Leo Castelli was born in 1907 in Trieste, a city on the Adriatic sea, which, at the time, was the main port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Leo’s father, Ernest Kraus, was the regional director for Austria-Hungary’s largest bank, the Kreditandstalt; his mother, Bianca Castelli, was the daughter of a Triesten coffee merchant.
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914 the Kraus family relocated to Vienna where Leo continued his education. A particularly memorable moment for Leo during this period of his life was the funeral of Emperor Francis Joseph which he witnessed in November of 1916. Leo and his family returned to Trieste when the war ended in 1918. With the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Trieste embraced its new Italian identity. Motivated by this shift Ernest decided to adopt his wife's more Italian-sounding maiden name, Castelli, which his children also assumed.
In many ways the Castelli’s return Trieste after the war marked an optimistic new beginning for the family. Ernest was made director of the Banca Commerciale Italiana, which had replaced the Kreditandstalt as the top bank in Trieste. This elevated position allowed Ernest and Bianca to cultivate a cosmopolitan life-style. Together they hosted frequent parties which brought them in contact with a spectrum of political, financial, and cultural luminaries. Growing up in such an environment fostered in Leo and his two siblings, Silvia and Giorgio, a strong appreciation of high culture. During this time Leo developed a passion for Modern literature and perfected his fluency in German, French, Italian, and English.
After earning his law degree at the University of Milan in 1932, Leo began his adult life as an insurance agent in Bucharest. Although Leo found the job unfulfilling and tedious, the people he met in Bucharest made up for this deficiency. Among the most significant of Leo’s acquaintances during this time was the eminent businessman, Mihail Shapira. Leo eventually became friendly with the rest of the Shapira family and in 1933 he married Mihail's youngest daughter, Ileana.
In 1934 Leo and Ileana moved to Paris where, thanks to his step-father’s influence, Leo was able to get a job in the Paris branch of the Banca d'Italia. In the same year, Leo met the interior designer René Drouin, who became his close friend. In the spring of 1938, while walking through the Place Vendôme, Leo and René came across a storefront for rent between the Ritz hotel and a Schiaparelli boutique. The space immediately impressed them as an ideal location for an art gallery, a plan which became reality the following spring in 1939. The Drouin Gallery opened with an exhibition featuring painting and furniture by Surrealist artists including Léonor Fini, Augene Berman, Meret Oppenheim, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dali. Despite the success of this initial exhibition, the gallery proved short-lived. Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 marking the start of World War II and consequently the temporary end of the Drouin gallery. René was called to serve in the French army, while Leo, Ileana, and their three-year-old daughter Nina moved to the relative safety of Cannes, where Ileana’s family owned a summer house.
As the war escalated, it became evident that Europe was no longer safe for the Castelli family—Leo and Ileana were both Jewish. In March of 1941, Leo, Ileana and Nina fled to New York bringing with them Nina’s nurse Frances and their dog, Noodle. After a year of moving around the city, the family took up permanent residence at 4 East 77 Street in a townhouse Mihail had bought. Nine months after his arrival in New York, in December of 1943, Leo volunteered for the US army, expediting his naturalization as a US citizen. Owing to his facility with languages, Leo was assigned to serve in the U.S. Army Intelligence Corp, a position which he held for two years, until February 1946.
While on military leave in 1945 Leo visited Paris and stopped by Place Vendôme gallery where René had once more set up business selling work by European avant-garde artists such as Jean Dubuffet and Jean Fautrier. The meeting not only rekindled René and Leo’s friendship but also the latter’s interest in art dealing, a pursuit which Leo began to view as more than a mere hobby but as a potential career. After reconnecting, the two friends decided to go back into partnership with Leo acting as the New York representative for the Drouin Gallery. Working in this capacity, Leo began to form relationships with some of the New York art world’s most influential figures, including Peggy Guggenhiem, Sydney Janis, Willem De Kooning, and Jackson Pollock.
By the late 40s Leo’s ties with René Drouin had begun to slacken, while his alliance with the dealer Sydney Janis became closer. Janis opened his New York gallery in 1948 and in 1950 invited Leo to curate an exhibition of contemporary French and American artists. The show drew a significant connection between the venerable tradition of European Modernism and the emerging artists of the New York School. Not long after this, in 1951, Leo was asked by these same New York School artists to organize the groundbreaking Ninth Street Show. This exhibition was instrumental in establishing Abstract Expressionism as the preeminent art movement of the post-war era.
Leo founded his own gallery in 1957, transforming the living room on the fourth floor of the 77th Street townhouse into an exhibition space. Perhaps the most critical moment of Leo’s career occurred later that year, when he first visited the studios of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. In 1958 Leo gave Johns and Rauschenberg solo shows, in January and March respectively. For Johns, this was the first solo show of his career. These exhibitions received wide critical acclaim, solidifying Leo’s reputation not only as a dealer but as the arbiter of a new and important art movement.
Over the course of the 1960s Leo played a formative role in launching the careers of many of the most significant artists of the twentieth century including Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenberg, Cy Twombly, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner. Through his support of these artists Leo likewise helped cultivate and define the movements of Pop, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, and Post-Minimalism.
As business expanded over the course of the 60s and artistic trends shifted in favor of larger artworks, Leo realized that his townhouse gallery was not sufficient to meet these new demands. Indicative of the trend toward maximal art was the gallery’s exhibition of James Rosenquist’s seminal installation, F-111 in 1964. This multi-paneled, mural-sized work, inspired by billboard advertisements, filled the four walls of the gallery at 4 East 77, almost as if attempting to expand the space through its sheer immensity and dynamism. The rise of this type of art prompted Leo, in 1968, to acquire an industrial loft in Harlem which became known as the Castelli Warehouse. While he continued to hold more intimate exhibitions at the 4 East 77th Street gallery, the warehouse became a space for showcasing new media works such as Robert Morris’s Continuous Project Altered Daily (1969) and Keith Sonnier’s Dis-play II (1970).
Leo’s expansion of the gallery continued into the 1970s with the establishment of a new location in Soho at 420 West Broadway. As in the case of the warehouse, this move was motivated primarily by Leo’s desire to satisfy needs arising from new artistic developments. This time, however, Leo responded to the wave of experimental performance art and music which swept New York during the 70s and was largely driven by artists working in the city’s downtown neighborhoods. Leo intersected with this new current in art by hosting performances by a diverse range of artists including Joan Jonas, Poppy Johnson, Richard Landry, and Philip Glass.
The growth of the Castelli Gallery continued through the 80s and 90s. In 1980 Leo opened a second location in Soho at 142 Greene Street. Having closed the Castelli Warehouse in 1971, this new space became the gallery’s primary venue for exhibiting large-scale works. One of the most notable exhibitions held in this space was Roy Lichtenstien’s Greene Street Mural which opened December 3, 1983. For this unprecedented project, Lichtenstein painted the 18 x 96 ½ foot mural directly onto the walls of the gallery. When the show closed in January of 1984, the work was destroyed.
Over the course of his career, until his death on August 22, 1999, Leo maintained close working relationships with artists whose careers he had helped to make and who, in turn, helped to make his own career as a dealer. Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Bruce Nauman in particular are three artists who Leo discovered and who remained with the gallery until Leo’s death. This focus on working with artists in the long-term is also reflected in the many generous donations of artwork Leo made to high-caliber museums such as the Museum of Modern Art. These gifts testify to Leo’s deep interest not simply in cultivating the short-term value of art as a commodity, but on ensuring the cultural value of these works for all time.