February 26, 1979 12:00 PM

The art of the ’60s and ’70s could have existed without Castelli, but one curator wonders how

It is a dreary midwinter day, and the couple from Texas trudge wearily into the large back room of the Leo Castelli Gallery in Manhattan’s SoHo district. “We’ve just bought a pied-à-terre on Fifth Avenue,” announces the man, “and we’re looking for something to hang on the wall.” Now, telling Leo Castelli, the world’s most famous dealer in new American art, that you want something to hang on the wall is a bit like telling Michelangelo that you need some color to brighten up that problem high ceiling.

Nonetheless, Castelli puts down his telephone and comes out from behind his desk, accompanied by his 71 years of unfazable European charm. Nor does his smile fade when the couple say they can spend only $2,500—hardly enough to buy a canvas and paintbrushes these days. Half a dozen paintings are trotted out—and rejected—but then as the pair leave, empty-handed, Leo’s smile is still intact. “There isn’t much we have to offer for that price,” he explains politely.

Back Castelli goes to the telephone, gliding from English to French—two of his five languages—on a slippery procession of “OKs” and “d’accords.” Dollars are mentioned, but never emphasized, and when he negotiates the splitting of a commission with another dealer, he is airily vague. “It’s really very hard to establish a percentage,” he says. “I cannot commit myself. We are not so formal about things here, you see.”

By most accounts, including his own, Castelli is not really a businessman, much less the sharp-eyed conniver he has sometimes been called. “I worked with Leo for 10 years and I never saw him do anything underhanded,” says Ivan Karp, who now runs his own gallery. “Together the two of us couldn’t do long division.”

But that very disdain for money may have been the key in winning the trust of both collectors and creators. “He wants to do what’s best for his artists,” says Roy Lichtenstein, famous for his paintings based on cartoons. “Making money is not his first concern, and that may be why he’s kept so many artists with him.” Still, this non-businessman, who can’t even remember last year’s gross (it was in excess of $3 million), has triumphed where others have failed and watched several of his competitors go broke.

One critic called him the Pope of Pop. But Leo the Lion might be more accurate. In any case, for two decades he has been the foremost purveyor of contemporary American art. The first important artist Castelli discovered was Robert Rauschenberg, whom he had followed since 1951 (and signed up in 1957), and then Jasper Johns. He now has a roster that includes Cy Twombly, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Richard Serra. “Leo represents eight of the 12 or 15 greatest artists of our time,” says Karp. This week when Washington’s Corcoran Gallery opens an exhibit of the work of Willem de Kooning and four of Leo’s artists—Johns, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein and Kelly—it will be almost as much in homage to Castelli as to the artists themselves.

The art of the ’60s and 70s would have existed without Leo—but it is hard to see how. “Leo is a cultural fixture,” says Walter Hopps, a curator of 20th-century art at Washington’s Smithsonian. “His influence has been enormous. Someone else could have done what he did, but I don’t know who.”

Leo was willing to give artists stipends, so they could paint pictures rather than houses; and when no one else would buy, Castelli often would. As a result, the collection in his Fifth Avenue apartment is now worth well into seven figures. His most valuable work, Johns’ Target with Plaster Casts, which cost him $1,200 in 1958, has gone up to at least half a million. “Artists are often resentful because they sold their works so cheap,” he concedes. “It’s a natural, gut reaction, but it’s thoughtless, because artists usually keep many of their paintings for themselves. Those they retain go up in value, too, and eventually they profit along with the collectors. So do I.”

The most expensive work the Castelli Gallery sold in the last year was another Jasper Johns, which an American collector bought for more than $500,000. Many clients these days are foreigners, who often appreciate American art more than the Americans. Dr. Peter Ludwig, who runs a West German chocolate business, is No. 1, with Dr. Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, an Italian industrialist, not too far behind. For several months last spring the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art was buying heavily from Leo, presumably with the Shah’s money. But that market collapsed even before the Shah did. “People say that I was greedy,” sighs Leo defensively. “Bat I was creating a great collection in that museum.”

“Great collectors,” Castelli adds, “are as rare as great artists.” Inevitably, other dealers covet Castelli’s collectors, his artists and his commissions—which run from one-third to one-half of a painting’s sale price. “It’s a rough, chaotic and crushing scene,” says the Smithsonian’s Hopps. “Dealers are either monsters or connoisseurs. It’s hard for the connoisseur to survive and remain a gentle person, but Castelli has done that.”

Castelli himself acknowledges, “There’s enormous competition for a small group of artists out of whom one can make big money. Most of the pressure comes from the Young Turks, the smaller, ambitious new galleries. There’s an understanding among the bigger galleries that no one will try to interfere with anyone’s happiness.” How’s he made out? “I haven’t lost any important artist, but I’ve had to share them more with other galleries, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. As in every human situation,” he explains, “it’s always a question of balance of power. So long as you’re strong, you have nothing to fear. If you show weakness, you suffer. I’m pretty strong still, but there’s always a danger.”

“Leo has led a charmed life,” says his first wife, Ileana Sonnabend. But what she really means is that Leo has charmed life. Early on he discovered that “the only real disaster is death.” All others, such as loss of country, are only illusions that disappear, “if you laugh at them long enough.”

His father, who was Hungarian, ran the biggest bank in Trieste; his mother came from a merchant family that imported coffee. Since Trieste was not an art center, Leo’s first love was literature, and his ambition was to introduce to the Italians giants such as Joyce, Proust and Thomas Mann. His father had other ideas and sent him to Milan to study law. After he got his degree, Leo was given a job in a Trieste insurance company, then, after a year, transferred to a branch in Bucharest. “That appealed to me,” he says, “because Bucharest had a reputation as a gay place. Indeed, life was very gay there, and I got married to Ileana.”

Ileana’s father was one of Rumania’s great industrialists, with so much money that it seemed rather superfluous for Leo to go on examining insurance policies. He and Ileana moved to Paris in 1936, the same year that their daughter Nina was born. They gravitated toward the art colony, and, with the help of that most obliging of all fathers-in-law, they opened a gallery on the Place Vendôme, overlooking the gardens of the Ritz Hotel. “It was occasionally a bit embarrassing that I should live at the expense of my father-in-law’s money,” Leo says, then adds, with commendable common sense: “But it was not very embarrassing. Even at the worst moments I had a feeling that I was worth supporting.”

Though they did not know it, the worst moments were almost upon them. Their Galerie Drouin opened in the spring of 1939, just a year before the German army came goose-stepping down the Champs-Elysées. Leo and Ileana, who are both Jewish, fled to her family’s summer house on the Riviera, and then began the long journey that was to bring them to New York in 1941. They crossed the Mediterranean to North Africa and were often in extreme danger. Yet, looking back, Ileana’s chief memory is how carefree they were. “Leo,” she says, “has the ability to make anything seem fun.”

In Manhattan, where Ileana’s father had already settled, Leo began studying at Columbia for a Ph.D. in history. Just as he was finishing he was drafted and, in an almost unprecedented decision for the Army, sent to exactly the right place, Rumania. There Technical Sgt. Castelli became an interpreter with the Allied Control Commission. Upon discharge, he and Ileana were given a floor in her father’s East Side townhouse, and Leo’s father-in-law, short of funds without his Rumanian factories, found him a place in a company manufacturing women’s sweaters. What did he do? Nothing, admits Leo, but go to the office.

It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. In February 1957, moving aside couches and coffee tables, Leo opened his gallery in his apartment. He was 49 years old, and his real life had just begun. It was the heyday of the abstract expressionists, many of whom, including Jackson Pollock, Castelli knew. But the heavies were all signed up. Castelli bet on the new generation of artists and hit the jackpot. Full vindication came in 1964 when his painter, Robert Rauschenberg, one of the precursors of pop, won the Venice Biennale. “My career is sort of a miracle,” Leo says. “I started so late, after fumbling a great deal and trying things and not sticking. It bothered me, but I always had the feeling I would do something.” If one life began, then another ended. Shortly after the gallery opened Leo and Ileana were divorced, and he married his present wife, Antoinette Fraissex du Bost, now 50, who is tall, elegant and very French. “Leo is like a butterfly,” Ileana explains, “always going from one flower to another.” What does she mean? “Exactly what she says,” Leo retorts. “I’m terribly attracted by women. I’m attracted by their bodies, of course, but I’m also always fascinated by the subtleties of their moods. Actually, going to bed is not a strict necessity and it can be very disruptive—though, of course, you’d always like to go to bed. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—younger women like older men, and my getting older hasn’t changed anything in regard to women. On the contrary, my understanding has deepened.”

Ileana winked at Leo’s fluttering from one flower to another. They are still close friends, and she now has a gallery in the same SoHo building he moved to in 1971. Second wife Toiny, who runs her own graphics and photography gallery, has apparently been less forgiving, and friends report occasional scenes. “Leo is charming to everybody except his wife,” Toiny says. Whatever their troubles, Leo is devoted to their son, Jean Christophe, 15.

Though he will be 72 this year, Castelli looks much younger. He keeps fit with daily exercise and long walks with his Dalmatian, Paddy, and still weighs 130 pounds, which is just about right for his height of 5’6″. “I don’t like it when people say that I’m diminutive,” he declares. “I’m small, but not diminutive.” Three years ago, however, he was outfitted with a pacemaker to correct a slow heartbeat, and occasionally it occurs to him that he is not as young as he feels. “My daughter, Nina, who lives in Washington, has three children about the age of my son, Jean Christophe,” he says, “but I hardly ever see them. I haven’t got the conventional feelings of a grandfather. Perhaps that is because I don’t want to be old. I feel like 30 or 40, but how long can it last?” he asks, and adds, “I know time is short. But then I didn’t start functioning as a human being until I was in my 40s.”

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