In 1957, Castelli finally did what the art world had long expected—he opened his own gallery. It occupied a floor in the 77th Street house, and the business (or a branch of it) would remain in that building for 20 years. Castelli started out by trying to pair up European and American art, as he had done while working with Sidney Janis, but found that it was not a successful long-term strategy. Despite his links with the Abstract Expressionists, he did not represent any of the first generation, with the exception of Jack Tworkov, who joined the gallery three years after it opened. Instead, he handled a mixed lot of younger painters and sculptors: Paul Brach, Norman Bluhm, Alfred Leslie, Friedel Dzubas, Jon Schueler and Marisol among them. His breakthrough came when Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg joined the gallery. That first Johns-Castelli meeting—occasioned by a visit to Rauschenberg, who generously took the dealer to his neighbor’s studio—has been told many times, and Cohen-Solal recounts it thoroughly. Certainly something important had been set into motion: Castelli was so struck with Johns’s work (an example of which he had seen a bit earlier at the Jewish Museum) that he offered the artist a show on the spot. But Cohen-Solal, in overheated, sometimes wince-inducing prose, treats the event in terms befitting a Second Coming, or maybe a First:
European gallerists, American artists, European critics, American collectors and museum directors: they were all there, ready to act and be acted upon, more or less knowingly, in the presence of that unique Castelli magic, the singular catalyst that would precipitate an unexampled chemical reaction such as these constitutive elements could not have imagined.
Although Rauschenberg ultimately did very well, Johns was the more immediate success, and his steady sales and ever increasing prices (along with those of the prolific Roy Lichtenstein) kept the gallery afloat through its troubled periods. And many difficult times there were, since critical success and art-historical relevance did not translate into instant prosperity. Castelli’s idea was to keep abreast of the evolving movements and represent their most significant practitioners—which he did, with the notable (and apparently regretted) exception of Color Field painters. Pop artists sold well for the most part, but Minimalists, Post-Minimalists and Conceptualists were much harder to push. As important as, say, Dan Flavin was, getting people to part with many thousands of dollars for a few fluorescent tubes proved to be no easy feat. Castelli’s financial profile was not improved by his willingness to provide monthly stipends to his artists and to pick up the tab, or a significant portion of it, for the fabrication of sculptures that stood little chance of being sold.
In addition, Castelli wanted the artists he represented to be seen outside New York, and he arranged for them to exhibit widely in North America, Europe and Japan. Sharing commissions with other dealers cut into his profits, but the artists themselves, of course, appreciated the broader exposure. Cohen-Solal is strangely off base in her characterization of the many dealers with whom Castelli collaborated. She presents their galleries as essentially subsidiaries—she calls them “satellites”—of the Leo Castelli Gallery, ignoring the fact that people like Margo Leavin in Los Angeles, David Mirvish in Toronto, Gian Enzo Sperone in Turin, Konrad Fischer in Düsseldorf, Rudolf Zwirner in Cologne, Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich or Akira Ikeda in Tokyo—ran successful, fully autonomous operations that dealt not just with Castelli and his artists, but many others as well.
Cohen-Solal handles Castelli’s first decade as a dealer reasonably well, giving her readers a sense of the excitement that swirled around the East 77th Street gallery. As the ’60s swung into gear, the place became a magnet for artists, critics, collectors and anyone interested in the new territory opening up for art. Castelli worked assiduously to get artists when they were young, inventive and enthusiastic. Within a few years, he was exhibiting Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Warhol, Stella, Poons, Twombly, Judd, Bontecou, Christo, Chamberlain, Artschwager and Morris. The excitement continued as the gallery expanded, first in 1968 to a warehouse exhibition space on West 108th Street, and next in 1971 to a large loft on West Broadway in the then barely gentrifying SoHo. By that point, Nauman, Flavin, Kosuth, Sonnier and Serra had entered the picture.
Compared to today’s scene, the art world of the time was a small, interconnected place. Cohen-Solal does not neglect those around Castelli who helped shape his decisions—ex-wife Ileana, a successful dealer in her own right, who was a constant presence despite their divorce in 1959; her second husband, Michael Sonnabend, whom she married that same year; Ivan Karp, the gallery’s director through the ’60s; the prescient dealer Dick Bellamy of the Green Gallery; Alan Solomon, the director of the Jewish Museum; Henry Geldzahler, the young contemporary curator at the Metropolitan Museum; and even the brash, vulgar but remarkably savvy collector Robert Scull, who was Castelli’s most financially reliable client as well as a demanding, annoying presence in his life.
Clearly, when an author attempts to tell the complicated tale of the ’60s art world, there must be focus and concision—meaning some things judiciously left out. But Cohen-Solal’s decision to consider the art itself in only the most cursory way is, I think, a major miscalculation. With the exception of Johns and Rauschenberg, all the Castelli artists are seriously shortchanged. Leo and His Circle tells readers very little about these figures’ critical impact, and about the formal nature of their art, even less. This might be acceptable in a work that is predominantly theoretical or sociohistorical in orientation, but Cohen-Solal’s book is neither. In fact, the author doesn’t seem to know what it is, and as a result the text alternates between the sketchy and the exhaustive, the breezy and the ponderous. Must we have, for example, the history of the 1964 Venice Biennale’s prize-giving (Rauschenberg won it) laid out step-by-step with, literally, a 14-person dramatis personae, followed by Acts I-VIII, each dated by day? Must the critical reactions to Geldzahler’s Metropolitan Museum show “New York Painting and Sculpture, 1940-1970” be parsed in excruciating detail for five pages?
If the ’60s and early ’70s are handled unevenly (though with much fascinating information supplied), the later years are recounted—passing notice of Castelli’s children, his myriad paramours, the death of his second wife and his 1995 marriage to a young third spouse nothwithstanding—in a manner pretty much guaranteed to induce both misanthropy and sleep. The section abounds with art-world personalities shown in their worst light, half-compliments and insincere encomiums from people eager to take partial credit for Castelli’s many coups, obsessive fact-mongering (interested in a map of Castelli’s favorite restaurants?), lists and lists and lists (want to know the names of 13 gallery assistants?) and a very full accounting (among other very full accountings) of the ceremony (Elysée Palace, Paris, May 23, 1991) in which Castelli was made an officer of the Legion of Honor. Essentially, by the ’80s and certainly by the ’90s the art world had grown so large that Castelli, while important, was reduced to being just one more cagey player. His was a big blue-chip operation among other big blue-chip operations. Consequently, with art given the backseat as usual, Cohen-Solal’s book begins to sound like an infomercial or the in-house history of an upscale supermarket chain.
Then there are the small irritations. Why does the author engage us with people, from family members to art-world figures, only to let them disappear? And the errors, to cite just a few: it’s Susan Rothenberg, not Rottenberg; Rosalind Krauss, not Krausz; Max Kozloff, not Kozlof. Ivan Karp’s OK Harris gallery is on West Broadway, not Broadway, and Patterson Sims is a man, not a woman. Finally the writing: when not overly convoluted, Cohen-Solal’s prose is too often marred by oversimplification, hyperbole and exclamation points.
All of this is a pity, for the story of Castelli’s involvement with postwar art remains a fascinating one. Social history can be dynamic as well as informative, and there’s no reason a popular study detailing the patronage structure of contemporary art should be any less valuable than a similar take on the Renaissance. What’s more, biography, as a literary form, can certainly be capacious. It’s all right to be discursive, to appeal to a wide audience, to dish a little dirt, to tell a good tale. But readers want to finish the text with their curiosity aroused, the connections sparking. Unfortunately this is not the case with Leo and His Circle. There is a sharp little book lurking in these many pages, but it remains, like the subject himself, fascinatingly elusive.