Greatest Art Collectors Series:
Leo Castelli

Biography of New York Art Dealer & Collector.

Leo Castelli. One of the great 20th
century art collectors in America.

Many of the paintings collected
by Leo Castelli are available
online as Poster Art.

Leo Castelli (1907-99)

During the 1960s, the Italian-born American art collector and gallery owner Leo Castelli carved out a reputation for himself as the leading New York dealer in late modern art (notably Abstract Expressionism and Pop art), and early contemporary art (such as Minimalism and forms of Conceptual art). He began his career as an art dealer in pre-war Paris before emigrating to New York in 1941, where he opened the Leo Castelli Gallery. Initially handling European Surrealist artists, he turned during the 1950s to American art. To begin with he focused on the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, with works by Arshile Gorky (1904-48), Jackson Pollock (1912-56), and Willem De Kooning (1904-97); then he promoted Pop art by Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Jasper Johns (b.1930), Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97) and Andy Warhol (1928-87). Later he dealt in Minimal art and Conceptualism, marketing a number of contemporary American sculptors such as Claes Oldenburg (b.1929), Donald Judd (1928-94), Robert Morris (b.1931), Bruce Nauman (b.1941) and Richard Serra (b.1939).

Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922)
Greatest collector of Impressionism.
Pavel Tretyakov (1832-1898)
Russia's greatest art collector.
Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924)
Renaissance, Dutch Baroque collector.
Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936)
Russian collection, patron of Matisse.
Solomon R Guggenheim (1861-1949)
US art collector, museum-founder.
Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939)
First modern dealer in Paris.
Ivan Morozov (1871-1921)
Russian modern art collector.
Dr Albert C Barnes (1872-1951)
America's greatest art collector.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942)
Founder of the Whitney Museum.
Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947)
Collector, Impressionist paintings.

Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler (1884-1979)
Dealer of Picasso & Cubism.
Duncan Phillips (1886-1966)
Founder of Phillips Collection.
Paul Guillaume (1891-1934)
Collector of Ecole de Paris pictures.
J Paul Getty (1892-1976)
Oil tycoon, art/antiquities collector.
Charles Saatchi (b.1943)
Collects contemporary art.

For details of the greatest galleries
and arts venues, see:
Best Art Museums.

For a guide to the different,
categories/meanings of visual
arts, see: Definition of Art.
For a list of different categories,
see: Types of Art.


Born Leo Krausz, in Trieste, into a wealthy Jewish family - his father was a leading Hungarian banker, his mother an Italian heiress - he moved with the family to Vienna, Bucharest and other cities. In 1932, when he was 25, Castelli went to work for an insurance company in Bucharest, and married Ileana Sonnabend (1914-2007), the refined but energetic daughter of Mihai Schapira, a millionaire industrialist. In 1935 Castelli was transferred to Paris. Here, it seemed, the couple could give full vent to their shared love of art - Dada, the abstract painting of Paul Klee (1879-1940) and Kandinsky (1866-1944), as well as fantastic Surrealism of Joan Miro (1893-1983) - and sense of youthful rebellion. Sadly, although he thrived in the French capital, Ileana did not. In 1937 they had a daughter, but soon afterwards began to drift apart. In late 1938, in an attempt to save his daughter's marriage, Ileana’s father gave Castelli the money to start a gallery - called Galerie Rene Drouin. It opened in July, 1939, with an inaugural exhibition of modern and antique furniture, featuring pieces by Meret Oppenheim, Max Ernst, and other surrealists. When World War II broke out two months later, Castelli and Ileana left for America, arriving in New York in March 1941.


New York City

Once again, Castelli had little difficulty adjusting to his new surroundings. He lived with his family in a pleasant house in New York City bought by his father-in-law. In 1942 he volunteered for the Army, eventually serving as a translator in Eastern Europe, where he discovered that both his parents had died. On demobilization, he went to work in his father-in-law's textile business. His real interest however lay in buying and selling art: indeed his later wealth came about largely due to the appreciation of his personal art collection.

As a result of introductions to several emerging American painters, arranged by the critic Clement Greenberg (1909-94), Castelli largely abandoned his surrealist preferences and began buying works by "American" artists, like Arshile Gorky (1904-48), Jackson Pollock (1912-56), and Willem De Kooning (1904-97), all of whom were still relatively inexpensive. [See: Jackson Pollock's paintings (c.1940-56)]. As a dealer, one of his early and highly formative experiences was the disposal of about 100 paintings by Kandinsky on behalf of Kandinsky's wife, who taught him everything he needed to know about the difficulties of the up-market trade in fine art.


In 1950, Castelli influenced Sidney Janis (1896-1989) - the leading US art dealer from when Peggy Guggenheim left New York for Venice in 1947, to the rise of Castelli himself in the 1960s - to host a comparative exhibition of works by European painters and Americans like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko (1903-70), Franz Kline (1910-62) and so on. In 1951, he helped both to finance and curate the important Ninth Street Show, which featured 61 of America's leading exponents of Abstract Expressionism. It was through this mixture of roles - small-time sponsor, small-time dealer, dilettante hanger-on, and also as founder-member of the "Club", the legendary thrice-weekly NY aesthetics discussion group - that Castelli maintained close relations with artists of the New York school. More personal contacts, such as shared summer holidays with Willem and Elaine de Kooning, followed.


The Leo Castelli Gallery, New York

In 1957, Castelli went up a gear. On Feb 3rd, he opened his own gallery in two rooms of the family home at 18 East 77th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues. His opening show contrasted American and European modernism, featuring works by the New York School, the Ecole de Paris and others. Castelli's initial stable of young artists comprised mostly Abstract Expressionists, plus Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) who then introduced him to Jasper Johns (b.1930). Johns' low-brow populist canvases like Flag and Target, made a huge impression on Castelli who offered him a one-man show in his new gallery. The exhibition took place in Jan 1958, and led to Alfred Barr purchasing four Johns pictures for the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Another "discovery", which Castelli made in 1959, was the young Princeton graduate Frank Stella (b.1936), soon to become the leader of Hard Edge painting.

The 1960s Art Revolution

Through a combination of hard work, assiduous cultivation, and marvellous luck, Castelli found himself in exactly the right place to take advantage of the 1960s revolution in fine art, involving a series of new and exciting artists. The sequence began in 1962 with a solo-show of comic-book-panel paintings by Roy Lichtenstein, and continued for almost six years, until 1968, including solo shows for Andy Warhol beginning in 1964. (See also Andy Warhol's Pop Art of the sixties and seventies.) The most important styles or movements were Pop art and later Conceptual art and Minimalism - by which he promoted first Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and Robert Morris, then Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, Ad Reinhardt as well as the post-minimalist Eva Hesse (1936-70). In 1964, he achieved a major triumph at the Venice Biennale of 1964, when his heavily promoted artist-client Rauschenberg became the first American to win the Grand Prize for Painting. Castelli was less impressed with 1960s abstract expressionism, although he explored various types of Post Painterly Abstraction, including colour-field painting (Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still), Hard-Edge Painting (Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly), Colour Stain Painting (Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitski), Washington Colour Painters (Gene Davis, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland), Systemic Painting (Frank Stella), and Lyrical Abstraction (Mark Tobey).

Meantime, in 1963, he divorced Ileana and married a 35-year old Frenchwoman. After the divorce, Ileana spent the early 60s in Paris where she ran her own gallery of contemporary art.

In 1968, Castelli opened a second venue - the Castelli Warehouse - on West 108th Street, with a particularly inventive inaugural show of environmental sculpture by nine sculptors, including Nauman, Serra, and Hesse. Ever since the late 1950s, Castelli had introduced a generous system of regular stipends on account, which he paid to his artists whether their work sold or not. But the market was changing too fast for Castelli's comfort and control. Greatly intimidated by the huge exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, entitled New York Painting and Sculpture, 1940-1970, curated by the 34-year old Henry Geldzahler, Castelli started making mistakes. To begin with, the Met show sidelined his negative view of new abstract expressionist trends, indicating he had misread emerging tastes. In addition, Castelli wrongly identified the disparate trends of conceptualism as a single movement, and his personal choices - Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, and Robert Barry - failed to deliver.

Later Life

In 1971, Castelli opened a SoHo branch of the Leo Castelli Gallery at 420 West Broadway, financed by a cooperative of dealers. His first wife Ileana occupied the third floor with her Sonnabend Gallery of contemporary art. Unfortunately, high costs, an aging business model and greater competition set in motion a noticeable decline. Donald Judd left him for the Pace Gallery; Rauschenberg went to the Knoedler Gallery. Larry Gagosian, who later represented Damien Hirst, and Arne Glimcher, who organized the million-dollar sale of Johns's Three Flags to the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1980, were now the coming dealers. In 1987, his second wife Toiny died, aged 59. Castelli himself was 80, and had already undergone heart surgery, but he soldiered on. In 1995 he married the Italian historian Barbara Bertozzi. In 1999 he finally passed away at home, aged 91. After his death, the gallery's archives (1957-99) were donated by his Estate to the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art. The Leo Castelli Gallery remains open at 18 East 77th Street in New York under the management of his third wife.

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