February 16, 1987 12:00 PM

As waiters bustle to and fro, a thin little man in an elegant English suit sits in the back room of a blazingly lit SoHo gallery, talking on the phone in impeccable French. In profile he resembles a world-weary count in a painting by a 16th-century Italian master, and his manner is courtly and mutedly majestic. It is now almost show time and Leo Castelli, the grand old dean of art dealers, is about to celebrate 30 years in the business. They have been good years that have seen his young protégé, bearing such names as Johns, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, Oldenburg and Stella, emerge as the grands maîtres of late 20th-century art. Castelli, 79, likes to give himself parties—he feted his 10th, 20th and 25th anniversaries, too—but this one is particularly poignant. This time he has mounted paintings from his gallery’s first 15 years, for exhibition tomorrow night at another showroom. For tonight’s party he is unveiling four new works by Jasper Johns, but he knows the celebrations can’t go on forever. “It seemed more urgent now to make a point of what I have done,” he says. “It might be too late to do it a few years from now.”

What Castelli and company have achieved isn’t just an aesthetic revolution. As their reputations have ascended into the stratosphere, so too have the prices of their art. James Rosenquist’s F-111 went recently for $1.9 million at auction, and Jasper Johns’s Out the Window for $3.6 million. “What has happened is quite amazing,” Castelli observes calmly. “I could never have foreseen that the art world would develop to the fantastic extent it did.”

The doors open at five o’clock, and by six the place is popping with painters, dealers, museum pooh-bahs, collectors and assorted other artistes and swells. Roy Lichtenstein, Johns, Rosenquist, Richard Serra and Frank Stella are on prominent display. Critic Susan Sontag is there, along with John Cage, Philip Johnson, Merce Cunningham and Ed Schlossberg and his wife, Caroline Kennedy. Castelli moves, a hummingbird in slow motion, from guest to guest, distributing continental kisses on both cheeks to the ladies and fond

handshakes to the men. And everywhere he goes he is saluted warmly, for in the high-powered art world, Castelli commands enormous affection and respect. “I’ve had 25 years of no arguments, no differences,” Lichtenstein marvels. Gushes one fan: “Leo is the greatest art dealer in the world.”

Confident as he now is, it is hard to think that Castelli could have ever imagined such a scene in Paris in 1937. Born in Trieste, the son of an influential banker, he and his Romanian wife, Ileana, moved to Paris, where Castelli worked briefly in a bank. Then, in 1939, he and a friend opened an avant-garde gallery. With the Germans advancing, the couple and their baby daughter, Nina, fled to New York where Castelli took a job in a sweater factory and befriended many leading abstract expressionists. But it wasn’t until 1957 that he opened a gallery in his fourth floor apartment on East 77th Street. “My daughter had just gone to college,” he remembers, “so we used her room as the office, the living and dining room for the showroom.” Within weeks Castelli had his first great epiphany when he saw a work by Jasper Johns: “It was a very strange green painting, Green Target, and it fascinated me to an extraordinary degree. I thought, ‘I must find that man and see what else he does.’ ” Only weeks later Castelli visited Rauschenberg and found that Johns worked in the same building. “I saw those flags, targets, alphabets, all amazing new images. I had two coups des foudres in my life, Johns and Stella. I had great experiences later on but they were slower. Not that feeling of falling in love.”

It may not have been quite like first love, but the day in 1961 that Roy Lichtenstein came in also proved fateful. Lichtenstein had with him a painting of a comic-strip girl with a beach ball. “His paintings were incredibly interesting, although I didn’t understand them,” Castelli says. “Who would have dreamed of magnifying comics and ads into paintings? After that, suddenly all these pop artists appeared.”

He didn’t take them all right away, though. He turned down one eager young painter named Andy Warhol. “I felt he was doing the same thing, Coke bottles and consumer ads,” says Castelli. “I told him, ‘We’ll see.’ Warhol said, ‘You will see.’ ” Some months later Castelli saw Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe portraits. “I told him, ‘Well, you were perfectly right. I was a complete idiot.’ ” Warhol was added to the roster.

Luck has played a role in Castelli’s success, but so has his style. Says art expert David Whitney: “Leo is honest, which cannot be said of every dealer in New York City.” His salesmanship is masterly. “He really believes he is doing his customers a favor to let them have the painting,” says Stella.

In the art world, where backs get bitten as often as they get scratched, Castelli has his critics. “Leo has fallen for his own myth,” says one. “The artists are the stars. He is peddling pictures that are pre-sold.” The sniping doesn’t bother Castelli. “I consider my activity very important,” he says placidly. “I wouldn’t be humble about it. The drive to excel was always with me. You can see I am not very tall. I had to prove myself. I admired writers and painters. I could not be a painter or a writer, so I tried to be their equal in another way. But real originality? Only the artists have it.”

Castelli and Ileana are no longer partners; 20 years ago he married the artist Antoinette Fraissex du Bost. But he has remained close to most of his associates, and that includes his first wife, Ileana Sonnabend today runs a gallery in the same building as her ex-husband, who greets her warmly when she appears at his anniversary party. Arms around each other, they walk through the crowd, stopping to study a drawing. In their early days, Ileana never pictured such a scene either. “I didn’t think historically,” she says. “I just thought how good it was right then, and how interesting a moment it was. I didn’t think Leo or Jasper or anybody else would become a star.

“But,” she adds, with a shy smile, “they all did.”

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