Born Leo Krauss, Leo Castelli (1907-1999) was one of the more recognizable art dealers of the latter half of the 20th century. The sheer breadth of his taste, encompassing everything from Surrealism to Pop to Minimalism to Conceptual Art and more, largely contributed to his notoriety and eventually made him a subject worthy of depiction in the very art for which he advocated.
The son of a prominent banker father, Leo Castelli initially showed an almost obsessive interest in literature, something he could do in four languages, including Italian, French, German, and English. His polyglot abilities were due to the emigration of his family, from Austria-Hungary, in the waning days of the empire during the first World War, to Vienna, and then back. Despite his hunger for modern literature, Castelli took the suggestion of his father and studied law in Milan, figuring it would give him the flexibility to enter almost any profession. Another fatherly suggestion landed him in Bucharest, working for an insurance company. It was in Bucharest where he found his first wife, Ileana Schapira, who would become a renowned art dealer and gallerist in her own right. In 1939, the two would open a gallery in Paris with help from Ileana’s father, a gallery that would be a major hub for the best in Surrealist art. Not long after opening, however, the couple fled to New York, due to the outbreak of yet another World War.
Castelli opened a gallery on New York’s 77th Street in 1957 with the intention of showing the best of contemporary American art. It was here that Andy Warhol debuted his Flowers paintings in November 1964, mere months after having had a major show at Ileana’s Galerie in Paris. Like Ferus Gallery owner, Irving Blum, Castelli found nothing much that he liked upon visiting Warhol’s Lexington Ave apartment-cum-studio in the early 60s. It wasn’t until he saw Warhol in the gallery (most likely his early ‘64 show at the Stable Gallery which included his newly minted Brillo and Heinz sculptures) that Castelli was won over and decided to represent him. Warhol would exhibit and debut several future projects—such as his Silver Clouds and Mao portraits—at Castelli’s gallery well into the late 80s. Meanwhile, Castelli would form a reputation as one of the foremost publicists of contemporary American art.
Leo Castelli died in Manhattan on August 22, 1999.