Skip to content

For today’s blog, we are sharing an interview between Suzi Gablik and Leo Castelli, which took place at 420 West Broadway on February 19, 1994.


Suzi Gablik selected this interview as the final chapter for her book, Conversations Before the End of Time: Dialogues on Art, Life & Spiritual Renewal, published in 1995. Notably, she titled it, “A Farewell to Modernism,” as Castelli reflects on the shifting climate of the cultural scene since the time he opened his gallery in 1957. Twenty-six years later, it is enlightening to revisit Gablik’s and Castelli’s words from today’s perspective. 



A Farewell to Modernism



When I was a young artist growing up in New York City, there was always an eddy of excitement that rippled out from the Leo Castelli Gallery on East Seventy­seventh Street; I remember riding the claustrophobic little elevator up to the fourth floor, which was a regular Saturday afternoon ritual. Usually one encountered friends and fellow artists, and sometimes even Leo Castelli himself, impeccably suited and always ready with a warm smile and a suave handshake. Anchored to the walls would be comic strip paintings by Roy Lichtenstein, silkscreened cow wallpaper by Andy Warhol, a Jasper Johns flag, or stationed in the middle of the room, a stuffed goat with a rubber tire looped around its waist, by Robert Rauschenberg. For many artists in the 1960s, this modest meeting place became their natural habitat. Not without reason has Leo Castelli been credited with being "largely responsible for the art world, and art market, as we know it today." Long considered the most influential purveyor of contemporary art in the world, Castelli is the only art dealer to have had a coffee-table monograph published about him in his lifetime. As well-known as any of his artists, in 1980 he appeared twice on the Dick Cavett Show, and was profiled by Calvin Tomkins for the New Yorker.


Castelli was born in Trieste, and studied law at the University of Milan be/ore arriving in New York in 1941 as a refugee from Nazi-occupied France, where he had briefly run an art gallery in Paris with Rene Drouin. By the time he opened his gallery on Seventy-seventh Street in 1957, he was already a strong presence on the scene, familiar to those who frequented the Artists' Club meetings on Eighth Street, and the Cedar Tavern, where the "in" crowd hung out most nights to drink, smoke and debate. I must have seen him there in my many forays downtown, although I can't re­ member it.


"In the early days when I showed Johns, Rauschenberg, Twombly, and Stella," says Castelli, "I was totally convinced that I had discovered the most important artists of the day. I do not want to seem arrogant, but I feel that during the first fifteen years of my activity, I hardly missed a major upcoming American artist." In those days, it was the dream of every ambitious artist to become part of Castelli's stable. "I'm very grateful,” Johns has said, "that I

haven't had to work with any other dealer.” Although hugely successful as a dealer, Castelli claims that commercial success has never been his main concern: the artist has always come before the money. And indeed, making large amounts of money developed very slowly, and only really came about twenty years later. William Rubin, formerly the director of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, has described Castelli as a "model art dealer," in the tradition of Ambroise Vollard, who was totally devoted to the Impressionist painters he handled.


When Castelli first began to show art in his fourth-floor apartment in 1957, he was nearly fifty years old. When I conversed with him last month in the office of his Soho gallery (which opened in 1971), he was eighty-seven, heartily alert and effervescent as ever. Having been a kind of magistrate, or doge, of the scene for more than thirty years, and its Great Khan for some fifteen of those years, his seemed the most appropriate voice with which to end these dialogues. Given the exhilarating exploration of aesthetic frontiers that had occupied his life for so long, and his great investment in the modern tradition, I was eager to find out how he felt about these unsettled times. What did he think, for instance, about the shift into overtly social and political art that was now disturbing the detached and idealistic image of modern aesthetics to which he had so unabashedly devoted himself? How did he feel about the challenge to his canonical favorites resulting from the wholesale rethinking that was going on? At age eighty-seven, was he watching all these messy and contradictory reassessments from the sidelines, or was he taking an active part in the debates himself? Did he believe - like so many critics of the democratization of culture, which has brought previously excluded groups into the aesthetic citadel - that serious high art was dead? I also found myself wondering, as well, if he had suffered personally from the collapse of the art market during the 1990s.


As Castelli's responses to my various questions show, truly creative individuals have an openness to experience and are willing to put their own beliefs and assumptions into question to a far greater degree than people who respond by dismissing new developments with sneers and ridicule, thereby closing themselves off from new ways of thinking. The destabilizing of existing concepts and assumptions demands a greater complexity of outlook, which Castelli promptly evidenced. He took the first step in dealing productively with today's conflicts: he recognized their legitimacy, and acknowledged that they can no longer be evaded or shut out. The sensitivity of his responses make one understand why Rubin described him as " enlightened."


The following conversation was taped at the Leo Castelli Gallery on February 19, 1994.



SUZI GABLIK: A little while ago at lunch, Leo, you told me that you thought the 1993 Whitney Biennial was a turning point, not only in the affairs of the art world, but also personally for you, in your thinking. I'd be very interested - since I didn't allow you to discuss it over lunch - if you'd be willing to share your feelings about all this now.


LEO CASTELLI: The Biennial didn't come as a total surprise. We all knew - at least, some of us knew - that there were lots of younger artists around whom we saw casually at one or another show in the smaller galleries in Soho, and elsewhere. But we didn't pay much attention to them. And then they suddenly appeared, massively-some that we knew and quite a number that we didn't know about at all - at the Whitney a year ago. The first impression that I had was pretty negative: it was a sort of mishmash of all kinds of work done in various media, but predominantly using video. I've never been terribly interested in video, although there probably are some artists who express themselves in an interesting way in that field. Now you'll want to say, "What about Bruce Nauman?", but he handles video in a very different way from most video artists. I think he probably was the first artist who did a work in video, when I first showed him back in '68 or '69. Anyway, I found all the video work pretty boring at the Whitney, and then, generally speaking, the extreme harshness of the content in the various works to be found there was hard to take. Some we only knew a little bit but were uncomfortable with, such as Kiki Smith, for instance, but others, such as the piece by Charles Ray called The Family, I found fairly interesting. But then there were all kinds of other works by artists that one hardly knew, or didn't know at all, which maybe had good intentions about describing racial tensions, sexual discontent, etcetera, that had perhaps some merit as far as content was concerned, but most of them had absolutely no aesthetic qualities - which a work of art must, after all, have. It can't just be purely based on some kind of idea that the artist may have about the present times and world.


SG: That literalism is what seems to have colored most people's view of the Whitney show – who thought that it lacked aesthetic merit. But you intimated earlier that even though you started out with a negative response, nevertheless the show was in some way a turning point for you, and it changed your thinking.


LC: Because I had to accept the fact that the wonderful days of the era that I participated in, and in which I had played a substantial role, were over. It was over well before that, actually. Already at the end of the seventies, there was the influx of the German Neo­ Expressionists like Baselitz and Penck, Immendorf and Polke, and some of the Italian artists like Chia and Clemente.


SG: But surely they were all still painters - in a heavy-duty way.


LC: But they had a great influence on the scene here. Suddenly the dominance of American art, or New York art if you wish - largely represented by what I was doing here at the gallery, where movement followed movement - seemed over. All that I had been doing for fifteen years, and they were very much my fifteen years, that I was so proud of because there was nobody who could come close to doing things that were so basic and important ­ well, to come back to the Whitney show: what was shown there was entirely different from what I'd done. I realized then that I was not there to dictate what should be considered interesting and that all this had changed completely. Of course, I'd had inklings of this before, and I'd tried to participate in some of the changes. For instance, when the Italians came along, I did show some of them, but I never showed any of the Germans. I tried to live with the times, but without conviction. I still had that nostalgia for the past, which started with the Abstract Expressionists.


SG: So did the Whitney experience wipe out that nostalgia once and for all? I mean, what emotions did you feel when you finally realized that life and history had moved on, and they hadn't really asked your permission, so to speak, to do so?


LC: Well, I must say that especially with the Whitney show, I came to exactly that realization. Before that, everything was a bit confused. There were, in addition to the Germans and the Italians, some other phenomena like Jeff Koons and others, all things that I had rejected, up to a point, of course. I felt that what had been there before, during the great era of the sixties, was just unbeatable, and that nothing of that kind could succeed the heroic times that we had had here in New York after the end of the war, which also included the painters I admired: Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, Still, that group. I just felt that that was all gone forever.


SG: How did that make you personally feel?


LC: It made me feel bad, but then after all, I realized that those changes had been very rapid during a brief period of time and that I couldn't expect things to go on in the same way forever. There was a certain sadness that I felt about it, but well, with the Whitney show, I realized that I had to change my attitude, and not be rejecting - as people generally are, as you know. Someone like Kahnweiler, for instance, after Picasso and the Cubists, felt that there was no good art anymore. I would say that there is a span, a relatively short span, in which somebody really lives seriously with a period of art and after that, all those people - whether it be dealers or art historians or museum directors - after that, they don't see what's going on anymore. They reject whatever comes after that. I didn't want to be one of those. I had been sort of spoiled by the fact that so many things occurred in my gallery, one after the other, that were considered of the first importance, and I would have liked to go on that way but I felt a little bit powerless in front of new developments, although I did participate to some extent as I said. I showed the American equivalents of the Germans, like Schnabel and Salle, even Robert Longo. And I tried to find some younger artists who would be fresh and interesting, like Mike and Doug Starn. But nothing occurred that was of the magnitude of those various movements that I'd been involved with.


SG: Did the experience of what you saw at the Whitney feel like a real diminishment of art, then, or was it more like an unexpected change in the name of the game?


LC: It was a sea change, not just any change.


SG: How would you define the nature of this sea change?


LC: I would say that there is a clear and evident involvement with social problems of all kinds, and they're not filtered. They're there, brutally.


SG: Are these changes also affecting the institutional structures, like museums and galleries? Are you being affected in your gallery by these changes?


LC: Well, up to a point one is affected. Museums, myself, and other galleries that handle important artists are affected, but only up to a point, because certain artists that had been, let's say, neglected have now become more acceptable, as a reaction to the fact that there were new things that were considered unacceptable. So there have been some advantages to all that. But the collecting public these days is very, very small, and what I keep saying is that there are hardly any collectors left. Those who are considered to be serious collectors, like the Tremaines and the Sculls, or Count Panza or Dr. Ludwig, hardly any of those are left. They have become dealers themselves.


SG: Or small institutions with their own museums.


LC: And then, Charles Saatchi, who was a tremendous, voracious buyer of things, just buys and sells thou­ sands of pieces at the same time; then he drops an artist that he was involved with, like Chia, completely. So the market is flooded by Chias and it ruins his reputation completely.



SG: You've said somewhere that your policy was to have works by all the key artists of any new movement that appeared on the scene.


LC: I did have them, practically all, except of the Minimalist movement - Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt.


SG: So if your role has been to ferret out, as far as possible; the key artists in each new phase of art, how do you feel about that role now, in this new situation? Would you still wish to play that kind of role in relation to the present scene, or not?


LC: Well, I couldn't play that role anymore, because the key players are no longer so evident. I could have devoted myself - as Ileana [Sonnabend] did for a period of time - to the German artists, but I had no feeling for them, and I felt, quite frankly, that they didn't contribute anything that was as new as those artists that I had been dealing with. It was just a rehash of things that we knew about. You see, my basic involvement was with Duchamp, and whatever related to Duchamp was of interest to me. There, at the Whitney -


SG: Would you say that Duchamp was dead?


LC: I'd say that in the case of certain artists, Duchamp was still there. I think that whatever strays from the basic idea of Duchamp is not something that's interesting historically. Anything that relates to Duchamp is of interest and is in the mainstream, for me, of art history. In the Germans, I didn't find any connection with Duchamp, except perhaps for Joseph Beuys, who, you could say, was a pupil of Duchamp, too. But he was not as original as it was pretended here and in Europe. They made a great hero out of him in Europe, especially in Germany. But I would say that Johns and Rauschenberg were infinitely more interesting than Beuys at any time. Maybe that's being, well, overpatriotic.


SG: You've said recently, "I see a lot of things and they are all fascinating and searching, but there is nothing that I would say seems to me groundbreaking." Is that something you still feel? Because you've said that the Whitney show was groundbreaking in a sense.


LC: What we have there is a very important figure: Bruce Nauman. Everybody seems to agree that he was the greatest influence on what's interesting in the new generation. And the younger generation acknowledges its debt to Nauman. So for me, Nauman was really the last groundbreak1ng artist.


SG: Does it seem to you as if there are underlying social reasons for this absence of groundbreaking art at this time of the kind that was around when you were doing your most important work?


LC: Social reasons are always there, lurking under the surface, but I would say they seemed to be less important in my time, during the sixties, although the times themselves were very troubled with the Vietnam war and the student rebellions. So one would say that at that time there should have been quite a bit of social thinking underlying the work of the artists. Now, was there? I don't think so. In the case of Jasper, it's quite evident that he lives in an ivory tower. Perhaps the outside world is always present in Rauschenberg's art, but I don't think it's there in a consciously political way. Twombly, obviously, is pure, personal sensibility. Of course, if you take the Pop artists, it's a bit different in their case; they deal with the social phenomenon of the consumer society, but I think they probably were not very conscious of the fact that that's what they were doing.


SG: As a dealer, how do you feel about the changes that are taking art away from being a totally individualized expression and toward something that is more social, communal and enacted in spheres that are outside the art world?


LC: Can we break that question down a bit?


SG: Because you run a gallery, Leo, you are pretty de­ pendent on an object-oriented form of artmaking. There is a lot of art being made today - I'm thinking of the community-based projects from Mary Jane Jacob's "Culture in Action" program in Chicago ­ that bypasses the gallery structure by its very nature. There's just a direct interaction within a community.


LC: I think this means that the times for dealers who are mainly interested in dealing with art as business ­ well, it's a difficult time for them. The dealers who are really successful are the ones who are involved in the secondary market - those who buy and sell works by the artists who are considered important - and who have little to do with presenting art because it's interesting, or groundbreaking. I'm in the category, myself, of having always dealt with art because of its groundbreaking importance, and the devil take the hindmost as far as the selling of that art is concerned. I went on showing people like, say, Flavin or Judd, who for a long time were totally unsuccessful, and whom I had to support, because I thought they were important. Some became successful, but others didn't. Judd died recently, but he had become very successful and went from gallery to gallery - he didn't behave very well in that sense. But I no longer had any connection with him. I had shown him, taken care of him, for nineteen years, and then one day, for simple financial reasons ­ because I couldn't come up with enough money for his extravagant desires - he left just like that, brutally, as he then left Paula Cooper to go to Pace, who is evidently more affluent and can afford to pay more money.


SG: Have you had many experiences of artists leaving like that?


LC: Well, it's sort of more complex than you think. One accuses the dealers like Pace or Gagosian, or others, of taking artists away from other galleries and of doing it from the profit motive, but the fact is that the artist, at one point or another, feels the gallery he's working with doesn't have enough fresh clients any longer, or doesn't do enough of that commercial work that I don't do. I mean, I just give my shows, and try to make everybody aware that they are there, through publications and so on, but then if people don't come - well, it's too bad. I can't really be on the phone all the time to find clients. Sometimes I feel very frustrated about it, but it's not in my nature to be somebody who runs after people.


SG: Leo, having run a very successful gallery for so long, and having had so many major artists under your wing all these years, would you say that there is a subtle way in which the reputation of the gallery contributes to the enormous success of those artists?


LC: The gallery does create the artist to a certain extent, but there is a close collaboration, I would say, be­ tween artist and gallery. The gallery obviously has to make the artist know that the most important thing that the gallery can do is to organize shows.


SG: But if an unknown artist is given an exhibition in a not well-known gallery, his or her destiny as an artist is likely to unfold quite differently than if he or she is given a show in your gallery, wouldn't you say?


LC: The gallery certainly plays an important role. But then there is a strange consensus that also occurs. Let's say that I show Jasper for the first time when he is totally unknown, but immediately there are two or three other people who catch on, critics like Bob Rosenblum, or collectors like the Tremaines. So whether they're at my gallery or at an unknown little gallery, they will develop. They will develop better, of course, in a gallery that takes good care of them. But the gallery only takes the initial step ­ then immediately a consensus develops around any artist who is really important. That's been my experience with all the artists that I had.


SG: You've also said that "the simplicity and the loyalty of earlier times is gone." Does it seem to you that the world itself has undergone dramatic changes in your lifetime?


LC: The world is certainly undergoing dramatic changes, and probably has been doing that all along, but it's at a much faster clip now, and since the means of communication are so rapid these days, the changes are infinitely more visible right away.


SG: Do you feel any anxiety about these changes?


LC: No, I don't have any special anxieties. There are lots of people who foresee total disasters, and probably we are heading toward immensely more important changes than have occurred, let's say, during the past century. Now we are beginning to realize, perhaps, that all these inventions, the wars, and the political and geographical changes are coming to a head. All this has been brewing for many, many decades, and it's becoming more evident that all these changes will have results that we can hardly foresee. For instance, America will be an entirely different country in ten, twenty, thirty years from now with all these multicultures that we have.


SG: Suppose that you were starting your life's work now, instead of when you did; what do you think would happen? How would you proceed in today's world?


LC: It seems to me now that I was very naive. Everything seemed to be natural to me: there was no doubt that the artists I had chosen were the best. There was just no question about it. But I was naive because I didn't see that there were fantastic undercurrents threatening this sort of earthly paradise in which I was living. It was quite fantastic how confident I was about myself, about people who were my friends in museums, and so on - it seemed to be a perfect world. The age of the sixties, in spite of all the troubles we had, seemed to me just a wonderful world. We were doing the right thing, and people recognized that we were doing the right thing.


SG: And now that wonderful world is gone.


LC: The confidence is gone.


SG: Do you think humility has replaced the confidence? Or something else?


LC: Not humility, I would say. The useful arrogance of those years is gone. But I wouldn't say it's humility; it's being more realistic about the complexities of the present world than I used to be, than we all used to be. I think I share this with many people.


SG: I guess my question was whether you would even want to undertake the work you did, if this was the world you had to do it in.


LC: I undertook the work because it seemed to be there, lying in front of me, and it had to be done. There was no choice. Today, of course, I would be more historically minded. I would probably do the same thing, but perhaps eliminating the present and the future, as many people do, and I would reexamine the past. But it would be difficult to say what I would do because that whole venture started with great enthusiasm and, I would say, great naivete. I just admired certain artists enormously; for me they were real heroes and I was full of admiration for them.


SG: Is it your sense that t ere aren't heroes like that now, that people aren't functioning in this heroic mode anymore in relation to art?


LC: I just feel that they don't, yes.


SG: Do you think it's because some former level of genius is failing to show up, or is something else going on?


LC: That level of genius - well, it doesn't seem to show up now. What shows up is enormous ambition, but perhaps not enough thinking or feeling, as we found in those artists of my era. It's become infinitely more mundane, and money has become the measure - all, which it wasn't in the early days. Money plays a role now that it didn't do before.


SG: Would you say that the careerist orientation of today plays a part in all this, too, by turning the life of the artist into a series of predetermined steps to be followed?


LC: Very important here, I think, is that the artists ­ and myself - have discovered the media world. The media do play an enormous role. Artists have become very media-conscious; they want to be, and some of them have become, celebrities. That includes me, which is something that I didn't even think of in the early days.


SG: What's the nicest thing about being a celebrity?


LC: It's satisfying. I wouldn't deny it. And I think somebody who's been chiefly responsible for that attitude has been our good friend Andy Warhol.


SG: So you feel you've had your fifteen minutes of fame in this lifetime!


LC: Well, it's been a long fifteen minutes. [Laughter] But certainly Andy played a tremendous role in making artists into stars. Although his art is good ­ he was a real artist. I don't say it was just pure pretense.


SG: Is there any connection, do you think, between this careerist world of art celebrities and what went on at the Whitney?


LC: I think that those people there - and that's again something that's very laudable - were very sincere. They didn't want to make a career, they wanted to make a point about social conditions. In that sense, it's a return to honesty. But there is also that sense that a new era has begun, and if we want to find a turning point-which is, of course, something that's a bit artificial - the Whitney show certainly was one. It made us conscious that not only the world around us has changed, but the attitudes of the artists about the world have changed. There was still that ivory tower feeling that started with the Abstract Expressionists - God knows, they didn't really expect ever to be successful at all. But then, that went on, and strangely enough, the Pop artists were quite realistic about what they were doing - even Andy Warhol. But after that, the decadence set in. And now we are, I think, out of it, and art is struggling again to do something meaningful.

Back To Top