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

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.

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. 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.

7 Comments

  1. In the last few months I’ve read:

    The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism – Ross King – 2007. This is an older book but I’ve just finished it – excellent!

    Picasso and Dora: A Personal Memoir – Jame Lord – 1993. I picked this up at a yard sale for a Loonie. A strange book but I enjoyed it a lot.

    House of Nutter: The Rebel Tailor of Savile Row – Lance Richardson – 2018. I maybe stretching the art theme here but I thought this was a great book.

  2. Jason,

    Thank you so much for recommending this Leo Castelli book. It’s not one that I’ve come across before and it sounds fascinating.

    Brian, I’m going to look for a copy of ‘The Judgement of Paris’…I think I will find it very interesting.

    I just finished ‘I Always Loved You’ by Robin Oliveira…about Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas.

    I found a copy of ‘Madame Picasso’ and read it during the pandemic. It was interesting because Picasso had many mistresses through the years, however, this was the only woman able to persuade him to marry her, which has been a real advantage for her son and daughter.

  3. This book was actually recommended when purchasing yours. Your review was spot on and, yes, still worth the read. The history covered is fascinating but the amount of names, dates, and places are dizzying. After a short time, I created a cadence and able to really enjoy his story.

  4. I bought this one as soon as it came out in hardcover. Loved reading about this fascinating period in American art. I agree about your criticisms. Great anecdote about Ivan Karp stopping what we was doing and taking time to look at the paintings of a young artist (Roy Lichtenstein!). Things have sure changed 🙂
    Also, some interesting tensions between the old guard (DeKooning, etc.) and Castelli’s rising pop stars like Johns & Rauschenberg.

    Recommendations:
    _ The $12 Million Stuffed Shark by Don Thompson (we’ve already discussed this one)
    _ Making It in the Art World: Strategies for Exhibitions and Funding by Brainard Carey
    _ A Year with Swollen Appendices / Brian Eno’s diary, with a bunch of essays in the back

  5. Thanks for all those recommendations both from Jason and all the people who included books titles in their replies. I have a reading list for at least a year now. Love books about art and artists.
    My recommendations: “The Muralist” by A.B. Shapiro, an historical fiction novel about the Abstract Expressionists and “Nine Street Women” by Mary Gabriel which deals with the five women painters that were major figures in the Abstract Expressionist movement that changed modern art. Women like Lee Krastner, Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell were largely ignored by art history. This book made fascinating reading about all the denizans of that crazy world at that equally crazy time in world. An important art history text, in my opinion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *