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 imperilling 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 historic 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 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

Have you Read Any Great Art Books Recently?

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.

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of Dad was an Artist | A Survivor's Story and best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business. Connect with Jason on Facebook

13 Comments

  1. “My Dad was an Artist” by Jason Horejs still is a favourite as reading about artists lives, especially when written by those close to them, brings to light their uniquely human passion and how they impact creative journeys along the way.

  2. Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel was recommended here and was a real education.
    Here’s my list of interesting books:
    Art Talk Cindy Nemser
    Seven Nights in the Art World Sarah Thornton
    33 Artists in 3 Acts Sarah Thornton
    The 12 Million Dollar Stuffed Shark Don Thompson
    Elaine and Bill: Portrait of a Marriage Lee Hall

  3. I’ll have to get this book. Plus-What a great interview! Leo answered questions that we artists always want to ask, but never do. I loved that he was happy to look at the work of new artists and I chuckled at the price range he spoke about, as well as his astonishment at the outrageous sum of $200K for trying manipulate the value of a Francis Bacon work. Little did he know in 1976 how outrageous the market would eventually get!

    Back in 1976 we happened to be in Soho one afternoon and we came upon his gallery. He was showing wonderful mixed media hanging sculptures. And I thought that he truly had a vision for the “new.” It was also at the height of the renaissance of fine crafts in the US and somehow what he was showing fit in very nicely in that arena, with which I was very involved at the time.

    For another good read I would recommend a book about Edith Halpert that I picked up at the Jewish Museum when they were showing works she championed. Here was a woman gallerist who survived from the 20s into the late 60s, thru the depression and also the war. The book is, “Edith Halpert- The Downtown Gallery and the Rise of American Art.”

  4. I highly recommend reading, “Ninth Street Women” an awesome book. It was especially interesting to me since I had some of the names mentioned in the book as instructors at the NY Studio School.

    https://www.amazon.com/s?k=ninth+street+women&i=stripbooks&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIt8KkmN_q5wIVFJSzCh3mSgFaEAAYASAAEgKImfD_BwE&hvadid=409971864368&hvdev=c&hvlocphy=9010739&hvnetw=g&hvqmt=e&hvrand=7055506151074167885&hvtargid=kwd-366012221160&hydadcr=22537_11318393&tag=googhydr-20&ref=pd_sl_7p7l8c48dc_e

  5. I’m in the middle of reading Hitler’s Art Thief by Susan Ronald. Fascinating read about Hildebrand Gurlitt, an “official art dealer” for Hitler, and prolific art looter who stole from Hitler, too, allegedly to save modern art. It will be interesting to read about Leo’s journey in the art world during the same period of history.

  6. My husband and I lived in New York City when SoHo and the Art scene there was burgeoning. Leo Castelli was definitely the gallerist to follow. He took Mary Boone under his wing and mentored her to become one of the notable gallerists in New York, as well. I was sorry to hear and read that she did not follow in his footsteps in the honesty department. I believe she is serving some jail time for tax fraud.

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