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Leo Castelli, whose legendary career as an art dealer is being honored at the Gagosian Gallery, has seemingly seen it all. But at 88, he still has . . . : An Ageless Passion

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TIMES ART WRITER

“I’m as old as a tree,” Leo Castelli says, winding up a conversation on his long and illustrious career as a contemporary art dealer. “But when people think of being 88, they picture some old man with white hair who doesn’t move very easily anymore, so I think I stay pretty young.”

He’s right on both counts. After 50-odd years of passionate involvement with art--39 of them as owner of a New York gallery that rode the crest of the Pop Art movement and still represents such luminaries as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Edward Ruscha--Castelli seems to be a permanent part of the landscape. Known as the dean of contemporary art dealers, he is as well rooted as a giant redwood.

But he also seems ageless. A diminutive Italian who moved to New York in 1941, he’s the epitome of the gentleman art dealer--dapper, urbane and charming. True, his hearing is failing, but an interview with Castelli is still an encounter with a sharply turned-out man whose eyes sparkle when he recounts his adventures.

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The latest is “Leo Castelli: An Exhibition in Honor of His Gallery and Artists” at the 3-month-old Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills. Featuring 17 artists who are either represented by Castelli’s gallery or show their work there, the event brought the octogenarian dealer to Southern California last weekend.

Surveying the show from a second-floor balcony, he leans over the railing to see Robert Therrien’s “Cloud,” a huge, wall-mounted sculpture with faucets protruding from a cluster of balloon-like volumes. Moving on to Johns’ untitled painting, Castelli says the central shape can be read as a figure or a map, but the artist doesn’t like to explain such things.

Although the works on view are familiar to Castelli, several paintings are brand-new, including Lichtenstein’s “Virtual Interior” and James Rosenquist’s images of guns, suggestively titled “L.A. Business” and “New Russian Business.” Larry Gagosian says Castelli helped to solicit new work from the artists. But the veteran dealer gives his host the credit.

“Larry is very, very well informed,” Castelli says. “Of course I try to be as helpful as I can, but he doesn’t follow blindly what I do. He has his own ideas, and he makes very good choices.”

The exhibition is only the latest chapter in a long association. Gagosian, who got his start in Los Angeles but moved his business to New York and only recently opened his Southern California outpost, has shown Castelli’s artists in L.A. and the two dealers jointly operated a gallery in SoHo in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. In art circles, the current show is being interpreted as something of a torch-passing ceremony, but neither dealer wants to discuss that.

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Asked how the exhibition evolved, Castelli has a cryptic answer: “Larry and I work very closely together. We see each other all the time, so things come up quite casually. And then they are done.”

Prominent as it is, Castelli’s gallery has long since ceased to be a forum for emerging talent. The last new artists he added to his stable, Mike and Doug Starn, joined the gallery five years ago. But Castelli says that situation reflects the scene, not his lack of interest.

“Lately I have to complain that there are not many interesting young artists who have made their appearance in New York or anywhere else,” he says. “We do look around and we see what’s going on in other galleries. Communication is incredibly prompt, so we just can’t avoid knowing what’s going on around us. Mary Boone, to mention one of the sharpest dealers, occasionally exhibits someone who is unknown, but there aren’t many surprises.”

The current malaise is just part of an ongoing cycle, he says. “If you go back in history, you find periods of great invention and activity and periods when not much happens. This seems to be a period of reflection and calm.

“So much has been explored, especially in the ‘60s, which is the most exciting period I have been through. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns came on the scene in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and Frank Stella. The ‘60s was a very rich decade. Nothing similar has occurred since. We couldn’t foresee what was going to happen then, and we can’t foresee what will happen tomorrow, but I’m a bit pessimistic at this moment.”

As for electronic media, he’s not impressed with computer art. Video doesn’t do much for him either. If “a great genius” such as Bruce Nauman can’t persuade him about video, Castelli doubts that anyone can. “I like what Nauman is doing with video, but I prefer the other things he does,” he says.

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Born in 1907 in Trieste, the son of a banker, Castelli became interested in art through vanguard literature. “I spoke Italian, French, German and English, so I was reading everything,” he recalls. “Literature is often closely connected with art, and that was especially true in the Surrealist movement, which is what I got involved with.”

He opened his first gallery with a friend in 1939, on the Place Vendome in Paris. After World War II broke out, Castelli moved to New York, worked in the Italian knit goods trade and became connected with the art scene--first as a collector and then as a dealer. “I bought some works, but what interested me was the activity, not accumulating things,” he says. By the mid-1950s, his apartment functioned in part as a gallery.

An oft-told tale about Castelli’s first encounter with Johns is “absolutely true,” the dealer says. In 1957, at a moment when he was losing interest in art, Castelli wandered into a group show at the Jewish Museum and was transfixed by Johns’ “Green Target” painting. A few days later, while visiting Rauschenberg’s studio, he discovered that Johns worked in the same building--when Castelli asked for a drink and Rauschenberg got ice from his fellow artist. Castelli went downstairs to Johns’ studio where he was so blown away by Johns’ paintings of flags, targets and numbers that he offered him a show on the spot. Castelli knew he was seeing the future and he has represented Johns ever since.

But fortuitous as that discovery was, Castelli says his friendship with Marcel Duchamp had a greater impact on his aesthetic development: “Generally speaking, there is nothing that has been done since Duchamp that doesn’t bear a little bit of his influence. His spirit is still very convincing, at least as far as my choices are concerned.

“Duchamp was a personal friend of mine. We didn’t talk about art much. We were more likely to talk about the spaghetti we were eating--you know, just the simple things--but he was a great presence and a great inspiration. I owe a lot to him. He taught me that the most arbitrary thing, the most arbitrary gesture can be considered as a work of art. He just broke all the rules.”

Castelli opened his gallery in New York in 1957, soon after meeting Johns. But if that seems inevitable now, it didn’t then. “I hesitated a long time,” Castelli says. “It seemed to be a tremendous enterprise. I wasn’t quite prepared, but little by little I became professional.”

Asked if he has any regrets, Castelli blinks in astonishment, then smiles and whispers a conspiratorial “No.” Reflecting for a moment, he poses his own question: “What else would I have done?”

* “Leo Castelli: An Exhibition in Honor of His Gallery and Artists,” Gagosian Gallery, 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-9400, through March 9.


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