Monday, January 31, 2011

Chelsea Shows

Christian Marclay, his presentation on Time at Paula Cooper is extraordinary, and it is the first time I ever saw anything by him.

I also loved Anish Kooper...

Lawrence Beck at Sonnabend...

The architecture photographer Ezra Stoller at Yossi Milo...

Heinz Mack at Sperone...

as well as Italian Paintings from the 17th and 18th century on the upper level. Beautiful combination!

Perhaps the most mesmerizing of this week-end was the Andy Warhol "Motion Pictures" show at MoMA. In a big and dark room, I sat and looked at these magnified faces who stared back at me as though they were alive. The best one, the one with the stillest unblinking gaze, was a woman. Initially mesmerized by her stunning presence, I suddenly realized that I recognized her... Susan Sontag. This photo of her was shot in 1964.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Paris: Basquiat, Gagosian, FIAC – Gallerists as Bridgers

Early, on this Sunday morning, the plane lands in a freezing and sumptuous Paris wrapped in autumn light; at 11 am, in front of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the impressive line for the Basquiat exhibition reminds me of the hunger for Rothko, ten years ago. Basquiat’s magic touch? Colors, graffitti, tagging, use of found objects, his turning garbage into gold, frantic appropriation of frames, doors, windows, in an all-consuming urge of production. -“Hard to think of another artist who was so impactful for an 8 year career”, my friend Jonas rightly comments. Memories of Rauschenberg, of course, come to mind, as well as of Twombly and Jean Genet. In the French crowd, many kids, mesmerized by the brilliance of Basquiat’s meteoric career, look, come back, take notes, in awe of the spontaneity, the freedom, the “American gestual” that, since Pollock, signs artists’ works coming from the New World, so far away from the French’s much more controlled behaviour. Why is this Basquiat show much more impressive here than at the Beyeler, in Basel?, many wonder. Because of the urban setting around? Because of the installation, too: next to artist’s name, appears the long chain of the “dynamic agents” who surrounded him and made possible his short trajectory. Fom dealer to dealer -Annina Nosei, Bruno Bishofberger, Larry Gagosian, Mary Boone and Michael Werner, Tony Shafrazi-, their names say it all, as in the thirties and forties, Jackson Pollock’s fragile trajectory was carried over by the WPA program, Peggy Guggenheim and Sidney Janis.

In the afternoon, Larry Gagosian presents his new Gallery to the happy few -a group of collectors, artists, officials, friends, staff-, and offers a dinner in the garden of the Musée Rodin. It is polite and elegant. How amusing to see French civil servants and officials, or even Alain Minc (the epitome of a certain Parisian intelligentsia) rub shoulders with the self-made LA kid: two worlds! The gallery shows Twombly downstairs and Jean Prouvé upstairs, but it is certainly the in-between floor (which will be closed to the public over the next days), with its Picassos and Giacomettis, that holds the key to Gagosian’s presence in Paris: modern art. This is certainly that segment of the market which prompted him, after flirting with the idea for decades, to open in the private mansions that used to be the antiques gallery and residence of Jacques Heft, the brother of Picasso’s dealer. Since the nineteen nineties, Gagosian has been coming to Paris steadily, hosting lavish dinners in the best Montparnasse fish restaurant, creating and consolidating his network, integrating New York and Parisian characters, around a hilarious Cy Twombly, as happy as Gargantua in front of a pile of empty oysters shells. His arrival in Paris is reminiscent of the great bridge created when the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1900 brought to the French capital artists and intellectuals such as Edward Steichen from Milwaukee, Pablo Picasso from Malaga, and Gertrude Stein from Baltimore.

Wednesday morning, 11 am; at the FIAC early opening, feverishly, collectors run in the alleys to discover the booths: With her mercurial mobility, Nathalie Obadia discovers new artists from Portugal, India, Brooklyn; confident as an African prince, Kamel Mennour, shows an extravagantly impressive Anish Kapour sculpture; Daniel Templon, the classicist, intertwins French names –Arman and Garouste with Navarra and Jim Dine. Something has happened in Paris this year. Most everyone agrees that this FIAC is the best yet.

Gallerists, as is evident in the careers of Basquiat, Picasso or Giacometti, are bridgers – the ones who connect the artist to the market and connect artists with critics, curators, collectors and the public at large. In the United States, Leo Castelli has been the one to make American artists visible and to create for them a genealogy that definitely changed their status, both in their country and in the world.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Irony: Cutting Bridges in Albany

The Indian Summer is sumptuous over there. I have been invited by a Consortium at University at Albany-SUNY to talk about Leo Castelli’s reinvention of the art gallerist’s work. This Consortium includes the Art Department, the French Department, the Museum and the New York State Writers Institute: what a treat! The campus with its Dutch Quad, huge and stunning, brings the “The World Within Reach” to 18.000 students. How gorgeous! On that Tuesday afternoon, some play American football on an incredibly beautiful landscape, with enormous, joyful water fountains, amid sumptuous architectural buildings from the nineteen sixties. “Great! I think, those are the very Castelli years”. Furthermore, the fact that I have been invited by an interdisciplinary group makes me particularly happy. Later, at 7 pm, I will describe the trajectory of Leo the Triestine, who felt a “mission to educate the American public”, who identified, supported, promoted and valorized his artists, who made them visible in a philistine country, and opened wide the gates of the world museums to their works. His secret? The same one as that of the agents from the Medici era, he was well traveled, well connected, with a crucial knowledge of foreign languages and of international routes and trades. Well, before my talk, visiting a very beautiful show -“Courier”- in the Museum, all about letter typing and visual art, I stumble upon William Kentridge “Zeno Writing”, showing in black and white Italo Svevo’s context on very moving Italian soldiers’ songs from Word War One –Castelli’s childhood-, I love “Nothing New Over The Potomac” and many other variations on words and war.

The audience is good, interested, varied and to sum up Castelli’s personality, I end up by quoting the Triestine writer Boby Bazlen “Quello che conosce le lingue ha il mondo in mano” (“He who knows foreign languages, holds the whole world in his hand”)

Well, was all as well as it seemed at Albany-SUNY, on that beautiful Indian Summer day? Not really, because a few days before my lecture, the President had announced that he would “deactivate” the enrollments for the Departments of French, Italian, German, Classic Languages as well as Theater. What an irony! I came here to explain that Castelli transformed the status of the US artists thanks to his intercultural expertise and here they are, in Albany, falling back into the dark ages, regressing, closing the doors to foreign cultures and foreign languages, cutting all bridges to their twenty year old students!!! Is it not all the more since Obama is the first President who ever addressed the Other One in his own language, starting with the famous “Saleh Mahalikoum” in Cairo? On the train between Albany and Buffalo, I notice that European names of the cities I am passing by: Amsterdam, Rome, Syracuse, Ithaca. What would they mean for students who study neither Geography nor foreign languages?

Buffalo is another ball game, the Albright-Knox Gallery was already mythical in the nineteen twenties and in the sixties, collector Seymour H. Knox II was bold enough to purchase from Castelli, Rauschenberg, Johns, Stella, Bontecou at their openings. The building and the collection remain stunning as well as Louis Grachos the director, all the staff and the trustees.

Their reaction to my galloping presentation, after the Annual Board Meeting, their comments make me hope that we might one day manage to fight the Albany decision.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

VALS, Switzerland

Poverty and austerity, grey slate rooftops, the village of 1000 inhabitants is deeply embanked in green hills, sprinkled by tiny rustic wood shelters; at first, I am stunned by the roughness and the beauty of this surprisingly narrow valley, which looks like the Cévennes, by the shredded clouds clinging to the hills, to the rocks, to the rooftops, to the crucifix... and then I learn the story of its river, of its water, of its rock (the quartz) and I realize that the village is metaphorical, that its inhabitants are Catholic and Alemanic (as opposed to the nearby Protestant Romansh population), that they have a tradition of direct democracy, of collective initiative, of organization, of struggle against the powerful (they won against USB when the Union of the Swiss Banks bought the Thermal Bath and tried to sell it for an extravagant price), of bravery against the elements, of risk-taking and of furious labor, of modernist deliberate choices. After buying the Thermal Bath for 25% of the price originally claimed by the USB, they contacted the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor to build a most elegant and avant-garde new Thermal Bath, as well as Jürg Conzett to conceive the new futurist bridge on the Valser Rhine. Their own strength has been acquired by a succession of ordeals: fighting the floods and exploitating the mineral water; coming from the Piz Azul, a glacier 3.121 m altitude, it gets into the ground, springs out at 1000 meters and at more than 30°C after a 25 years journey. The water, which for centuries had been the fiercest enemy of the population has been cleverly tamed (with the dam of Zervreila at 1.864 m), cleverly managed (with astute home delivery of mineral water), cleverly turned into kind and warm and healing water in the Thermal Bath, cleverly crossed over by a model of avant-garde piece of architecture made of local quartz. With this magnificent bridge, does not Jürg Conzett become a "bridger", as I defined it earlier?

"The universal is the local less the walls", Miguel Torga
"The impression done by the bridge arch is strong and muscular, ... this bridge exists only in Vals, it is made for the place." Peter Zumthor

Thursday, June 24, 2010

INTERCULTURALITY, the path to understand the world

The phenomenon of interculturality has always been at the core of my preoccupations and of my research. In the first article I ever wrote, thirty years ago, I compared, the phenomenon of socialization necessary for every child to enter society, to the awakening of an adult to a new and different culture. Both are crucial to understand not only our society as a whole, but the global world as it is today. It is crucial not to abide merely to a nationalistic and often unavoidably narrow-minded view. Those who seek to understand the world and transform it, those who desire to affect the universal or reflect upon it, should first dig into the local.

Having worked on Sartre (1905-1980) and on Castelli (1907-1999), on an intellectual and on a gallerist, I have been facinated to see how many unexpected common points they shared; I was interested of their function as world citizens, as Europeans looking at American culture and interacting with it in unusual ways, because they were bridgers. Castelli uses his Europeanity, his sense of the length of history to integrate it into the short-pace of the American market life. Sartre on the other hand, is inspired by American democracy and civil society, though he does criticize American foreign policy. Refering to several models, extremely aware of the world and cultures around them, looking beyond borders, they are able to create a wider approach.

Through this blog, I will try to develop and to coin the concept of bridgers: bridgers as the citizens of tomorrow, as those who pave the way to a new ecology. Last week-end, in Cherasco near Alba, around Turin in Italy, I experienced a beautiful coming together of excellence between American artists and Italian wine makers, the Ceretto family, with the memory of the Dukes of Savoy. More later...


Why start a blog today? To write a long book (four to five years as a whole) is like entering a tunnel without knowing exactly how the text will be received on the other end. Sure, there are many contacts along the way, witnesses who check the interviews, academic friends who read a chapter or two, the editors, the agent who read the whole, but still, it was a challenge. What I found so daunting in this project, and so different from the Sartre project, is that, first, Castelli launched most of his achievements through networking and that, second, I had to build the field almost from scratch. There is very little bibliography about the period, and I had to insert Castelli's trajectory both with the tools of the cultural historian and those of the sociologist, as well as keep the scope of the intercultural twist and of the "histoire de la longue durée", which, for some people in the US is somewhat problematic, especially in my decision to go back to Leo's Tuscan roots in the 16th and 17th centuries. Already, in 1941, Claude Lévi-Strauss who was teaching at the New School for Social Research, had noted the reluctance of some of his colleagues to deal with History the way we do in Europe.

The French reception of the Castelli book was certainly unexpected, especially because some had criticized him for destroying French art or for being a CIA spy or who knows what. But the articles emphasized his Italian ancestors, his Francophilia and even the wide press devoted pages and pages to the story of family in Tuscany.

The reception that "Leo & His Circle" has been receiving in the US is no less surprising. Contemplating all the reviews that 'Leo & His Circle' received since it has been published, a month ago, it is funny to note that it inspired the most distinguished scholars of Art History (such as the Society of Contemporary Art Historians, as well as a much wider audience, looking for "condensed beach reading pleasure" ("Ten Juicy Tales from the Leo Castelli biography"

"Did Castelli really have an eye?", I am often asked. I am tempted to answer that this is not the right question. More than an eye, he had a sense of the value of the artist as a citizen, and Castelli did anchor the artist in American society, by creating a "locus", so his impact was more in terms of social status, I think; furthermore, as he had a sense of global culture, he overcame the insularity of American art and gave it a legitimacy that it did not have before; he inserted the career of his artists in the continuity of art history and of European art history ("The single artist I never showed but who was always mentioned was Marcel Duchamp", he said), giving it an intercultural scope. But there is so much more to it, and that will appear little by little, over the next months, over the course of the reading; I consider the book as an open product, whose text is not fully closed; the questions, the suggestions, the critics enrich it and I am, most of the time, grateful for the new insights that I am offered for the second edition.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Raymonde Moulin On 'Leo & His Circle'

Here is an interesting paper written by the sociologist Raymonde Moulin on Leo & His Circle. I find it to be a good introduction to the theme of the blog, as it demonstrates that Castelli was, first and foremost, a bridger.

Leo Castelli (1907-1999) dominated the international contemporary art scene for more than forty years. Annie Cohen-Solal offers us a crucial biography of the European dilettante who, from his galleries in New York, revolutionized the function of gallerist, ensured the promotion and hegemony of American Art worldwide and transformed the status of the artist in the United States. This biography, fueled by interviews and previously unpublished archives, is set in a great multiplicity of contexts: historical, political, sociological and economic.

In the first part of the work, Castelli is described by his genealogy and, moreover, as fitting in the grand historical scheme of the secularization of the Jews in Europe, from the Italian Renaissance to the beginning of the twentieth century. His personal trajectory is typical of that of cosmopolitan and sophisticated young Jews, who, after having lived in the big cities of Europe- for Leo, Trieste, Vienna, Milan, Budapest, Bucharest and Paris- and having been caught in the convulsions of the century, fled to the United States in 1941. He incorporated these traditions with experiments, which contributed to making him the international leader of gallerists in the second half of the twentieth century.

Leo Castelli's gallerist carrier developed gradually. The first step is in France, where he arrives in 1935 with his young and rich wife, Ileana Sonnabend (future gallerist, and partner and accomplice of Castelli’s well after their separation). In July 1939, with his associate Rene Drouin he opens a gallery place Vendôme in Paris, in the same vein as the Gradiva gallery, was launched in May 1937 by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp. Only one exhibition will precede the war, but collaboration with Drouin will continue from 1946 to 1949, when financial hardships force the latter to close down the Place Vendôme gallery.

The second step, that of crucial apprenticeship, occurs between 1946 and 1956 in New York. While in the beginning of the fifties, "a new renaissance was in the process of conquering the New York art scene, Leo Castelli, as an enlightened amateur, was in constant apprenticeship. He was altogether collector, broker, and independent auctioneer, accumulating experiences and trying out every job he could, running from uptown to downtown, gravitating between New York and East Hampton, the US and Europe, between galleries, museums, artists' studios and cafés. He collected, connected and linked…" (page 232)

The broker of Kandinsky from 1948 to 1953, he takes upon himself the transition of the art world from Europe to America. Simultaneously he is, in May 1951, auctioneer of an exhibition reuniting, in an abandoned building in the middle of the East Village, sixty or so young American artists, an event after which Alfred Barr, the founder and director of the Moma, recognizes him as an effective talent scout. The same year, he presents the exhibition "Young US and French Painters" at the Sidney Janis gallery.

It is in 1957, at fifty years of age, that Leo Castelli opens his own space in New York. His sprouting gallery becomes almost instantaneously a leader in the gallery world, by launching Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. " ‘I knew all the Abstract Expressionist painters’, Castelli declared, ‘I knew what they did. They dominated the art scene for a while, so that I had the feeling that something else had to come. I deliberately tempted to discover something new, until I fell on Rauschenberg and Johns’" (page 294).

One of the most notable contributions of this book is its analysis of the work of the gallerist, as conceived by Leo Castelli. Undoubtedly, since the last third of the nineteenth century, the market had started to impose itself as the organization system of artistic life. At this precise moment occurred a decisive mutation: that of the role of the art dealer. The Schumpeterian entrepreneur soon enough replaced the typical merchant: innovating, lending, organizing, taking risks, the merchant became the dynamic agent of the market. Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922) is the founding figure of this type of entrepreneurship. Leo Castelli incarnated one of its new versions, in the second half of the twentieth century. He substituted to the strategy of long delays and differed successes, his own strategy of instantaneity and constant renewal. He joined, without delay, a history in the making, discovering and orchestrating the accelerated succession of American artistic movements: Pop Art, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art. He provided, according to the European tradition, financial support to the artists he idealized: Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Wahrol, James Rosenquist and many others. He built on the new contexts of the time: the switch of institutions in favor of the avant-garde, the multiplication of international artistic manifestations and the globalization of exchange. To develop the reputation of his artists, he mobilized the cultural and social networks of which he is familiar, as well as the press. Close to museum directors and togreat critics, ranging from Alfred Barr and Clement Greenberg to Robert Rosenblum, and many other experts, he documented and archived the artworks he found, producing catalogs and selecting collectors to compose certain collections.

His aptitude to create the notoriety of his artists developed simultaneously to his strategy of economic valorization of his various "epiphanies". He built up, for his artists, a clientele of American museums (MOMA, Jewish Museum, local Art Councils, etc…). Simultaneously, he created an international network of satellite galleries, the friendly galleries (during the seventies, Annie Cohen-Solal mentions twelve in Europe and eighteen in North America). Castelli's double intervention, both cultural and economic, leads to the final triumph, at the Venice Biennale, of Robert Rauschenberg in 1964 and Jasper Johns in 1988. The international hegemony of American art is from then on established, while, at the same time, the value of the works of the American stars escalates in US auction sales.

The biography that Annie Cohen-Solal devotes to Castelli, allying empathy and objective distance, is a true pleasure to read. It is not only a major contribution to the social history of American art of the second half of the twentieth century, but it also adds to the sociology of the contemporary art market, in its complex articulation with cultural networks.

Raymonde Moulin

Published in L'Observatoire, Le revue des politiques culturelles, numéro 37, 2010.
Translated from the French by Annie Cohen-Solal and Hélène Barthélemy