Legendary art dealer made stars of artists

Art: Leo Castelli, who died Sunday, brought an extraordinary group of contemporary artists into the public eye, including Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol.

August 24, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

In 1976, when the Baltimore Museum of Art was trying to purchase a new work by the Minimalist artist Donald Judd, it was New York art dealer Leo Castelli who made the impossible happen.

As former BMA deputy director Brenda Richardson recalled it, the museum had recently exhibited Judd's Minimalist plywood boxes and felt strongly it should have one in its own collection.

But there was a problem: Castelli, who was regarded as the most influentual dealer of his age and whose gallery was a showcase for a virtual Who's Who of talent that made New York the center of contemporary art, was selling Judd's boxes for $60,000 apiece.

"I went to Leo and told him I would have to negotiate because the museum just didn't have that much money," Richardson recalled. "We only had a small gift to acquire contemporary art."

"Leo said, `How much do you have?' Richardson recalled. "I had to apologize when I told him the most we could spend was $15,000. But he said, `Well, then you can have it for that.' "

Richardson said such generosity was typical of Castelli, who died Sunday in New York at age 91.

"He was the first first dealer I know to give his artists stipends regardless of whether their work sold," Richardson said. "That was a lifeline for unknown artists, and he was legendary for it."

His stable of artists included Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Robert Morris, Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, Cy Twombly, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra and Andy Warhol.

"Leo had access to an amazing list of artists," said Renato Danese of Danese gallery in New York. "I don't know whether that many estimable artists exist today, and even if they did to have them all under one roof would be extraordinary."

"There's no one like him now," agreed Gary Sangster, director of Baltimore's Contemporary Museum.

"Today the art world is much more diverse and the power of dealers has changed. He wasn't the first great dealer, but he was the person who enabled contemporary art to be accepted and popularized among collectors in a way that generated more income and enlarged the art market for everyone," Sangster said.

Castelli was born into an affluent Jewish family in Trieste, Italy, in 1907 and was educated in Milan before he went into the insurance business.

In 1933 he married Ileana Schapira, the daughter of a wealthy Romanian industrialist who gave him a job in his Paris bank and indulged the couple's interest in modern art.

Castelli opened his first gallery in Paris in 1939 but when World War II erupted he and his wife emigrated to the United States.

His courtly European manners and impeccable taste gave him an entre into the New York art world. But he didn't seriously make a business of it until 1957, when he turned his townhouse on East 77th Street into a small gallery and began looking for exciting new talents. Johns, Rauschenberg and Stella were among his early stars.

"He was a star-maker because he could recognize talent," said Costas Grimaldis, owner of Baltimore's Grimaldis Gallery. "At the time there were very few dealers in contemporary art, and he celebrated and recognized the new art before other people, not just dealers, understood its importance. He made sure the public saw it."

Castelli's success was due to the confluence of the right man at the right time. He was an iconic figure who was both generous and a man of vision.

"Today there's so much emphasis on competition and sales and the bottom line and the cost and overhead of running a gallery that those qualities sometimes can get lost," said Danese

"Leo's quiet way of functioning with contemporary art and artists -- generous and fascinated and articulate about their work, someone who understood its importance and was utterly supportive across the board -- that was unique."

By the time Castelli opened his gallery, the center of the art world had already shifted from Paris to New York.

In the early years of the 20th century, American photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz had introduced European modernism to America through shows of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and others at his legendary gallery 291.

In the 1940s, the New York dealer Sidney Janis played a similar role with such artists as Constantin Brancusi, Jean Arp, Fernand Leger and the first generation of American Abstract Expressionists, thus straddling two continents.

But by the end of the 1950s Abstract Expressionism had run out of steam and a new group of younger artists -- Lichtenstein, Warhol, Rauschenberg -- were creating Pop Art, a fresh view of American popular culture.

"The European influence wasn't dead -- [Willem] De Kooning, [Arshile] Gorky and many others were still alive -- but Leo represented a new view of contemporary art and a different approach and strategy to developing collections," Danese said. "He hit when a lot of fortunes were being made, he was distinguished and friendly, and his timing was impeccable."

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