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. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this book. It sounds like a “must read” for anyone interested in contemporary art.

    I am currently reading “Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil.” As a long time Houstonian (31 years), I’ve visited the Menil Collection countless times, and had a passing knowledge of the Menils. This book (also a bit long in places) chronicles how they came to own one of the largest collections of contemporary art, their personal relationships with artists such as Warhol and Rothko (and many others), their impact on the arts scene in Houston, New York and Paris, and their activities in civil rights.

    Thank you for your many blog posts that always are informative, entertaining, and truly valued.

  2. Good morning Jason!

    The book on Leo Castelli sounds intriguing! Although I am known for my realist paintings, I’ve had a passionate interest in the abstract expressionists since I was a teenager.
    I first discovered them on the art page of my aunt and uncle’s Time magazine. I would cut out the tiny images and save them, even though I didn’t know what they were at the time. So yes, I’ve known of this collector/gallery owner for decades!

    When you asked for recommendations a book immediately came to mind. It was written a long time ago but it’s an interesting read. The Depths of Glory by Irving Stone is a biography about Camille Pissarro. It is so well written that he takes you into the world when the French impressionists were first evolving into a major style in art history.
    You will feel like you’re walking the country roads at dawn to do a day’s painting with them. Or walking the streets of Paris with canvases strapped to your back, looking for a buyer. It also describes in depth, their first Salon exhibits and the uproar and riots that they caused.

    And one last item. Thank you so much for your time and generosity with helping artists and gallery owners by writing the Red Dot blog. It’s greatly appreciated by a great many, including me!
    Best regards,
    Robert

  3. I read a lot. While it is a large volume, “Leonardo” by Isaacson is worth the read because he has bothered to double-check with primary sources whenever possible, what we thought we knew.
    I’m currently reading “Play it Again” by the editor-in-chief of the Guardian. It is a journal of sorts about him deciding to learn a piano piece by Chopin that is almost impossible to perform. It is gripping because he is an amateur pianist, has a demanding day job, and yet- has this artistic goal.

    Books on my “desk”, Kandinsky’s two books on Art and Color, “Brain Rules”, “Las Caux- the last photographs”(compiled), “Starving ti Successful” (Horeijs), “Elements of Color” (Itten), “Die Künst der Fuge” (J S Bach musical score).

    I’m not intending this as a brag- only to say that everyone of them is a reminder to me of some aspect of what I’m about, and I open them frequently.

    1. “Leonardo” was an excellent book. One other aspect I really enjoyed was that the images of the artwork were located right on the same page (or next page) of text that described them. No need to flip back & forth to images that might be a hundred pages away.

    1. Hi Jan,
      Read your article and I guess I have a slightly different view on that statement that you cannot make art outside of NY. I am more of an international person, and frankly speaking there are other centers where art crystallizes outside of NY, however only in NY, in my experience you have such concentration of “best art” available for a galleries marathon run. Myself, I live in Brooklyn but even being close, it is hard to take time off from work and life to just leisurely visit galleries and network. The advantage of NY is that you can visit 20 galleries in one afternoon while anywhere else it would take you time to run from one to another across the city.
      Also there is something to be said about the quality of work presented in Chelsea (specifically there, there is the biggest agglomeration of high quality contemporary art from living artists). Other areas in NY itself, level of works can be variable but Chelsea is still THE place, in my view. Everything is subjective of course but I kind of see where L.C. is coming from.

    1. The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt is a masterpiece.
      Although it is fiction, her innovative form of storytelling makes it seem real.
      A middle aged artist who has not achieved the success she expected, suspects her gender works against her with galleries. She hires 3 young men to pose as the artists who created her 3 different styles of work. The results are startling and dramatic. And very moving.
      I’m glad you recommended this book.

  4. One of my favorite books is “Tom Thomson: The Silence and the Storm” by Harold Town and David P. Silcox. Of course the images of Thomson’s work are stunning, but equally exciting is the introduction by Harold Town. Town’s insights about Thomson, his influences, impulses, techniques, and historical context are beautifully, articulately crafted and a joy to read.

  5. I recently finished “Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art” by Mary Gabriel (Little Brown & Co, 2018). It is a wonderful account of American art history in the years around World War II and focuses on five artists who broke through the gender barriers in the art world of the 1950’s. I highly recommended it.

    1. Linda, I am a quarter of the way into this tome, and I am learning so much! I love these people, and how Mary Gabriel has done seemingly exhaustive research. Yes, the central characters are women, yet this is a book for everyone interested in how the “Abstract Expressionists” came about.

  6. Thank you for your review. . and the inclusion of others with more interesting books to read. . .
    Our lists grow longer. . .

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