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Armand J. Castellani is giving a tour of "Personal Preferences," the exhibition that he and his wife, Eleanor, selected from the collection of the museum that bears his name, the Castellani Art Museum. He pauses in front of a small oil painting called "Seated Peasant."

"It looks a like a Cezanne, doesn't it?" asks the 82-year-old art patron with almost boyish enthusiasm.

The painting is from the right time period, all right -- 1870 -- and does have a hint of Cezanne's early manner. But it was painted by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Armand Guillaumin, a second-string early modernist who is not widely known today.

The painting is special to Castellani -- and for a much better reason than that the painter's middle name is Armand. It was the first "serious" painting he bought. The little oil helped launch Castellani as an art collector and benefactor and, ultimately, as a profound influence on the direction of art in Western New York.

He bought the painting toward the end of the '70s, when he was chairman of the board of Tops Markets Inc., the grocery giant that a young Castellani nurtured from his father's small store in Niagara Falls. In the 1970s, though he was already praised in the community for his philanthropy, art had yet to enter the picture. That was to change shortly.

"I was just beginning to learn about art, reading everything I could get my hands on," he says. "James Wood (then assistant director at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery) told me to forget the books. You have to "develop the field,' he said. I had no idea what that meant.

"But after a while -- in about four or five years -- I caught on. I figured what he meant was that I had to concentrate on what I see."

And concentrate he did. By 1978 he had some 300 mostly modern works in his possession and was confident enough of his taste to build a museum -- the Buscaglia-Castellani Art Gallery on the De Veaux Campus of Niagara University. A decade later, with a 3,000-plus collection straining the walls of the Buscaglia-Castellani, he established the Castellani Art Museum, a $3.5 million, 23,000-square-foot building on the university's main campus.

Castellani, who today lives in Florida in semi-retirement, stands in the museum that he established and looks back over his vast collection -- or that small part of it that is revealed by "Personal Preferences."

In the expansive main gallery are some of his favorite pieces of abstract art -- most prominent among them the huge, swirling abstractions of Charles Clough (the artist who co-founded Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center) and a whole wall and a half devoted to the work of Michael Kessler. Kessler paints big, bright, sometimes garishly colored paintings that feature limblike forms snaking their way across fields of half-scraped-off pigment.

"I bought Kessler in '82, prior to his recognition," Castellani says. "I called Bob (Robert T. Buck, then director at the Albright-Knox) and said that these paintings were very original. Since then Michael has gone on to win the Prix de Rome" (the coveted painting prize that includes self-study in Rome, Italy).

Castellani is not afraid to let his business background show. He talks freely about money and art and how the two work -- or don't work -- together.

He tells stories about buying low and selling high; about just missing an artist's highest value before it came tumbling down; or about donating a work to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery at a value far too low. In the mid-'70s he says he bought drawings by the Buffalo-born artist Susan Rothenberg at $500 apiece, mostly because Rothenberg's father, Leonard, worked for Tops Markets at the time. By 1982 a Rothenberg drawing was going for $30,000.

If this sounds a little like working the stock market, that's all right with Castellani. He believes a collector has to be a savvy business person, acutely aware of the ups and downs of the art market.

About buying at auction -- the way he has gathered most of his collection -- he says: "I'm a very tight buyer. If I bid on 100 pieces I might get 5 or 6 percent."

Even when he doesn't get the painting or sculpture he wants, it's still an educational process. Some people with very good eyes are out there bidding on a work that Castellani had already picked out as a winner. It's a confidence-builder in his ongoing quest to "develop the field."

Castellani strolls through a room containing mostly works by earlier modern artists. He comments approvingly on a picture of a white house by the French artist Maurice Utrillo. ("In today's market I couldn't afford that.") He notes how a small bronze depicting Will Rogers on a bucking bronco by Western artist Charles Russell faithfully captures the famous features of the humorist. "Everybody recognizes him right away," he says.

In the same room there is a blue and airy painting by Raoul Dufy, a Paul Gauguin sculpture of a Tahitian god-figure cast in bronze from the original wood carving, and some sprightly Charles Burchfield drawings that have never been out of the vaults before.

As he moves into another gallery he pushes on a small Alexander Calder mobile, making it swing in graceful arcs, as he points out a bright abstract print by the same artist. Big paintings by the late Norman Bluhm, Alfred Jensen and Joan Mitchell fill the walls.

"Begonia" by Mitchell, a brilliant, freely painted abstraction in radiant yellows and oranges, gives Castellani particular pleasure. "We had two Mitchells, and when I was ready to donate one to the Albright-Knox I let them choose," he says. "We got the best one."

His collecting principle for the Castellani Art Museum is simple: He chooses works that will give the best educational value. That's why he likes to freely mix in realistic works of some sort among abstractions and semi-abstractions. A glistening still life by Janet Fish is an example; or in another vein, an almost ornamental painting of a flaming tiger by Melissa Miller. About a big creamy oil, "Aesop's Crow" by Miller on a nearby wall (donated to the Albright-Knox in 1987), Castellani impishly noted that he sees "a little Thomas Hart Benton in it."

"We try to buy a variety of work," he explains. "Works in different media by the same artist, for example, and drawings, collages, works on paper." He singles out an Andy Warhol silkscreen and acrylic image of a Campbell's tomato soup can as a kind of work that will help students see the range and variety of contemporary art.

It's a long way from that modest pop art piece to a grandiose abstraction by Friedel Dzubas, with its dramatic shapes sweeping by like colored meteorites. Castellani says this broad scope simply adds to the educational possibilities of the collection. It takes the student on a journey from, say, the work of Picasso and Miro to Matta's big, eerily green fantasy of humanlike insects, and on to Willem de Kooning's furious charcoal drawings of ferociously comic women, to a glass sculptural installation by Buffalo-born artist Andrew Topolski. (All are on view in the exhibition.)

The rationale for the Castellani collection may be firmly educational, but not so at the Albright-Knox. Here's Castellani's description of the Albright-Knox's mission: "It is there to preserve art for posterity, to secure art that will be valued a hundred years from now."

With that thought in mind, Castellani has donated about 40 prime works to the gallery. Over the years he has made this giving into a kind of balancing act that will best serve all of Western New York. "When I give the gallery a major work I try, when I can, to keep a smaller work -- maybe a drawing or print by the same artist -- here (at Castellani). That way everyone benefits."

"Everybody benefits" -- that could be the motto of this man who has so generously contributed to the development of art in the region.

"Personal Preferences" remains on view through Oct. 17. For information, call 286-8200.

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