Castelli changes the world

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In 1975, when I was a critic for the Times, an editor sat me down and told me that the paper was cutting back on reviews in favor of features. He added that there was a big future for a young man who wanted to be an investigative reporter in the art world. What story did he have in mind? The dealings of Leo Castelli. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. That year, a celebrated conviction of the dealer Frank Lloyd, for conspiring to plunder the estate of Mark Rothko, fed popular suspicions that the art world was a quasi-criminal enterprise zone, in which Castelli—who had a near-monopoly on the top artists and sold their work for prices that seemed fantastic—figured to be the gangster-in-chief. And what young journalist didn’t ache for the laurels of a Woodward or a Bernstein? I didn’t. I liked the art world, and I revered Castelli, though he made me nervous. Treated to the silken manners and melting gaze of the small, neat man from Trieste—with his unplaceable accent, which Tom Wolfe described as “soft, suave, and slightly humid, like a cross between Peter Lorre and the first secretary of a French embassy”—I felt like a farm boy with cow pies in my pockets. He sensed this, I’m convinced, and left me alone when I visited the holy of holies that was his gallery, first at 4 East Seventy-seventh Street and, after 1971, at 420 West Broadway, flashing me the odd quick knowing smile. Leo (almost no one who met him even once called him anything else) wielded custom-tailored ways of making people feel special—all people, because he crowned his Continental glamour with a faintly comic and completely endearing American-style openness.

more from Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker here.

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