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Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 18, 2010

3.7 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Pioneering gallery owner Leo Castelli (1907–1999) arrived in New York City in 1941 and opened a gallery 15 years later, at the age of 50. He reigned over New York's art world, with the Castelli Gallery the leading center of new American art and a lively meeting place for artists and critics including Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist. In this first major biography, Cohen-Solal (Sartre: A Life) 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, and though she was a friend of Castelli's, she maintains a balanced critical distance, pointing to his initial misjudgment of Andy Warhol's genius, his perpetually complicated love life (with numerous mistresses and multiple marriages), his often frustratingly high standards and constant need for reassurance. Yet Castelli emerges as a rare individual: a magnanimous lover of art. Cohen-Solal's 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. 111 illus.; 4 maps. (May 19)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* When New York City became the capital of the global art world, gallery owner Leo Castelli was king. Cosmopolitan and ardent, he was a “master tastemaker” and an “impresario-cum-dervish” who resoundingly elevated contemporary American art and transformed the international art market. But who was he before he opened his first gallery at age 50? What “made him tick”? Cohen-Solal, author of a major Sartre biography, is the first to track down Castelli’s fascinating and heartbreaking Jewish family history, with its long line of consummate merchants and deep roots in Hungarian shtetl life and Viennese culture. Castelli grew up in Trieste and would have perished in the Holocaust if his commanding father-in-law hadn’t engineered an escape to New York. There Castelli’s wealthy wife (later the famed gallery owner Ileana Sonnabend) supported his innovative approach to working with artists. Cohen-Solal writes with passionate intensity and poetic precision about the people and places, tragedies and good fortune that shaped Castelli and fed his hunger for life and devotion to cutting-edge art. She also establishes a remarkably vivid cultural context for the artists, beginning with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Castelli zealously and shrewdly championed. Cohen-Solal has created an invaluable, magnificently encompassing, and compelling biography of extraordinary scope, energy, and feeling. --Donna Seaman
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (May 18, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400044278
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400044276
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.8 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #446,741 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Christian Schlect VINE VOICE on May 23, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
An informative book on the post-World War II emergence of New York City as the center of the art world. It will also be appreciated by those wishing to better understand the stressful experiences, prior to World War II, of certain Jewish families in the Old World's Monte San Savino, Trieste, and Bucharest---business families that produced Leo Castelli, the naturalized American, and his first wife and life-long friend, Ileana.

As Annie Cohnen-Solal relates, the ever polite, urbane Mr. Castelli, during the last half of the twentieth century, was a vital bridge between Europe and American cultures, who possessed a wonderous eye for discovering the "new" in art.

I personally found the rich family history at the start of this biography more rewarding than the often hagiological text at its end.

People who are interested in Leo Castelli and the challenging art that he promoted, I would think might also enjoy reading James Rosenquist's "Painting Below Zero" (2009) and Giuseppe Panza's "Memories of a Collector" (2007).
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Format: Hardcover
Written by a former French cultural attaché in NYC in the late 1980's (who met Leo Castelli at the time), this book is an interesting, though somewhat frustrating, biography of one of the greatest art dealers in post-war America. The book dwells on Castelli's childhood in Trieste, Italy and on his youth in Bucharest,Romania, where he was to meet his first wife and later business partner Ileana (the famous Ileana Sonnabend) and stresses some interesting points about Castelli's attitude towards his own Jewishness (here,an interesting overview of the history of the Jews in Tuscany, where the Castelli family originated,makes for good reading) a topic seldom tackled by earlier commentators. Many sources come from Castelli's own family, which accounts for a precise and truthful account of those early years, up to the beginning of WWII when he would move to NYC from Paris where he had already started to deal in art with French dealer René Drouin.

Now, the book is somewhat disappointing once Castelli and his wife arrive in post-war NYC : here, very little new information is brought forth (especially on the ability of Castelli to build an unparalleled network of influence in NYC's high society), Castelli's career as a successful and prescient art dealer from 1957 on (Johns, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein...)being already well-known. The book tends to become too anecdotical and one would certainly have appreciated to read more about the opinions of the artists who knew the dealer first-hand through their mutual business ties (Cy Twombly's nuanced opinion is indeed quoted in the book, but very briefly).
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Format: Hardcover
The rise of contemporary American art is a an oft-told story but this book offers an intriguing new perspective by showing how much of it depended on one man's entrepreneurial drive and personal devotion to artists. In that sense it's a rather inspiring narrative--certainly for anyone trying to launch a career at age 50 as Castelli did! It's also full of great insights about how the art world works, both from Castelli's artists and all the dealers for whom his career become the model, i.e. every major dealer now in business. The author's own understanding of the man and the scene are also very astute.

I am fairly well read in this area, but I learned a lot from the book. I had no idea of the role Castelli had played in Kandinsky's career, for instance--hilarious story of his charming the artist's widow. At the same time, I think the book is a wonderful introduction to American contemporary art. Both an education and entertaining, too. Highly recommend it.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Interesting, gossip-y, behind-the-scenes look at the workings of one of the most famous art dealers. As with any business, personal relationships are all, and if you have the charm and connections, the doors fly open.
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Format: Hardcover
Annie Cohen-Solal was adopted into Leo Castelli's inner circle in 1989 when she came to New York as the cultural counselor for the French embassy; so her writing has the biases of a great friend and admirer. The first 168 pages of this 464 page biography gives a very good social and political history of life in mainly Trieste and Vienna where Castelli was born and raised. She not only recounts his immediate family but the family history from the 17th century. He was brought up as a privileged young man, despite the two world wars and escape from Europe during the second war that was accomplished to avoid the fate of the camps so many others met. This part of the book is well researched and relates some interesting historical tidbits from family letters and diaries, such as the relief at the news of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, since they were not well liked. The rise of the black shirts and the dictatorships of the second war are covered as well as his return to Europe in the service.
Most of all this is a recounting of the rise of an intellectual and a gallerist and collector of art. There seems to be little of his inner thoughts and real motivation, except for his pride at receiving the French Legion of Honor for `discovering works of art'. His building of a gallery' empire' and his influence on the modern art world are recounted and well documented, there is a lack of inner depth and emotion, even in the telling of his many affairs, wives and family life; other than a few examples there is little of his real emotions.

There are photographs throughout the book of family, artists and documents. It is a book that those who are interested in the modern art world would certainly be engrossed in and for the first few chapters those who would like to learn of the life of the advantaged few in Trieste and Vienna - they could find interesting information too.
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