King Of Pop

Leo Castelli wasn't contemporary art's biggest dealer--in either sense. He stood about 5 feet 4 inches, and such galleries as Gagosian and Pace/Wildenstein have been doing a lot more business in recent years. Still, when he died on Aug. 21, at the age of 91, it seemed like the art world had lost its emperor. Almost immediately its denizens started speculating about the post-Leo era at his legendary New York gallery.

Castelli--an impeccable dresser who spoke five languages--was born in Trieste in 1907. He dealt art early on, in Paris. After he immigrated to the United States in 1943, his father-in-law set him up in the garment business, but Leo opened another gallery in 1957. The bigtime abstract expressionists were already taken, so Leo went out and discovered Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein, and showed Andy Warhol. In effect, Castelli created the whole pop-art scene whose kitschy irony, instant fame and frantic big bucks are still with us--in spades--today. His gallery's daring move to a downtown loft in 1971 literally put SoHo on America's cultural map.

Leo married for a third time in 1995, to an Italian art historian 50 years his junior. People talked. While Leo's two children from earlier marriages pursued non-art careers, his new wife unloaded gallery staff. People talked again. Now that even bluer-chip galleries like Pace rule the roost, and representation for the likes of Johns may be up for grabs, people are talking more than ever. Artists, of course, have been considering their options for years. As the director of one rival gallery says, "The what-happens-if phone calls to Leo's artists were made long ago."

If his artists do go elsewhere, it's doubtful they'll find a better or more elegant salesman. The painter Willem de Kooning once remarked that Castelli--who said he never used the word "client," but only "friend"--was so smooth he could sell beer cans. Sure enough, Johns made a pair in bronze and Leo quickly sold them to a famous collector. The art world is going to miss a magnificent talent like that.