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Leo Castelli; Influential Dealer Promoted Careers of Artists From Johns to Warhol

August 24, 1999|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leo Castelli, the world's most influential promoter of American pop art who rose to fame by fostering the careers of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, has died. He was 91.

Castelli died Sunday at his home on Manhattan's Upper East Side, and a private service attended by Johns and others was held there Sunday evening.

Castelli was a lawyer, insurance executive and banker who spoke five languages, read voraciously and fancied himself a Renaissance man.

He was known as a dealer who could sell virtually anything, and would loyally and generously support his artists, sometimes paying them allowances so they could paint.

He also was known for spotting new talent and insisting on European exposure for his American artists, leading to Rauschenberg in 1964 becoming the first American to win the Venice Biennale's international grand prize in painting.

"He has been criticized as a crook, hailed as a savior and sympathetically profiled in the New Yorker," Times art writer Suzanne Muchnic noted in 1982 when a traveling exhibit honoring the 25th anniversary of Castelli Gallery visited the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art.

"The message of 'Castelli and His Artists,' " she said of the exhibit, "is that he is a sensitive dealer of dignity, intelligence and vision who has spotted genius in fledgling stages."

Castelli and his first wife, Ileana Schapira (later Sonnabend), opened Castelli Gallery in Manhattan in 1957 as Abstract Expressionism was winding down, and represented such established masters as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

But Castelli, with his vision and ability to find genius aborning, was already looking for the next wave in contemporary art.

He found it. That same year, he wandered into a group show at New York's Jewish Museum and was transfixed by Johns' "Green Target."

A few days later, visiting Rauschenberg's studio, he asked for a drink and was delighted when Rauschenberg got ice from his fellow painter in the studio downstairs: Johns.

Castelli was so mesmerized by Johns' paintings of flags, targets and numbers that on the spot he offered him a show at his gallery.

That Johns show in January of 1958, and a Rauschenberg show that Castelli staged at his gallery three months later, made history for the painters and the dealer. The art world acknowledged--with purchases by the Museum of Modern Art, major articles in art magazines and gallery buzz--that a new phase of contemporary art had begun and that Castelli was the man who could recognize and promote its creators.

Within a couple of years, Castelli also found and fostered Stella and Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Warhol. As the 1960s progressed, he added the minimalist sculptors Donald Judd and Robert Morris, and painters Dan Flavin, Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman and Richard Artschwager, among others.

The dealer and his stable garnered criticism--including De Kooning's jab: "You could give that son of a bitch two beer cans and he could sell them." Johns promptly painted two Ballantine Ale cans, and Castelli sold the work to a leading pop art collector.

Castelli continued to adopt new artists and promote them throughout his life, but found little excitement in art in the last couple of decades.

"So much has been explored, especially in the '60s, which is the most exciting period I have been through," Castelli told The Times in 1996 when he was in Los Angeles for "Leo Castelli: An Exhibition in Honor of His Gallery and Artists" at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills.

"Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns came on the scene . . . and Frank Stella. The '60s was a very rich decade. Nothing similar has occurred since."

Born to Hungarian banker Ernest Krauss and wealthy heiress Bianca Castelli in Trieste when it still was a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Castelli took the hyphenated surname Krauss-Castelli when Italy annexed Trieste in 1919. Eventually the Krauss part of the name was dropped.

Poor at math, Castelli excelled at language and soon spoke and read fluently in Italian, Greek, German, French and English. He said his understanding of art came through literature, including such Benito Mussolini-banned books as "Since Cezanne," an analysis of Post-Impressionism.

Castelli earned a law degree at the University of Milan, then worked in the insurance industry in Trieste and became an expert skier and mountain climber, describing himself as a "playboy on a limited string." He met his first wife when he was transferred to Bucharest, Romania. After their marriage in 1933, they honeymooned in Vienna and bought their first artwork, a Matisse watercolor.

In 1937 they moved to Paris, where Castelli worked for a bank and the couple met leading surrealist painters such as Salvador Dali and Max Ernst. Castelli and a friend, architect Rene Drouin, opened a gallery on the Place Vendome in 1939, specializing in surrealistic art.

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