expressionists and pop artists outside of the states.


He even worked with his first wife and her new husband French dealer to show his artists works in their gallery in Paris!


Is Castelli’s gallery still around today?

Yes! Although Castelli sadly passed away in 1999, his gallery is still run out of New York, although it is now known as Castelli Gallery. The gallery still champions the work of the modern artist which it is come to be known for and still represents the estates of Jasper Johns.


Where can I find out more about Leo Castelli?

There is a great chapter written about Castelli in Rogues’ Gallery by Philip Hook - available on Amazon. I picked up my copy for £3!


You can hear Castelli speak about his life as a dealer in 1976 on Youtube - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vxKIzFRGPA&t=229s

You can read more about him here:

Book Leo and his Circle - be warned it is pretty pricey: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Leo-His-Circle-Life-Castelli/dp/1400044278


Interview with Castelli and Roy Litchensten: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAW1Xipmpt0


Written and researched by Jo McLaughlin

November/December 2021

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