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.

19 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.

  6. Fantastic! Thank you for sharing, Jason.

    Currently, I am reading (round two) Cal Newport’s, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, a title inspired by famous comedian, Steve Martin.
    This book, for me, clarified the meaning of the “ passion hypothesis”, finding the right job vs working right. He explained how this mindset, finding your passion in terms of ‘work’, may be dangerous advice. Cal also provided excellent footnotes and references.
    😊

    1. I read the excelleng O’Keefe biography by Roxana Robinson – thoroughly enjoyed it! I’ll have to check out the Stieglitz bio.

      I’ve also read Mistress of Modernism: the Life of Peggy Guggenheim – very good.

  7. First, I want to thank you not only for this blog post, but also for including the video of the Castelli interview from !976, in its entirety – truly fascinating and very very informative. This was a gallerist who really knew art, and who really knew art business, and who was also one of the most elegant art dealers there ever was.

    I once showed him and his wife my early photographic (multiple exposure) works. Because my work was photographic, he said to me – “I want my wife to see it first , and them I’ll look at it after she does – but I want her opinion”. Well she did not like my work at all – I was neither a purist, involved with the craft of “the perfect print”, nor some pop oriented photographer making a “social” or “political” statement, so to her I was totally uninteresting, and I suspect she believed “not even a real artist at all”

    Then I went to see him, expecting an even worse reaction, because, though he clearly stated in this interview his high regard and awareness of photographic art, I did not know this at the time, and to my knowledge, the only photographic work in his 2 galleries was in his uptown gallery chosen by his wife. Well he started looking at my art, and he really looked – I mean he spent at least 5 minutes looking at each image, some he looked at for 10-15 minutes. But he immediately said to me “I understand why my wife didn’t like your work, because, frankly it’s beyond her understanding, but I look with very different eyes than she does!” He did tell me however, right away, that he couldn’t handle me because he was now so well established that his clientele wouldn’t accept work for an unknown artist, even if he was handling me – they just wouldn’t go for it he said. But he continued to very, very carefully look at each individual piece of my work

    In the middle of looking at my work, he was interrupted by a phone call, and told me “Excuse me, I really have to take this call” I started to gather my artwork to leave, but he motioned me to stay, and said “no, no, we’ll continue after this call, stay”. So I sat down again, and with nothing else to do, listened. The call was from the curator of the museum at Johns Hopkins University – the university was interested in buying a very large Aubusson tapestry. It was really expensive (I don’t know the original asking price, but the Johns Hopkins Museum was offering just over 1/2 million dollars for it). Mr Castelli calmly informed them that their offering price, for that single tapestry, was in fact quite fair, but there was one thing they evidently didn’t understand – the tapestry they wanted was part of a set of 8, and he wasn’t going to break the set to sell them just that one, because he already had a potential buyer for the set – so they could buy the set of 8, or none at all!! There was a long pause – they even went away from the phone on the other end, I suppose to consult among a group of them. Mr Castelli, even put the phone down on his desk for a moment and spoke to me – “Now you see what I mean by my clientele only wanting very established art – I’m afraid its something I’m stuck with now” – Johns Hopkins came back on the phone – negotiations lasted another 1/2 hour. When it ended, Johns Hopkins had agreed to purchase the entire set of 8.

    Mr Castelli then resumed looking at my work, with the same care he had displayed before, not expressing any effect of having just closed an almost 4 million dollar sale, as if this had just been a relatively normal day (perhaps to him, it truly was, but I can tell you I was more than impressed!). At the end of looking at my work, he said he was going to send me to 2 other galleries, and would call them and tell them they should see me – The Sonnabend Gallery, and Ivan Karp Gallery, both also in SOHO. True to his word, he did call them, and when I called, they immediately said they would see my work, because Mr. Castelli had pretty much insisted on it. And they did – Iliana Sonnabend, like Castelli’s wife, was unimpressed, almost dismissive, but Ivan Karp seemingly was quite interested – except he wanted me to produce my works on a much much larger scale – my works at the time were in the range of 11×14 to 18×24 inches – he wanted me to produce my work on a mural sized scale 4 feet x 6 feet, even 8 x 12 feet. In fact he wanted my work printed on steel sheets, and actually connected me with a firm that could supposedly do this, and with the head of public relations at US Steel who purportedly agreed to supply the stainless steel sheeting for this for free – but in the end it didn’t work out, and when it didn’t Mr Karp lost interest, so there was no show there either. But I can certainly say this about Mr. Castelli – he was a true gentleman of the old school of upperclass aristocracy – if not by birth, certainly by demeanor, thought, honor, and action. Although my interaction with him was brief (we never met again after that one meeting) I remain totally impressed by him as an art dealer, art connoisseur, and most importantly, as a truly evolved person. And it was an honor to have known him, even for that brief moment

      1. Mira – Thank-you! Although, in my book Mr. Castelli’s interest counts as an “almost”, because if he were as blown away by my work as he was when he met Jasper Johns, he might have given me a show anyway. That would have been true validation – but he did recognize artistic value there so it’s at least a consolation, because one thing I can say is he really knew his art! And he was a true gentleman and very kind to arrange for 2 other top galleries to give me a good look though as I mentioned Iliana Sonnebend was not impressed with it at all.

        I invite you to take a look at some of my current work, its in the July/Aug & Sept/Oct Xanadu catalog, and will be in the Nov/Dec catalog as well

  8. Thanks for the recommendation.
    Some books used as reference and study books;
    New Art City by Jed Pearl
    The Loft Generation by Edith Schloss
    David Park, a Painter’s Life by Nancy Boas
    The Culture of Spontaneity by Daniel Belgrade
    Why Your Five-Year Old Could Not Have Done That by Susie Hodge
    Good reading about the New York and California Schools and understanding
    improvisation.

  9. There is a great but short documentary around the late fifties early sixties called “Painters Painting”. Probably well known, but came to mind with the new book out on Leo Castelli

  10. Castelli book sounds great, I must check it out for sure. I have read and keep as a reference maybe the most important ‘importer’ of european artist post WWI and that would be Katherine Dreier. Dreier with DuChamp formed the “The Societe Anonyme.” This was the introduction of Modern Art into America. With not only DuChamp but the likes of Kurt Schwiters, Kandinsky, Brancusi, Mondrian, Man Ray and many more and especially one of my favorites El Lissitzky.

    The Book, ” The Societe Anonyme -Modernism for Amiercan’ by Yale press is a must read IMO to understand the history of how the USA became a globle center away from Paris for modern art.

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