September 26, 2022

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I Fall For Art

Book Review | Leo & His Circle – The Life of Leo Castelli by Annie Cohen-Solal

After World War II, the center of gravity in the art world shifted from the European capitals to New York. Abstract Expressionism was about to burst onto the scene, followed by the Pop Art movement, and the value of American art would soon skyrocket, along with the respect American artists would receive from collectors both in the US and around the world.

There were many players in the advent of the new art market – artists, critics, museum directors, and a new breed of art dealers and gallery owners. Foremost among these new dealers was Italian-born gallerist Leo Castelli.

Though Castelli didn’t open his New York gallery until the age of 50, the influence he would have on the global art market would be far reaching and long lasting. Castelli discovered and helped bring to prominence Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and many others. He also innovated the dealer-artist relationship, working in close partnership with the artists he represented, and offering many of them monthly stipends to help sustain them as they created their seminal works. While Castelli built a successful art empire, helping collectors and museums acquire some of the most important works of the twentieth century and generating tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars in art sales, Castelli didn’t seem to be in it just to make himself rich. He often made deep sacrifices in the interest of the artists he represented, sometimes imperiling the viability of his business.

Leo Castelli wasn’t without his critics, and his prominence would eventually fade and become a bit tarnished, but his impact is arguably without equal.

The story of Castelli’s rise in the art world and the revolution he sparked in the art market are fascinating, but so too is his background prior to emigrating to the US. Castelli and his family, of Jewish descent, experienced first-hand the horrors of the rise of Nazism and the conflagration of the war that enveloped Europe. Castelli was able to escape the fate many others endured during the war thanks to the fortune of his wealthy father-in-law.

The author of this volume, Annie Cohen-Solal, paints a fascinating picture of Castelli’s life and the events that carried him to prominence in the art world, as well as the historical events surrounding his rise. There were some stretches of the book that I found a bit taxing of my attention as the author shared long lists of people in Castelli’s circle; these were people with whom I was unfamiliar, and who I was unlikely to remember outside of any real context. I also wondered if the author’s use of exclamation points wasn’t a bit excessive!

In spite of these minor shortcomings, I felt enriched by reading Leo and His Circle. I’m fascinated by all of the different periods of art history, but none has shaped the contemporary art market like the rise of the gallery scene in the mid to late 20th century. I’ve read biographies of Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Warhol, and other artist from this period, but as an art dealer myself (admittedly on a much, much humbler scale) it was enlightening to see this period through the eyes of a gallery owner.

I’m including a link to the Amazon listing for the book. The book isn’t widely available and is a bit pricey at this point, but you can read it on Kindle or find a used copy for less at this link as well.

Watch an interview with Leo Castelli on YouTube

I love reading about art history and am always looking for recommendations. Have you read a great book recently? Share your recommendations in the comments below.

I’d also love to hear if you were already aware of Leo Castelli and his influence on the art market.