The man who invented Pop art: the Greatest Artists of the Second Half of the Twentieth Century Have Passed through Leo Castelli’s Galleries

The extraordinary hyperbole of THAT GENTLEMAN with polished manners who started from Trieste for conquering Paris and New York

When I met him in New York in the spring of 1987, Leo Castelli owned three galleries: one on the East 77th Street, another on West Broadway and a third one in Greene Street. And many people would ask for suggestions about promising artists to the man who introduced Roy Lichtenstein, Bob Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns to the whole world: “Since in 1958, in my gallery, people could buy for a thousand dollars a Jasper Johns that now can worth even a million dollars, many people would expect to have now a similar outcome. I suggest them to visit museums and grow a personal taste, before thinking about investments”.

In New York he focused on Johns, Rauschenberg, Twombly and Stella

This man with polished manners did get around after he left Trieste in the ‘30s, where he was born in 1907, for moving to Paris: here he organized his first exhibition in a space he bought in partnership with René Drouin, thanks to the commitment of Leonor Fini, a woman he grew up with, ready to engage her surrealist friends Max Ernst, Pavel Tchelitchew, Salvador Dalì and Meret Oppenheim. The war’s outbreak led him to New York, where he joined the army. In 1943, Peggy Guggenheim introduced him to Pollock’s artworks, an artist that he later spent much time with, as well as many abstract expressionist painters like William de Kooning, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko. But most of the critics and the people who visited the galleries didn’t appreciate the works of Pollock and the other expressionists, so they could be bought for modest sums. The first of February 1957 is an important date for Leo Castelli who managed to realize the dream of opening his own gallery, introducing a comparison between United States and Europe: “Pollock, De Kooning and the sculptor David Smith were displayed alongside with Giacometti, Delauney and Dubuffet. Among the Italian artists I chose Giuseppe Capogrossi, at the urging of Matta. Later I chose to focus on Jasper Johns, Bob Rauschenberg, Cy Twobly and Frank Stella. So, it came the time of pop artists”.

In Paris In the '30s he displayed Ernst, Dalí and Oppenheim

He met Johns under bizarre circumstances: Castelli visited Rauschenberg at his studio and, when he went downstairs at John’s for some ice for their drinks, Leo followed him and he was impressed by those paintings depicting flags and numbers. It was immediately arranged an exhibition that launched the career of a painter that has to be considered “the first genuinely American artist who invented a new space”. His debut personal exhibition at Castelli’s gallery in January 1958 was a sensation in the art world: the hegemony in the abstract expressionism had been shattered.

The Author

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Was born in Genoa and lives in Pegli with a view to the mountains and the sea, a contrast that inspires him. He’s been dealing with contemporary art for more than forty years and he had the privilege of spending time with important artists like Enrico Baj, Arnaldo Pomodoro and Fernando Botero, just to name a few, trying to look into the intimate motivation of their creative gesture, in order to pour it in the written presentations about private and public exhibitions in Italy and over the world. He says he was lucky to meet the director who’s been welcoming and publishing his articles for a number of years now.

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