How Ileana Sonnabend Became MoMA's Ambassador of the New

Artist Defined the Taste of Our Times

Pop Art Star: Ileana Sonnabend showed the work of Andy Warhol in the gallery she established in 1962.
Courtesy of MOMA
Pop Art Star: Ileana Sonnabend showed the work of Andy Warhol in the gallery she established in 1962.

By Yevgeniya Traps

Published January 02, 2014, issue of January 10, 2014.
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It sounds like the beginning of a riddle, or the setup for a logic problem. How to reconcile these two facts: (1) Ileana Sonnabend was not an artist; (2) the Museum of Modern Art is devoting a small but significant show to Ileana Sonnabend and anointing her “ambassador for the new.”

Actually, the distance between (1) and (2) is not all that paradoxical. Born to a Romanian Jewish family, Sonnabend, a gallerist and collector, has long been considered a visionary whose aesthetic shaped the art landscape in postwar Europe and America.

In fact, MoMA is not the first museum to acknowledge Sonnabend’s achievement: In 2011, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice organized “Ileana Sonnabend: An Italian Portrait,” bringing together 59 works from Sonnabend’s personal collection.) She championed Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg (who once told The New Yorker magazine’s Calvin Tomkins, “Let’s just say I’ve never finished a painting without wondering what Ileana would think of it”), Vito Acconci and Jeff Koons, Oldenburg and Lichtenstein, Mel Bochner and John Baldessari, and she oversaw the crosscurrents of cultural exchange, bringing pop art and minimalism to Paris, and Arte Povera to New York.

Think of the art that mattered in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, and you will realize that Sonnabend probably had a hand in it. If the names of the artists she showed sound de rigueur now, the “mainest of the mainstream,” that’s because, in large part, Sonnabend made them so.

Her aesthetic was instinctual, her taste broad — even contradictory — and she combined gut feeling with canniness, a fearless streak with connections born of wealth and convenient parentage. Sonnabend’s father was the wealthy businessman Mihail Schapira, who once served as financial adviser to the king of his native Romania. Her stepfather was the artist John D. Graham, an important influence on the abstract expressionist painters; it was Graham who gave Jackson Pollock his first New York show.

At 17, Ileana Schapira met Leo Castelli; she married him a year later. With her father’s backing, she and Castelli opened a gallery in New York. After divorcing Castelli and marrying Michael Sonnabend, she moved to Paris, where in 1962 she established Galerie Ileana Sonnabend. There she showed the works of Andy Warhol and other pop artists, helping to create a European taste for the most American of art. Eight years later, she brought the Europeans with her when she opened a gallery in SoHo: The inaugural show was a Gilbert & George performance of a piece called “The Singing Sculpture.”


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