At the helm of New York’s Castelli Gallery, the former art historian is drawn to quiet and perplexing outliers in the careers of mega-artists.
I n the unholy canon of New York art dealers, were there ever to be such a thing, the late Leo Castelli would cast a towering figure, a winking saint in a tailored suit. Opening his first gallery in 1957 – aged just shy of 50 – in his townhouse residence on East 77th Street, Castelli found he had more than a knack for launching the careers of breakout stars. He gave Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, and Jasper Johns their first solo shows. (In an oral history interview, recorded for the Smithsonian in 1973, Castelli admitted to signing the unknown Johns the very first time they met.) He mounted an exhibition of Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Combines’, and was the only buyer, acquiring Bed,1955, now owned by MoMA. Andy Warhol immortalised Castelli via silkscreen, in his trademark jacket and tie. Robert Morris christened one of his sculptures Leo, placing a brain at its center. Castelli was exalted not only for his perceptiveness , but because he played a generous long game: his radical stipend system paid artists monthly, even if their work didn’t sell. Donald Judd reportedly cashed Castelli’s checks for 14 years before gaining real traction with collectors.
“I think the main lesson of Leo’s is to be honest,” says Barbara Bertozzi Castelli. Having been at the helm of her late husband’s two Manhattan spaces since 1999, the thoughtful, soft-spoken gallerist takes the advice seriously. Sometimes, her honesty reveals itself in unusual, old-school practices – things that feel like small revolutions when maintained in 2020. Castelli never had contracts with his artists, and the gallery doesn’t still; certificates of insurance serve that purpose instead. Other times, honesty emerges as a curatorial red thread. Bertozzi Castelli’s taste runs the opposite of collector trophies – perhaps due to her background in Japanese language and literature, and later as a writer and art historian – but she follows its subtleties anyway. Castelli, after all, was loyal to his inclinations, and that spirit is part of his gallery’s DNA: “I think that no good dealer cannot be a collector,” he once said. “You have to desire the painting you’ve handled … or else there wouldn’t be any conviction about what you’re doing.”
When surveying the careers of America’s post-war mega-artists, Bertozzi Castelli is often drawn to places others aren’t. She chases unfinished thoughts. She tussles with spare puzzle pieces, with deviations that don’t appear to fit with an artist’s greater practice and finds new urgency in decades-old works, reviewing them through the lens of a new socio-political climate. At present, she’s been thinking about Lichtenstein again. “If you look at Roy’s work deeply, you realize he is ahead of his time in portraying a genderless figure. Was Roy thinking about this? It doesn’t really matter … The intention of the artist is only one factor. The intention of the viewer is important too.”
Towards the end of her husband’s life, Bertozzi Castelli suggested – a little tentatively, not wanting to overstep – that Castelli Gallery should do a show of Jasper Johns’s monotypes. (This style of printmaking generates a single impression, rather than multiple editions.) “People weren’t paying much attention to the monotypes, they saw them as ‘just’ prints. [But] I thought they were extremely special, especially from a technical perspective. Twenty years later, they’re getting the recognition they deserve.” She thinks this is where her personality jumps in: finding a footnote and expanding. “Rather than looking at works that everyone knows will be acquired by MoMA, I am interested in moments where an artist is still searching and experimenting. Where they don’t know exactly what they are doing yet. The more famous the artist is, the more often that [element of their practice] is neglected. Everyone is fixated on the $100 million painting.”
“Rather than looking at works that everyone knows will be acquired by MoMA, I am interested in moments where an artist is still searching and experimenting.”
Before COVID closures, the gallery staged Robert Morris: Voice: 1974 at their West 40th location. Much of the exhibition interrogated notions of slipperiness, impreciseness and disorientation: layering soundtracks that partially drowned each other out, or using speakers to alter one’s spatial awareness. Like Morris’s famed felt pieces, the form was tangled, unpredictable. “Many galleries say, ‘We are doing museum-quality shows,’” says Bertozzi Castelli. “I don’t want to do museum-quality shows – there are museums for that! But we can do a lot of things museums cannot, perhaps even if they wanted to … We can bring light to overlooked situations, to things that are radical and important that the market might not yet appreciate.”
Among her original selections for Sotheby’s Gallery Network is yet another unturned jewel: a small text work on glass by Joseph Kosuth, from 1992. Entitled R.M #1, it features a musing on the eternal changeability of things, rendered in neat black serif. (“Everything,” part of it reads, “is caught up in invisible but never-resting metamorphosis.”) Bertozzi Castelli likes it because it forces the viewer to pause: to locate something personal in the conceptual, even ponder the identity of R.M. She likes to spend time with work in this way, slowly relishing in the presence of the thing itself.
Like many of us, she’s been doing this since she was a teen. Growing up in the northeastern Italian city of Cesena, which borders the Adriatic, she began to take trips to the neighbouring town of Ravenna alone, a place known for its magnificent Byzantine mosaics. She was struck by the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, a world heritage site whose orange-brick exterior is unassuming.
“When you look at it from the outside, it’s tiny: a place few people would pay attention to,” she says. “But when you enter, it’s covered completely by mosaics, the entire walls and ceiling. In some ways, it is an installation. You feel like it has been built for only you, just a few days before. You can’t forget a work like that.”