Here is an interesting paper written by the sociologist Raymonde Moulin on Leo & His Circle. I find it to be a good introduction to the theme of the blog, as it demonstrates that Castelli was, first and foremost, a bridger.
Leo Castelli (1907-1999) dominated the international contemporary art scene for more than forty years. Annie Cohen-Solal offers us a crucial biography of the European dilettante who, from his galleries in New York, revolutionized the function of gallerist, ensured the promotion and hegemony of American Art worldwide and transformed the status of the artist in the United States. This biography, fueled by interviews and previously unpublished archives, is set in a great multiplicity of contexts: historical, political, sociological and economic.
In the first part of the work, Castelli is described by his genealogy and, moreover, as fitting in the grand historical scheme of the secularization of the Jews in Europe, from the Italian Renaissance to the beginning of the twentieth century. His personal trajectory is typical of that of cosmopolitan and sophisticated young Jews, who, after having lived in the big cities of Europe- for Leo, Trieste, Vienna, Milan, Budapest, Bucharest and Paris- and having been caught in the convulsions of the century, fled to the United States in 1941. He incorporated these traditions with experiments, which contributed to making him the international leader of gallerists in the second half of the twentieth century.
Leo Castelli's gallerist carrier developed gradually. The first step is in France, where he arrives in 1935 with his young and rich wife, Ileana Sonnabend (future gallerist, and partner and accomplice of Castelli’s well after their separation). In July 1939, with his associate Rene Drouin he opens a gallery place Vendôme in Paris, in the same vein as the Gradiva gallery, was launched in May 1937 by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp. Only one exhibition will precede the war, but collaboration with Drouin will continue from 1946 to 1949, when financial hardships force the latter to close down the Place Vendôme gallery.
The second step, that of crucial apprenticeship, occurs between 1946 and 1956 in New York. While in the beginning of the fifties, "a new renaissance was in the process of conquering the New York art scene, Leo Castelli, as an enlightened amateur, was in constant apprenticeship. He was altogether collector, broker, and independent auctioneer, accumulating experiences and trying out every job he could, running from uptown to downtown, gravitating between New York and East Hampton, the US and Europe, between galleries, museums, artists' studios and cafés. He collected, connected and linked…" (page 232)
The broker of Kandinsky from 1948 to 1953, he takes upon himself the transition of the art world from Europe to America. Simultaneously he is, in May 1951, auctioneer of an exhibition reuniting, in an abandoned building in the middle of the East Village, sixty or so young American artists, an event after which Alfred Barr, the founder and director of the Moma, recognizes him as an effective talent scout. The same year, he presents the exhibition "Young US and French Painters" at the Sidney Janis gallery.
It is in 1957, at fifty years of age, that Leo Castelli opens his own space in New York. His sprouting gallery becomes almost instantaneously a leader in the gallery world, by launching Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. " ‘I knew all the Abstract Expressionist painters’, Castelli declared, ‘I knew what they did. They dominated the art scene for a while, so that I had the feeling that something else had to come. I deliberately tempted to discover something new, until I fell on Rauschenberg and Johns’" (page 294).
One of the most notable contributions of this book is its analysis of the work of the gallerist, as conceived by Leo Castelli. Undoubtedly, since the last third of the nineteenth century, the market had started to impose itself as the organization system of artistic life. At this precise moment occurred a decisive mutation: that of the role of the art dealer. The Schumpeterian entrepreneur soon enough replaced the typical merchant: innovating, lending, organizing, taking risks, the merchant became the dynamic agent of the market. Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922) is the founding figure of this type of entrepreneurship. Leo Castelli incarnated one of its new versions, in the second half of the twentieth century. He substituted to the strategy of long delays and differed successes, his own strategy of instantaneity and constant renewal. He joined, without delay, a history in the making, discovering and orchestrating the accelerated succession of American artistic movements: Pop Art, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art. He provided, according to the European tradition, financial support to the artists he idealized: Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Wahrol, James Rosenquist and many others. He built on the new contexts of the time: the switch of institutions in favor of the avant-garde, the multiplication of international artistic manifestations and the globalization of exchange. To develop the reputation of his artists, he mobilized the cultural and social networks of which he is familiar, as well as the press. Close to museum directors and togreat critics, ranging from Alfred Barr and Clement Greenberg to Robert Rosenblum, and many other experts, he documented and archived the artworks he found, producing catalogs and selecting collectors to compose certain collections.
His aptitude to create the notoriety of his artists developed simultaneously to his strategy of economic valorization of his various "epiphanies". He built up, for his artists, a clientele of American museums (MOMA, Jewish Museum, local Art Councils, etc…). Simultaneously, he created an international network of satellite galleries, the friendly galleries (during the seventies, Annie Cohen-Solal mentions twelve in Europe and eighteen in North America). Castelli's double intervention, both cultural and economic, leads to the final triumph, at the Venice Biennale, of Robert Rauschenberg in 1964 and Jasper Johns in 1988. The international hegemony of American art is from then on established, while, at the same time, the value of the works of the American stars escalates in US auction sales.
The biography that Annie Cohen-Solal devotes to Castelli, allying empathy and objective distance, is a true pleasure to read. It is not only a major contribution to the social history of American art of the second half of the twentieth century, but it also adds to the sociology of the contemporary art market, in its complex articulation with cultural networks.
Published in L'Observatoire, Le revue des politiques culturelles, numéro 37, 2010.
Translated from the French by Annie Cohen-Solal and Hélène Barthélemy