Smooth Operator

Leo Castelli at the Castelli Gallery, 420 West Broadway, 1978, by J. Woodson, photographer, Photogra About two years ago, when I was visiting Liza Kirwin, curator of manuscripts at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, she mentioned that there was something there that I might like to see. As we walked down a hallway she opened doors to a couple of rooms, each of which was filled with the archival storage boxes, piled high. In them were the hundreds of linear feet of the materials that comprised the archives of the Castelli Gallery in New York, which Leo Castelli opened in 1957 and quickly became one of the most controversial and influential showcases of post-War American art. From its founding until Castelli’s death in 1999, the gallery represented an all-star roster of artists that included Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Lee Bonetcou, Donald Judd Cy Twombly, Ellsworth Kelly, James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha, and Bruce Nauman.

Robert Rauschenberg telegram to Leo Castelli, 1961 May 5, Leo Castelli Gallery records, Archives of Liza assumed I’d be interested in the material, and she was right. From the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, I organized all the photography exhibitions for a branch of the gallery, Castelli Graphics, which meant that somewhere and somehow I was referenced and represented in that pile of stuff, too. Working at the gallery was an extraordinary opportunity and experience for me, but I’ve got to admit that it was a little bit odd to see the gallery’s history—and with it a bit of mine, too—being  readied for processing. I thought of, and talked about seeing all those boxes this past January, at a Castelli Gallery reunion party, where I caught up with Louise Lawler, once one of the gallery’s archivists and a celebrated artist, herself. We reminisced about how carefully and compulsively the gallery kept track of its artists and the art works that came in and went out. Clearly and, it turns out, correctly, Castelli and crew had a sense that they were, in some way, making history and as a result also felt a sense of responsibility to document their activities. The archives contain business and personal correspondence, sales and exhibition records, posters, audio and video recordings, and printed materials that, seen from today’s perspective, provide insight into the intertwined worlds of avant-garde art, glamour, and commerce as the 20th century came to a close. After three years of sorting and digitizing, the Archives of American Art, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, is making much of the Castelli material available to the public. You can, for example, go online and peruse Leo Castelli’s appointment books to get a sense of who he talked to on a day-to-day basis, what prices art works sold for, or who he had lunch with. You can listen to audio clips of interviews with Castelli to get a sense of his legendary charm and his relationships with the artists he represented and promoted. In one of the interviews, the man who transformed the business of promoting and selling art says: "in the beginning, I must say I was rather ashamed of doing business… I had some kind of a stupid attitude that you find in Europe… Now I do a thing of business pretty well, like everybody else, and don't consider it anymore something that a gentleman should not indulge in. The whole concept of the gentleman seems to be very much in question these days."

About the Arts: Leo Castelli, 1976, Interviewer: Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, Courtesy of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Video Archive in the Duke University Libraries:

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