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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

The MoMA show homes in on the first three decades of Sonnabend’s career, highlighting the artists and pieces she was the first to show: John’s “Device”; Oldenburg’s “Tartines”; James Rosenquist’s “Volunteer”; Michelangelo Pistoletto’s impressively grand mirror painting, “Two People”; Koons’s “Pink Panther.” This might as well be a page torn from an auction catalog, a fever dream of conspicuous art consumption. Still, “Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New” avoids coming off like the visual equivalent of “Now That’s What I Call Music!”: True, it is a “greatest hits” compilation, but one that speaks to the ways in which great taste is an art form of sorts.

And the show’s centerpiece — a Rauschenberg combine called “Canyon” — is actually a fascinating case study in the possibility of aesthetic resistance to the commercial. “Canyon” is made up of oil, pencil, paper, wood, metal, photographs and fabric on canvas, plus buttons and a mirror, cardboard box, pillow and paint tube, and a stuffed bald eagle. That last element made the work unsellable, given the bald eagle’s status as a protected species.

When Sonnabend died in 2007 at the age of 92, her family found itself in a Kafkaesque predicament: The Internal Revenue Service valued “Canyon” at $65 million and demanded a tax payment of $29.2 million, even as it would be impossible for the family to convert the work into any money at all. Sonnabend had even jokingly mentioned a desire to be buried with “Canyon”: She told Tomkins, “If they build a pyramid for me… I would like it in there with me.”

The issue was resolved when “Canyon” was donated to the MoMA: The IRS dropped its tax assessment, the MoMA included Sonnabend’s name on its Founders Wall and organized a show in her honor, and everyone lived happily ever after. But if this seems like a retread of the controversy caused by the New Museum’s 2010 show, the unappetizingly named “Skin Fruit,” curated by Koons from the collection of the Greek shipping magnate Dakis Joannou, the bald eagle guards against suspicions of inflated prices: It keeps things honest.

Sonnabend made a comfortable living dealing art, but money was not the point. (She had that luxury, of course, by virtue of having money in the first place.) Her interest lay elsewhere: in discovering the new, in letting innovation challenge her conceptions of art, in sharing her discoveries with others. To that end, she often presented works that were less than commercial — most notoriously, Vito Acconci’s “Seedbed,” a performance during which the artist lies beneath a specially constructed ramp, intermittently masturbating while gallery visitors walked over him. “Ileana Sonnabend” includes footage from Acconci’s performance, but it also showcases far more financially lucrative works: Roy Lichtenstein’s “Little Aloha,” say, or Warhol’s “1947 White.” But this is the way we live now, sorting the high and the low, collecting and curating as the finest form of art. And if you don’t quite buy that, the pillow that hangs from the canvas in “Canyon” and evokes testicles is right there with you, suggesting perhaps that it’s all bollocks.

Yevgeniya Traps writes frequently about the arts for the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.