05/09/2011 04:04 pm ET | Updated Jul 09, 2011

Choice Nuggets Found in Leo Castelli Archives

A little late, but here's the news. In 1960, renowned Italian postwar art collector Count Giuseppe Giuseppe Panza di Biumo complained that the $3,500 price of Robert Rauschenberg's painting "Winter Pool" was too high -- if he had bought it just a year before, "I should have paid less than two thousand dollars" -- and he demanded in writing that Manhattan art dealer Leo Castelli "reduce your price," but Castelli wrote back three days later that Panza's letter "surprises me." The demand of Rauschenberg's paintings "is very great because, with Jasper Johns, he is now considered the best painter of the younger generation." Translation: You want what I got, Count, make up your mind faster. Message received, as Panza became a major buyer of Rauschenberg and Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and other artists that Castelli championed.

Don't thank Wikileaks for this insider tidbit. The family of Leo Castelli donated the records of his gallery, which he founded in 1957 and ran until his death in 1999, to the Washington, D.C.-based Archives of American Art in 2007, and after three years of the staff organizing and sorting what amounted to more than 400 linear feet of primary source material -- stored in rows and rows of boxes, each categorized by subject and filled with chronologically listed papers in acid-free file folders -- the Archives made them available for researchers and the general public to examine on January 3rd.

Castelli was reluctant to throw anything away, saving the leases for his various gallery locations, any permits he received, property assessments, even the minutes from an elevator committee meeting at one of the buildings in which he had a gallery. Perhaps of greater interest are the sales records for every artwork sold by the gallery during those 42 years, correspondence with the artists he represented (including John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, Johns, Ellsworthy Kelly, Lichtenstein, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol) and the collectors who bought from him, published reviews of every exhibit, photographs of anyone associated with the gallery. It goes on and on, like those shelved boxes.

The Castelli Gallery was perhaps the most prominent commercial venue for art in the world, starting from the late 1950s and continuing through the 1970s. "Leo Castelli introduced and supported a stable of artists -- the Pop artists, the minimalists, the conceptualists, even some mostly American but also some avant-garde Europeans -- who were the most important artists of that period and who changed the direction of art," said Rauschenberg biographer Calvin Tomkins. Castelli "had a good eye for art and, maybe more importantly, a good ear for listening to artists when they talked about the developing art scene."

The documents donated to the Archive reveal that Castelli did a lot more than just promote his artists' work and stand up to discount-hungry collectors. The art dealer, with his Old World manners and American interest in what's new, was born Leo Krauss in 1907 in Trieste of Italian and Austro-Hungarian Jewish lineage (he took his mother's last name in order to hide his Jewish ancestry). He tended to the smallest details of his artists' lives, paying his artists' rent and taxes, at one point reinstalling Rauschenberg's telephone and renewing the artist's insurance on his Jeep. "I hope the washing machine is in working order by now," Castelli wrote Jasper Johns in 1964. "I started taking care of the car problem a while ago."

Those artists, collectors, dealers and curators who save their correspondence and other pertinent written material may well be gratified that there is some place that wants this stuff. It wasn't always that way. E.P. Richardson, director of the Detroit Institute of Art from 1945 to 1962 and a scholar of American art, was very frustrated in his attempts to research certain artists whose papers had seemingly vanished. In 1954, he founded the Archives of American Art and began the long process of collecting material on art from the founding of the republic to the present day. In 1969, the Archives became a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution.

The Archives contains over 5,500 collections of documents; in all, there are 16 million letters, diaries, photographs, audio and video recordings, scrapbooks, manuscripts and financial records of artists, critics, dealers, collectors and scholars. Up until 2005, materials were all put on microfilm. However, because of a $3.5 million grant from the Terra Foundation, the Archives has begun digitizing its holdings. The Archives also makes its collections available to the public through a regional office in New York City (1285 Avenue of the Americas, 212-399-5015), and copies of Archives' unrestricted microfilm may be viewed at the Boston Public Library on Boylston Street, the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, the de Young Museum in San Francisco and the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.

The Washington office gets the most visitors (1,500 in 2010, twice the number using the New York branch), and nearly two million individuals from all over the world accessed material available in digital format through the Archives' Web site. Smith noted that "our users are a fairly diverse mix." The majority are from academia, students and professors, seeking information for dissertations, books and journal articles, but "we are also heavily used by private collectors, art dealers and auction house staff. Strangely, we also have several genealogists tracking down family members."

In 2010, the Archives acquired 82 new collections, totaling almost 500 linear feet of material -- the quantities are so great that everything gets measured by the yard. (Among those more recent acquisitions were documents from sculptor Alexander Lieberman and art historian Robert Rosenblum.) Two staffers, one based in New York City and the other in Washington, D.C., are in charge of identifying and cultivating potential donors of material to the Archives. "We do a lot of visiting with people, looking to build trust," said Charles Duncan, who does that work out of the New York office. For the Castelli Gallery records, the Archives was competing with the Getty Foundation, which had also been in touch with the family. "We're the world's largest repository of artists' papers," Duncan said, adding that "the Archives does not purchase collections." Removing money from the equation "allows us to evaluate potential acquisitions solely under the lens of projected research value and intellectual importance -- away from bias created by a (perceived) market value."

Some of the material in a given artist's file is art career-related, others less so. The Louise Nevelson correspondence, for instance, includes a February 17th, 1950 letter from a secretary at the Whitney Museum confirming a studio visit by museum director Lloyd Goodrich on the 20th in order that he might see her recent sculpture "for possible inclusion in the 1950 Annual of Contemporary Sculpture, Watercolors and Drawings" exhibition that spring. On the other hand, a 1932 postcard to his sister, Mrs. (Margaret Calder) Hayes in Berkeley, California from "Sand" (Alexander Calder) announces that "I am going to a bull fight (Corrida de Toros) this afternoon and then on to Paris tomorrow. What I saw of Africa was swell + Malago was too...."
For his part, Castelli appeared to have saved everything. For instance, in 1971, painter Frank Stella firmly let collectors Murray and Ruth Gribin know through his lawyer that he was not OK with their cutting his 5' x 20' 1968 acrylic ("Untitled") in half so it would fit on adjoining walls in their new home in California. (The picture stayed in one piece.) Preparing for a gallery exhibition of his paintings in Tokyo in 1964, Jasper Johns found himself celebrated, writing to Castelli of the odd experience that "[m]y work has the misfortune of being very 'famous' without anyone ever having seen it." In its own way, that comment reflects one of Castelli's most important innovations as a dealer, according to Tomkins. "He shared his artists with other dealers in the U.S., Europe and Asia, which helped them develop important reputations right away in other countries," he said. "These artists became more important more quickly than they would have otherwise, and no other dealer had thought to do this."

Acquiring the Castelli Gallery records was a somewhat complicated affair, requiring the approval of the dealer's third and surviving wife, Barbara Bertozzi Castelli, Jean-Christophe Castelli (his son with second wife Antoinette Castelli) and Nina Castelli Sundell (his daughter with first wife Ileana Sonnabend), which was concluded in 2007. Smith noted that, although it had long hoped that the Castelli Gallery papers would be donated to the Archives, "nothing official was indicated during Leo's lifetime and little progress had been made in that direction in the intervening years. When I arrived as director in 2006, one of the first things I did was set up a lunch with Barbara Castelli to discuss her plans for the records. After further conversations with Nina and Jean, they jointly decided that the Archives of American Art was the proper home for the records." From there, it required two Archives staffers three years to go through all the documents, organizing them for the benefit of researchers and developing a catalogue of the material. Only half of the records are currently available to researchers; some financial records and personal correspondence will be kept confidential for a period of 20 years.

The Archives has also developed an oral history project, which currently contains over 2,000 interviews with artists, collectors and dealers. Castelli was interviewed three times for the Archives during his career, in 1969, 1973 and in 1997, two years before his death. During these interviews (transcripts of which are available online), he mentions how he came upon the major artists he began to represent in his gallery, speaking less in terms of art than with regard to his own instincts ("My enthusiasm for Stella was similar to that which I had for Johns"), his reasons for not representing certain artists (Lucas "Samaras never interested me. No, no. I found him sort of more fascinating as a personality than his work"), his artists' varying interest in the art business ("Stella, for instance, always wanted to be very independent and do his own thing. Others like Rauschenberg, he doesn't really want to make any kind of arrangement himself.... Johns also has been amazingly uninterested in doing things for himself"), frank descriptions of his most avid collectors ("a tremendous stress occurred when the Tremaines got something that the Sculls wanted very badly. But again, there are some really very primitive compulsions there") and fellow dealers, even his own evolving sense of what it means to be an art dealer. "[I]n the beginning, I must say I was rather ashamed of doing business. It didn't seem to me...even a gentlemanly occupation. I had some kind of a stupid attitude that you find in Europe....You want to be very pure, or you would prefer to be probably an artist or a painter or a writer or something that would be a good occupation....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."

An earlier version of this post appeared in the Wall Street Journal online.