Leo Castelli’s Famous ‘Circle’ Included Brenau University

Aug 25, 2011
Rudi Kiefer

By Catherine Fox

Leo Castelli, whose name emblazons the gallery in Brenau University’s John S. Burd Center for the Performing Arts, was one of the greatest art dealers of the 20th century. And, for close to a decade he served here on the Brenau University Board of Trustees.

Possessed of an eye for spotting emerging talent, a heart for nurturing those artists and nose for promoting them, this dapper Trieste-born immigrant jump-started the careers of artists who command hallowed space in museums around the world, among them Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol.

As Annie Cohen-Solal writes in her recently published biography, “Leo & His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli” (Alfred A. Knopf), “No one [has] done more than Castelli himself to introduce major new currents in the flow of art history, or to win for the American artist a new stature at home and abroad.”

Castelli, who died in 1999, played an important role in shifting the art world’s center of gravity from Europe to the United States – and in making America more receptive to contemporary art. A lesser-known footnote to the story is that Castelli also helped a small university in Georgia build an impressive permanent art collection and enhance its reputation in the art universe he inhabited.

“Leo persuaded [future collectors] that it was OK to watch football on Sunday night and enjoy Jasper Johns on Monday morning,” Cohen-Solal said in an interview.

So how did this international art figure find his way to Gainesville, Ga.?

The story begins with Brenau’s former president, John Burd. When Burd took the reins in 1985, he decided to make art a stronger presence on campus. He started a university art collection and set about to build an exhibition program.

Aware that Jasper Johns‘ two aunts, Eunice and Gladys, were Brenau graduates, Burd, innocent of art-world protocol and of the artist’s notorious aloofness, wrote Johns a letter asking him to consider donating a piece of art to Brenau in their honor.

“I got a curt note back saying, ‘I don’t do that,'” Burd said. “Then I called Jasper. His secretary told me to talk to Jasper’s agent, Leo Castelli.”

Burd dutifully called Castelli and made what he thought was a perfunctory, routine appointment. “When I went to the art department and told the faculty what I had done, they swooned,” he said. “I had no idea who Leo Castelli was other than Jasper’s sales agent. They set me straight immediately and loaded me up with a ton of information, including an earlier book about Castelli.” By time he met with Castelli that first time, the art department had thoroughly schooled him on the dealer’s role, prominence and influence in the art world

After two initial visits, Burd, accompanied by trustee M. Douglas Ivester, then Coca-Cola Company CEO, visited Castelli in his SoHo gallery. Bemused by Burd’s moxie, the dealer agreed to organize a show for Brenau. A retrospective exhibition of Johns’ prints from Castelli‘s private collection opened in March 1991 as the debut show in the newly renovated Simmons Visual Arts Center, the cornerstone of Brenau galleries.

During that visit, Burd also took another bold step. He asked Castelli to come on the Brenau board. “He was delighted, but he made it very clear to me that he didn’t have any money. He said, ‘I have art connections, and I will help you.'”

A regular at board meetings, Castelli did not speak much, but he enjoyed convivial relationships with the other trustees. Most important, he made good – more than good – on his promise. Thanks to his help, Brenau’s art gallery began hosting a stellar series of exhibitions of the artists he had brought to prominence. Castelli introduced Burd to his ex-wife, the late Ileana Sonnabend, an important dealer in her own right, who was also generous about mounting exhibits of artists from her stable. Castelli also introduced Brenau to other major galleries and allowed Brenau to drop the Castelli name to open influential doors around the United States. One relationship that started then was with famed Los Angeles gallery owner Margo Leavin, and she continues donating art to the collection year after year. Brenau built an exhibition program that would be the envy of many a larger university, attracting gallery-goers from Atlanta and throughout North Georgia. In at least the Brenau corner of the geography, the city known mostly as “The Poultry Capital of the World” now stakes a valid claim in Castelli’s world.

Castelli’s influence is still felt. Last year Brenau hosted a retrospective exhibit of Robert Rauschenberg’s works that are in the permanent collection or on permanent loan to the university – many of which remain on full-time exhibit on walls in public non-gallery spaces around the university. In October the university opens a show of new works by Rauschenberg’s long-time collaborator and companion Darryl Pottorf. And, Brenau’s current president, Ed Schrader, has set aside a hallway in the well-trafficked executive suite of the university a mini gallery displaying some of the works Castelli helped acquire – including an extremely rare piece by Johns who in his own tribute to Burd’s chutzpah actually diagramed on tracing paper an “explanation” of another piece that the former president confessed to not really understanding, the artist’s proof of his “American Center Paris,1994″ lithograph, which features a childhood photograph of Johns’ family, including his Brenau aunts. It was the kind of thing, Castelli told Burd, that Johns never did for anyone.

Castelli helped the university grow its collection, particularly of works on paper by the Pop artists, by steering would-be donors in Brenau’s direction. As a suave octogenarian trustee, Castelli also came to the art openings at Brenau, basking in the rock-star awe that students and visitors accorded him. Some of the artists came, too, and formed their own relationship with Brenau. When Burd and Schrader travelled to New York recently to take possession of another donation, about $1 million worth of paintings by a significant artist, they spent some time, too, with Castelli’s widow, the Italian critic Barbara Bertozzi, who still maintains an interest in what her husband helped put in motion in Georgia.

Even now, 11 years after his death, his relationship with the school is a validation. Gallery director Vanessa Grubbs says the gallery’s track record convinced the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts to give Brenau 155 Warhol photographs in 2008.

The collection is an integral part of campus life. Said Grubbs, “You can’t walk anywhere on campus without seeing art.” Works by Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, Warhol and others can be found on walls in the library and offices all over the campus. A signed print of Warhol’s famous Mao portrait hangs in Walters House in the office of the university’s creative services director. According to Brenau President Schrader, the university is now considering placing select art pieces in dormitories and lounges. In addition, many departments have integrated the collection into their programs as research and teaching tools.

The art collection has enhanced Brenau’s mission to promote the arts beyond campus as well. The university serves the community through outreach programs such as gallery tours and workshops for children. Most recently, Brenau entered into a partnership with the High Museum, the first of its kind for both institutions, which gives the university community special access to the High’s exhibitions, collections and programs and the opportunity to integrate those shows meaningfully into the curriculum. Schrader in part attributes the museum’s willingness to engage a small university in such a unique arrangement to Brenau’s legacy in the art world that Castelli helped create.

While Schrader does not draw a direct line between Castelli to this new opportunity, he believes that the dealer’s contributions were pivotal in setting the stage. “He made possible the transition from minor leagues to the big leagues.” Schrader said. “He enabled our aspirations to mature into reality.”

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Catherine Fox, long-time arts critic for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, currently is chief visual arts critic for ArtsCriticATL.com.


Originally published on 10/03/10