How The Leo Castelli Gallery Changed American Art Forever

The Leo Castelli Gallery promoted some of New York’s most newfangled post-war artists, a vocation the institution still actively pursues to this day.

May 3, 2020By Christina Elia, BA Art History
Photograph of Leo Castelli
Photograph of Leo Castelli taken by Lorenzo Tricoli

The Leo Castelli Gallery is a venerated New York stalwart. Dedicated to displaying a wide breadth of post-war art, its founder Leo Castelli is now reputed as a pivotal point of influence for the American avant-garde. Today, his gallery’s location has migrated from its original Manhattan townhouse to a posh residence at 18 East 77th Street, where it still showcases the world’s most cutting-edge contemporary artists.


Prequel to The Leo Castelli Gallery

Leo Castelli and Sidney Janis
Leo Castelli and Sidney Janis Outside The Janis Gallery, Fred McDarrah, 1959, Getty Images


Leo Castelli co-founded his first art gallery in 1939. Named after business partner René Drouinand, the Parisian outpost focused on Surrealism, a precursor to Castelli’s fine art gallery in the United States. Castelli and his wife were then forced to flee France during WWII’s onset, taking a complicated escape route to reach New York City. There, Leo Castelli became captivated by Manhattan’s burgeoning art scene, befriending art dealers, critics, and emerging painters alike. Among his talented friends: Abstract Expressionists Hans Hoffman, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and art dealer Sidney Janis. By 1950, Castelli formally cut ties with his Paris gallery, and redirected his attention toward curating art exhibitions. A promising post-war school sought a new creative outlet. 


A Successful Ninth Street Show 

The Ninth Street Show
The Ninth Street Show, Aaron Siskind, 1951, NYAC


The Ninth Street Show became Castelli’s breakout accomplishment in 1951. Held in a vacant storefront at 60 East Ninth Street, the milestone exhibition featured over fifty up-and-coming artists, many of which belonged to a growing group of Abstract Expressionists called The Club. Willem de Kooning showed his Woman, Joan Mitchell unveiled one of her many Untitled, and Pollock created his drip-piece Number 1. Though receiving critical success, most of these artists had been previously rejected by other galleries, unable to break into the nascent contemporary art market. The Ninth Street Show signaled a critical juncture, however, a shift toward a new-found epoch. New York’s living community of artists paved a dynamic path for modernism’s next avant-garde movement. 


In 1954, the U.S federal government strengthened the milieu by passing a decisive tax code. Dealers like Leo Castelli received considerable incentive for their sizable collections, which could now be considered a tax-deductible charitable gift upon museum donation. This prospective financial gain made amassing art even more alluring to a dawning class of American “venture capitalists,” a term coined by Fortune Magazine in 1955. After publishing two lengthy spreads about why collecting art is a worthy investment, Fortune successfully described a new American demographic: male, middle-class, with money to burn. Many potential buyers had already found salaried success in fields such as law and medicine, making them an ideal target audience. Yet these same tycoons lacked initial confidence in America’s catalyzing avant-garde coalition, preferring to invest capital in Europe’s reliable flow of modern masterpieces. Luckily, Leo Castelli held more faith in the city’s New York School underdogs. 


Establishing The Leo Castelli Gallery

Installation View of First Exhibition
Installation View of First Exhibition, 1957, The Leo Castelli Gallery

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Past curatorial achievements eventually inspired Castelli to establish his own eponymous gallery in 1957. The Leo Castelli Gallery launched from the art dealer’s Upper East Side townhouse, where he transformed his living room into a sleek, white-walled exhibition space. Unsure of the gallery’s initial direction, however, Castelli played it safe, using his charisma to build a bridge between European tradition and modern ambition. Displaying one of the most diverse collections in New York, he placed works by Fernand Leger and Piet Mondrian alongside his Abstract Expressionist collection, which grew to include multimedia artists such as David Smith. As New York’s frigid winter bloomed into spring, Castelli conceived plans for his next spectacle. His gallery’s inauguration buzzed around New York’s most exclusive intellectual circles.  


First Shows Exhibited At The Leo Castelli Gallery

Flag, Jasper Johns
Flag, Jasper Johns, 1954-5, The Museum of Modern Art


The Leo Castelli Gallery’s first momentous exhibition opened in May 1957. New Work had a simple title to underscore a powerful line-up: Alfred Leslie, Budd Hopkins, and Marisol Escobar, among others. Moving away from traditional Abstract Expressionism, the showcase highlighted the city’s emergent experimentalists, pioneers diving into impending risks. Jasper Johns brandished an encaustic Flag (1955), a defiant symbol loaded with his generation’s angst. Created using hot beeswax over plywood, the two-dimensional depiction of an American flag stemmed from an ongoing dream Johns had. Robert Rauschenberg also presented his fresh collage work Gloria (1956), composed of newspaper bits and pieces from popular culture. Many paintings revealed at New Work are now renowned worldwide as modernism’s creme de la creme, referring back to modest origins at The Leo Castelli Gallery. 


Gloria, Robert Rauschenberg
Gloria, Robert Rauschenberg, 1956, The Cleveland Museum of Art


Creative boundaries broke again in December 1957 when Castelli organized his first yearly Collectors Annual. He invited twenty prominent art dealers to select a favorite artwork, developing a dual-marketing strategy to highlight both collectors and artists. By doing so, Castelli not only created a direct line of communication between him and New York’s most esteemed elite, but he also cunningly publicized his financial doings with these aristocrats. It was a tactful move, a first of many in Castelli’s promotion of an evolving vanguard. Given his extensive experience, he also proved well-suited to take on a seemingly daunting task: directing American art toward a new trajectory. Collectors Annual presciently highlighted an art dealer’s future role in developing a contemporary marketplace. 


Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg 1958 Solo-Shows

Leo Castelli At Jasper Johns
Leo Castelli At Jasper Johns Solo-Show, 1958, The Leo Castelli Gallery


The Leo Castelli Gallery took its next risk exhibiting Jasper Johns in January 1958. Displaying iconic works such as Flag, Target With Four Faces (1955), and Tango (1956), the sold-out solo-show rippled through New York like incessant idle chatter. Johns’ choice of visual symbols appeared banal at best, but his attention to tedious detail marked a turning point for artistic technique. Visible brushstrokes somersaulted from his thick impasto compositions, emphasizing an artwork’s inherent originality. As Calvin Thompkins wrote in his legendary New Yorker profile of Leo Castelli in 1980, Johns’ 1958 show “hit the art world like a meteor.” Alfred Barr, MoMa’s first director, even attended the opening himself, leaving with four purchased paintings for the museum’s collection. Seals of public approval instilled a newfound confidence in this budding abstract artist. 


Robert Rauschenberg
Installation View of Robert Rauschenberg, 1958, The Leo Castelli Gallery


Unfortunately, Robert Rauschenberg’s 1958 solo-show produced subpar results by contrast. Castelli had finally agreed to give the artist his own exhibit in March 1958. By then, Rauschenberg’s work had shifted from paintings to intricate drawings, like his Erased De Kooning (1953), which explored the limits of art through the practice of erasure. (He previously approached De Kooning to ask for a drawing he could erase, to which the artist reluctantly complied.) One eccentric work even featured a ladder dividing composition, parting a saturated sea of geometric abstraction. Jasper Johns proved a hard act to follow, however. Rauschenberg only sold two paintings, one of which Castelli purchased himself. Both 1958 solo-shows are now juxtaposed as standards of trial and error, with Johns serving as an aspirational archetype. Still, Rauschenberg’s future fruition would ultimately demonstrate how adeptly Leo Castelli advertised his artists.


The Leo Castelli Model

Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein At The Leo Castelli Gallery, Bill Ray, 1962, Invaluable


Leo Castelli spearheaded a systematic approach to running his business. Where previous dealers saw a purely transactional relationship, Castelli recognized potential for interpersonal growth. Rather than follow an antiquated system where galleries split profits 50/50, he cultivated methods to creatively nurture his artist roster, forming a lifelong bond rooted in loyalty. Founded on mutual trust and respect, his paradigm is so famous it’s now simply referred to as the “Leo Castelli Model.” He tracked fluctuating markets, provided supplies and studio space, and went out of his way to ensure open channels of dialogue. Most radical of all, he even gave his represented artists a stipend, notwithstanding their sales. Castelli became first to postulate what is now acclaimed as fundamental to commercial consummation: the groundbreaking notion of an artist as a marketable brand. 


The 1960’s Leo Castelli Gallery 

Campbell’s Soup Cans, Andy Warhol, 1962, The Museum of Modern Art 
Campbell’s Soup Cans, Andy Warhol, 1962, The Museum of Modern Art


By the 1960s, The Leo Castelli Gallery boomed in its enterprises. Castelli signed embryonic artists like Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and Richard Serra. While Abstract Expressionism faded into the background, exhilarating new genres like Pop Art and Minimalism took hold in the public imagination. In 1962, Castelli closed the deal on his most impactful sale yet when he triumphantly peddled the decade’s most iconic artwork, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962). Of course, Warhol conceived his revolutionary screen-print after seeing his peer Roy Lichetenstein’s comic-strips in The Leo Castelli Gallery. From this casual encounter debuted a 32-canvas extravaganza, each polymer-painted can slightly different from the last. Like many under Castelli’s wing, Warhol would come to lead a cohort of visionaries through America’s tumultuous times. His kitschy Pop Art innovations dominated headlines for years to come. 


A Turning Point For The American Avant-Garde

Leo Castelli And His Artists
Leo Castelli And His Artists, Hans Namuth, 1982,


On the other side of the pond, European audiences finally took notice of the trans-atlantic art scene. Though the American avant-garde had received considerable domestic attention during the 1940s and 1950s, news hadn’t spread to Europe until years later. Meanwhile, The Leo Castelli Gallery managed to lock down clients like Peter Ludwig, a German heir who would eventually establish the prominent Museum Ludwig in Cologne. By 1962, Jasper Johns’ paintings had toured Paris, Stockholm, and Amsterdam, among other cosmopolitan centers. Rauschenberg opened one-man shows in Dusseldorf and Rome, also featuring in group shows in Yugoslavia, Denmark, and Norway — which is quite astonishing considering his work’s massive size. At the 1964 Venice Biennale, Rauschenberg proved critics wrong when he secured the prestigious Grand Prize for Painting, a category often awarded to European artists. Castelli’s commercial victory confirmed his business model’s potential for long term prosperity.  


Leo Castelli’s Legacy:

Leo Castelli
Leo Castelli, Milton Gendel, 1982, Museo Carlo Bilotti


The Leo Castelli Gallery inevitably expanded into SoHo during the 1970s to follow New York’s artist migration. By then, Leo Castelli’s luscious locks had grayed and his magnetism faced possible decline: he hadn’t accepted a new artist in over six years. Fortunately another promising gallery had also opened upstairs at 420 West Broadway, run by freshman art dealer Mary Boone. Through Boone, Castelli discovered his next big break, a then-unknown Neo-Expressionist named Julian Schnabel. Setting the groundwork for a new generation of gallery management, the duo co-represented and curated Schnabel’s lucrative solo-show in 1981. Even after his natural death in 1999, Castelli’s canonical career bequeathed a grand legacy. Famous dealers Larry Gagosian and Jeffrey Deitch are among the other talents he trained to follow in his footsteps. 


Today, The Leo Castelli Gallery occupies an assuming building in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, blending into the neighborhood’s surrounding luxury residences. Across from Bryant Park on 42nd Street, a newer location serves as an expansive locus for large-scale painting and sculpture installations. Within these eight walls Castelli’s successors advance his mission to support rising imaginations, retaining his immense cultural heritage with precise care. As most painters he once represented continue to receive adoration decades after their own deaths, the art dealer can only be lauded as omniscient. Leo Castelli foresaw the genesis of a creative spirit far more timeless than his own.

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By Christina EliaBA Art HistoryChristina Elia is a contributing writer whose work focuses on the intersection between visual culture and language. She was born and raised in New York City, where she currently writes about topics ranging from creative nonfiction to street art, culture, and travel. Christina’s work has been published in online publications such as The Odyssey, Select City, CURA, and has appeared in print in The Tishman Review and UP.