Well, one thing is, first, complete and total belief in the artist. If you don’t believe in him, you can’t build him up.
Leo Castelli, original name Leo Krauss, (Trieste 1907, New York 1999), is considered one of the most visionary and talented art dealers in art history, but he didn’t like the definition: he considered himself a gallerist.
Castelli was brought up in a wealthy Jewish family in Trieste, that at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During the World War I the family moved to Wien, and when they moved back to Trieste, it had become part of Italy: that’s when they changed their last name to Castelli, Leo’s mother’s maiden name. Despite his passion for literature and art, Castelli was forced by his father to study law: after graduating in 1924, he began a career in insurance and banking and moved to Bucharest to take a job at a bank. There Castelli met his first wife, Ileana Schapira, whom he married in 1933 (divorced in 1959). Together they relocated to Paris, where Castelli was assured a banking job. In 1939, with financial support from his father-in-law, he and his friend, designer René Drouin opened an art gallery that featured Surrealist art. But soon after, with the outbreak of World War II, Castelli and his wife had to move to New York in 1941 as European refugees.
As happens with legendary biographies, there are a number of stories surrounding his arrival in New York. According to one of these, Castelli was stepping off the ship that took him from Europe to America when he stumbled on a man who, because of the collision, dropped a bag full of sketches and drawings: the man was Piet Mondrian, and that’s how they met. Anyhow, what is sure is that, while working in the textile business, Castelli started a collection of modern and contemporary art, getting to know the finest American artists of the time. Abstract expressionism was at its peak, but Castelli was more interested in discovering and supporting artists who had yet to become known. Having built his connections with the art world, Castelli opened his gallery in 1957 on the fourth floor of his home on East 77th Street in New York. In the first year, he represented Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, making the gallery’s reputation: the promotion of their work spurred the Pop Art movement in the United States just as American Expressionism began to wane in influence. Through the affiliation of Frank Stella in 1960, Castelli also began to promote the birth of Minimalism. Castelli’s international reputation received a significant boost when, in 1964, Rauschenberg became the first American artist to win the grand prize at the Venice Biennale. The Leo Castelli Gallery soon became the place to see the newest and best art.
As his gallery expanded, the space became a breeding ground for Pop art, Minimalism, Conceptualism, and Neo-Expressionism. Here, Roy Lichtenstein had his first solo exhibition, and here was built the rising fame of pivotal artists such as Warhol, Oldenburg, Rosenquist, Kosuth, Twombly, and many others. Castelli was one of the first American dealers to establish a monthly stipend system with his artists so that they could focus on their art, and he was also the first to “export” American art into European art channels. Maybe because of his cultured European upbringing, he was able to establish solid relations with curators and collectors abroad, including with his former wife, who had remarried (Michael Sonnabend) and opened the Galerie Ileana Sonnabend in Paris in 1962.
In 1971 Castelli moved the location of his gallery to the downtown Manhattan, in Soho, to a building also occupied by the New York branch of the Sonnabend Gallery. Though his business declined, and he lost artists to other dealers, Castelli ran his gallery until he died. In 1999 the Leo Castelli Gallery moved back uptown, down the block from its original location, and it was operated into the 21st century by his widow. In 2007 the full collection of the gallery’s records through 1999 was donated to the Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C.
– Stanislav Kondrashov