Leo and His Circle
The Life of Leo Castelli
By Annie Cohen-Solal
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9781400044276, 576pp.)
Publication Date: May 18, 2010
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Leo Castelli reigned for decades as America’s most influential art dealer. Now Annie Cohen-Solal, author of the hugely acclaimed Sartre: A Life (“an intimate portrait of the man that possesses all the detail and resonance of fiction”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times), recounts his incalculably influential and astonishing life in Leo and His Circle.
After emigrating to New York in 1941, Castelli would not open a gallery for sixteen years, when he had reached the age of fifty. But as the first to exhibit the then-unknown Jasper Johns, Castelli emerged as a tastemaker overnight and fast came to champion a virtual Who’s Who of twentieth-century masters: Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Warhol, and Twombly, to name a few. The secret of Leo’s success? Personal devotion to the artists, his “heroes”: by putting young talents on stipend and seeking placement in the ideal collection rather than with the top bidder, he transformed the way business was done, multiplying the capital, both cultural and financial, of those he represented. His enterprise, which by 1980 had expanded to an impressive network of satellite galleries in Europe and three locations in New York, thus became the unrivaled commercial institution in American art, producing a generation of acolytes, among them Mary Boone, Jeffrey Deitch, Larry Gagosian, and Tony Shafrazi.
Leo and His Circle brilliantly narrates the course of one man’s power and influence. But Castelli had another secret, too: his life as an Italian Jew. Annie Cohen-Solal traces a family whose fortunes rose and fell for centuries before the Castellis fled European fascism. Never hidden but also never discussed, this experience would form the core of a guarded but magnetic character possessed of unfailing old-world charm and a refusal to look backward—traits that ensured Castelli’s visionary precedence in every major new movement from Pop to Conceptual and by which he fostered the worldwide enthusiasm for American contemporary art that is his greatest legacy.
Drawing on her friendship with the subject, as well as an uncanny knack for archival excavation, Annie Cohen-Solal gives us in full the elegant, shrewd, irresistible, and enigmatic figure at the very center of postwar American art, bringing an utterly new understanding of its evolution.
Annie Cohen-Solal was born in Algeria and received a Ph.D. in French literature from the Sorbonne. She has taught at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, at the Universities of Berlin, Jerusalem, Paris XIII, Caen and is currently Visiting Arts Professor at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, where she teaches seminars on Cultural Policy and on the Globalization of the Visual Arts. She first came to New York in 1989 as the Cultural Counselor to the French Embassy in the United States, after her acclaimed Sartre biography, Sartre: A Life, had become an international best seller, translated into sixteen languages. Her encounter with Leo Castelli prompted a shift of her interest to the art world. Cohen-Solal was awarded the Prix Bernier of the Académie des Beaux Arts for the French edition of Painting American in 2001 and won the Art Curial Prize for the best contemporary art book for the French edition of Leo Castelli and His Circle in 2010. She lives in New York, Paris and Cortona.
“Cohen-Solal writes wonderfully about Castelli’s gifts of personality [and] delivers the silky story of a classic American immigrant overachiever.... [S]erious, probing... beautiful.... photographs, sprinkled throughout, pop from the page.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“[M]onumental.... gripping portraits.... thrilling.... Her ample monograph is really three complex studies....Cohen-Solal’s disclosure of the distinguished Jewish family history of which Castelli himself was only in part aware—when he was not ignoring or suppressing it for purposes of social advancement—is a miracle of scholarship. Her reconstruction of the incinerated Austro-Hungarian golden age, including the world of Eastern European and Italian banking, is astonishing. And her telling of Castelli’s own life story makes for a great bildungsroman.... [a] 360-degree tour d’horizon.”
—Robert Pincus-Witten, Artforum
“[E]legant....Cohen-Solal...has practically created two independent books...one examining the Castelli family’s trials and tribulations over five generations, the second picking up in detail after Leo’s arrival in the U.S. in 1941...Both, it should be said, are well worth reading....Cohen-Solal narrates Castelli’s career....[with] revealing insights....[and] does the great service of showing just how the art world metastasized into a big business driven by celebrity artists represented by celebrity dealers.”
—Mark Lamster, Los Angeles Times
“Cohen-Solal expands Castelli’s life story into one of sufficient historical and cultural resonance to interest not just art lovers but a general audience as well, offering a richly detailed account of Castelli’s upbringing...unearthing his family’s multigenerational history...and narrating in often mesmerizing prose the tragic rise of fascism....[a] very impressive book [that] present[s] a wide-ranging discussion with many compelling observations about what made the dealer tick.”
—Jonathan Lopez, Boston Globe
“[A] n impeccably judicious book....detailed and savvy....[Cohen-Solal] provides a backstory...that is ....absorbing and [a] highly relevant scrutiny of the historic loam that produced a bloom as exotic as Castelli.”
—Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker
“Leo Castelli was my friend, partner and unwitting mentor; and yet this biography comes as a startling revelation. With great skill and understanding, Annie Cohen-Solal has brought to life a singular personality—uniquely charming, erudite and savvy—and shown us precisely how he created the business model that the art world follows to this day. Leo and His Circle is a testament to a great professional legacy and an unlikely life story as compelling as a fine novel.”
“Leo and His Circle truly captures the essence of the man. Leo set a standard, an ethical standard that has never been surpassed. He was always inclusive, building a sense of community and a constituency for contemporary art that never existed before.”
—Peter M. Brant
“[Cohen-Solal] gives us with great skill a history of the Jews in Monte San Savino in the 17th century, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, the fall of France, the blossoming of the art world starting in the middle of the 20th century, and the emergence of Pop art, Minimalism, and Conceptualism....Her virtuosity keeps you reading....marvelous....fascinating.”
—Milton Esterow, ARTnews
“Cohen-Solal writes with passionate intensity and poetic precision....establishes a remarkably vivid cultural context for the artists, beginning with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Castelli zealously and shrewdly championed....[and] has created an invaluable, magnificently encompassing, and compelling biography of extraordinary scope, energy, and feeling.”
—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
“Cohen-Solal deftly integrates European cultural history (beginning with Castelli’s Jewish merchant ancestors) with Castelli’s intellectual, personal, and professional evolution. Cohen-Solal writes with energy, wit, and aplomb .... [her] biography fleshes out not only a fascinating portrait of Castelli but also the excitement of the developing American art world to which he was so central.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)