Before becoming a prominent figure in the art world he was a man of many faces, with many lives. He was born in Trieste in 1907 from the meeting of two Jewish communities and lived through Fascist Italy which imposed the Italianization of surnames, transforming Leo Krausz into Leo Castelli. It seems strange to learn that during his adolescence he suffered from a complex due to a stature that did not exceed one meter and fifty. His father sent him to a famous pupil of Freud, and it seems that after only one session he became the so-called seducer who remained for the rest of his life. During his adolescence his world of privileges allowed him to habitually use six languages and this will allow him never to feel foreign and above all to be able to establish those numerous relationships that will prove to be the secret of his success.
His father, a wealthy banker dedicated to working and developing relations with wealthy men, routed him in the business of insure. Leo was bored to death, but was introduced to good society. Soon marry Ileana Shapira, daughter of one of the most powerful men of the time. The years after the marriage with Ilenia, the innumerable stories of both, and finally the divorce and two other marriages, failed to affect that artistic partnership that made them a united couple forever. By all, Ilenia was the true intellectual with a taste superior to the norm and the ability to look beyond what she saw. Leo had spent years in the care of relationships, perhaps unaware of his own destiny, he had prepared with pure pioneering spirit to manipulate the entire art sector. Initially they lived in France, despite the war and the rise of fascism they decided to open their first Parisian gallery. It was mainly an experiment to indulge their passion, but when the war looms, even the Shapira family flee.
The destination of many surrealists was New York, and artists and intellectuals such as Peggy Guggenheim, Marx Ernest, Dalì, Kandinsky, escaped from Nazi fury. All American museums were dedicated to European art, France colonized New York tastes and compared to Paris, the artistic world was non-existent. Picasso, Matisse, and Braque were in New York, while American artists were considered downgraded, some painted in the darkest misery but everyone felt free to do anything. In New York, Castelli decided in 1941 to go to the MoMA for the first time and from here a new life begins. He meets Alfred Barr the director of the MoMA, who at only twenty-five years knew the whole history of the art of the old continent, he discovered the avant-gardes before they were decimated by Nazism and he will impose himself to make the contemporary in the United States known. Thanks to him he fills his gaps and lays the foundations for a lasting relationship that will allow him to penetrate the world of museums. He traveled continuously between New York and Paris playing various roles, mediator, merchant, collector and organizer of exhibitions. He moved in the shadows between various worlds, from the high-ranking collectors to international environments, to living in close contact with the artists, being the first to capture important information.
The artists at that time took charge of a conflict that had already begun in the nineteenth century for the affirmation of their own identity, in a society that considered it useless. Leo and Ileana will soon move to a building on 4 East 77 Street, bought by Shapira, hosting for a long time the desperation of artists, critics, merchants, collectors, making it a place where ideas and art merged. His first assignment which lasted years of vicissitudes was carried out for Kandinsky’s work. The artist in life had hoped in vain to find a great merchant to help him support his work. After his death, Castelli will become his wife’s trusted man, managing to track down, buy, and sell hundreds of paintings. He worked to give him back that notoriety he didn’t have at the time, deciding who his paintings should go to, allowing the American public to discover its value. Thanks to him, his collections were made up of important museums and thanks to the artist Castelli he secured the respectability within the system of museums and galleries in New York.
Thus it was that in 1957 Leo Castelli at the age of 50, deprived of great forces, would use his daughter’s room in New York to finally open his gallery, where he could exhibit American artists, firmly convinced of their talent. The work of this strange couple, unaware of their destiny, will be decisive for American art. After the war, immigrant artists, always considered a bit as guests, return home. A crisis opens up in the world of art and Castelli decided to associate European artists with American artists, so as to put them on the same level, making them rise in value. At the same time he will present two exhibitions, one in Paris and one in New York, allowing the market to recover.
Castelli also supported the artists also as a patron. It is clear that without the substantial contribution of his wife he would never have been able to create his own collection, but at that time no one had money, even Castelli did not sail in gold, but he was committed to financing artists and buying art also by resorting to loans. With his sense of risk he managed to increase his monopoly, turning art into necessity. He discovered great personalities detached from abstract expressionism, he devoted himself to pop art, to poor art and to conceptual art. In twenty years he manages to tune into contemporary American artists, giving life to a new style “the perpetual motion of innovation”.
He was constantly looking for new talents, exploring the most infamous parts of New York and if this was his first goal, the second was surely to open the doors of museums to his artists. He had an infallible technique in approaching a new movement to the artist, presenting for example Jasper Johns successor to Duchamp and Frank Stella as successor to Jasper Jonhs. In this way he brought the history of art into his gallery, creating links between the market and the museums. He had the ability to conceptualize the movements created by his artists and to predict who would be the right buyer. His shrewdness in the movements was certainly out of the norm, he was not looking for simple collectors, they had to prove that they could contribute to the success of the artist, they had to wait in his fake waiting list and know how to create unique collections.
“Tra il 58 e il 1981 Leo Castelli scopre, vende, promuove e rende celebri a New York e nel mondo: Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Cy Twombly, Lee Bontecou, Roy Lichtenstein, John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Donald Judd, Christo, Edward Higgins, Robert Morris, Joseph Kosuth, Dan Flavin, Keith Sonnier, Richard Serra, Richard Artschwager, Ed Rusha, Claes Oldenburg, Lawrence Weiner, Ellsworth Kelly, Hanne Darboven, Kenneth Noland, James Turrell, Julian Schnabel, David Selle.
“Between 1958 and 1981, Leo Castelli discovered, sold, promoted and made famous in New York and around the world: Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Cy Twombly, Lee Bontecou, Roy Lichtenstein, John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Donald Judd, Christo, Edward Higgins, Robert Morris, Joseph Kosuth, Dan Flavin, Keith Sonnier, Richard Serra, Richard Artschwager, Ed Rusha, Claes Oldenburg, Lawrence Weiner, Ellsworth Kelly, Hanne Darboven, Kenneth Noland, James.
The XXXII Venice Biennale was the decisive stage for the entry of American art into Europe. The Leone D’oro, after many controversies and under the astonished eyes of the conservatives, was won by Rauschenberg. This Biennale for the first time put the great continents against each other. Americans free from the weight of history, without a starting point to aim for, presented a program coordinated by Solomon, which included as many as 99 innovative works of art. On the contrary, the art of the Italians of knowing how to arrange themselves does not make a good impression, and while the Church forbids the priests from visiting the exhibition pavilions and the French exhibit their unconvincing secular superiority, on the Biennale for the first time the shadow of handling. The press will be titled “Biennale Venduta!” and while Castelli gave a party on the island of Murano to celebrate Rauschenberg, the press accuses him of arbitrating the fate of art. American art was considered ridiculous and outrageous for the old continent and it took Sartre’s appreciation to understand that something was changing. Leo prepared to translate the criticism of the famous intellectual into all the languages he knew, making it run around the whole world. This will have a big impact on the critics of the time. While following everything from New York, the now ex-wife Ilenia, through her Parisian gallery opened the door to American artists in Europe. It was a true colonization, they will develop a network of collectors and satellite galleries necessary for the development of worldwide marketing.
Thanks to Castelli the art has reached the mass audience, allowing in America, the birth of government aid programs for the arts. He succeeded in inserting American trends in the history of art, giving the artist a prominent position abroad. He will open several galleries and activities, the most dynamic, a true creative and cultural center was in the south of Manhattan, acquiring with other partners a five-story building called 420 West Broadway. Here in Soho, Castelli will become the protagonist of the reclamation of an entire territory. Thanks to him in the 60s New York will turn into a cultural destination, managing to develop state relationships, becoming a sort of cultural agent. On Saturday afternoons everyone went to his inaugurations just like a museum. He published incredible catalogs and organized itineraries for exhibitions throughout the world. And if the works were not sold he paid monthly checks to his artists, securing a monopoly. A not inconsiderable side was that of the patron, he invested much of what he earned on artists, giving him the means to produce.
At the age of seventy, he is about to experience the most intense years of his career, also opening up to European artists, creating an increasingly structured international network of gallery owners, ready to buy from him and respecting the exclusivity that he had won over time. Someone said that his real job was to build the fame of others, forever changing the history of art. In reality, he was a talented man, capable of moving in all environments, with a strong talent for human relationships, capable of transforming himself and the symbolic values of art for American society, creating a new economic and cultural system that in the United States, still lasts.