Proselytizer of Pop

                    "Ileana Sonnabend" (1973) by Andy Warhol Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / ARS

By Hilarie M. Sheets

In November, a 1963 canvas from Andy Warhol's "Death and Disaster" series sold for $105.4 million at Sotheby's, setting a new auction record for the artist. Works from this same series were shown in Warhol's first solo exhibition in Europe, at Paris's Galerie Ileana Sonnabend in 1964. Not a single canvas sold then. Ileana Sonnabend had moved to Paris from New York in 1961 and opened her gallery the following year with the intent to introduce U.S. Pop artists to Europeans, just as she and her former husband, Leo Castelli, had first presented Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg to New Yorkers in the living room of their Upper East Side townhouse beginning in 1957. While Sonnabend worried she would have to close the gallery after her Warhol show, just one year later Rauschenberg won the grand prize at the Venice Biennale, in no small part due to the success of Sonnabend's efforts to put him and other U.S. artists on the European map.
No one at that time could have imagined the globalized art world of today, where art has become a commodity that can command astronomical figures and artists are promoted by dealers world-wide at art fairs and in galleries operating in multiple cities ( Larry Gagosian leads the pack with 13 galleries in eight cities). Now it's hard not to look back a bit wistfully to this seminal moment, when Warhol was an unsellable artist whom Sonnabend insisted Castelli show in New York (the exes remained remarkably collegial and collaborative for the rest of their lives). Sonnabend opened her second gallery in New York in 1970 and then introduced Italian Arte Povera, Minimalist and Conceptual artists simultaneously on both continents. In the artists she championed and her transatlantic way of working, she anticipated much of today's art world.
"Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New," at the Museum of Modern Art now through April 21, celebrates her pioneering role in contemporary art through the works of some 30 artists she showed and collected personally, including Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist, whom she also gave their first solo European shows, and Mario Merz and Jannis Kounellis, who had their U.S. debuts with her in New York.
"There was a way in which she operated from the gut that was astonishingly on target," says Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, who organized the show. "So many dealers, and for that matter curators and collectors, bring their own expectations to art. But Sonnabend was looking for . . . what didn't feel familiar, maybe what didn't even feel good but that said to her 'this matters.'"
The show is built around the gift by Sonnabend's family to the museum of Rauschenberg's "Canyon," a 1959 "combine" painting in which he incorporated found objects, including a stuffed bald eagle. When Sonnabend died in 2007, at 92 years old, her collection, of works bought from her artists early in their careers, was appraised at close to $900 million. Much of it was sold to satisfy a $471 million estate-tax bill. "Canyon" itself was valued at $65 million. But the stuffed bald eagle is a federally protected animal, making the Rauschenberg illegal to sell. So the family found itself saddled with a $40.4 million estate-tax liability on a work with zero market value. Last year, the government agreed to drop its claim against the estate if the family donated "Canyon" to a museum.
Born in Bucharest, Sonnabend was the daughter of a "robber baron," as family members recall, and grew up extremely wealthy. While she shunned ostentation as an adult, her financial independence allowed her to act as a free agent and perhaps more of a risk-taker.
Another advantage aiding her efforts to present U.S. Pop art to European audiences was Sonnabend's uncommon fluency with both the Old World and New. Keen to get out of Romania after marrying, she and Castelli moved to Paris in 1935, where they were friendly with the Surrealists. After the Nazi occupation, the Jewish couple had a year-long flight with their daughter, Nina, through southern France, Algeria, Morocco, Spain and Cuba before arriving in New York in 1941. Sonnabend returned to Paris in the early 1960s with a distinctly American attitude and coterie of artists, including Johns, Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg. Writing to Castelli after the opening of Lichtenstein's first show in Paris in 1963, Sonnabend clearly reveled in her convention-breaking: "There is an accumulative effect which by now has made a deep stir in the art world. The most invraisemblable conservative critics have come in to shake their canes at us. We're in for a marvelous massacre!"
The reception of Pop art in Europe was mixed in the best sense, according to Ms. Temkin. "The people who were offended were the people you would want to be offended and the people who were inspired and excited are the people who we care about today," she says. "From the reports of Europeans who were there for the shows she did, they were flabbergasted not only by the art she was showing but by her American marketing instincts." Her tactics included putting up posters all over the city publicizing her shows and opening her door to anyone, regardless of whether they'd be customers.
"American Pop art completely changed the picture in Europe," says Antonio Homem, director of the Sonnabend Gallery, located in Chelsea since 2000, who started working in the Paris gallery in 1968 and was adopted by Ileana and her second husband, Michael Sonnabend, in the late 1980s. "In the U.S., it was much slower. Pop art uses things that many Americans considered banal and discardable, while those things had a certain exoticism about them to a European public." Mr. Homem remembers Castelli once being questioned on a panel about why so much U.S. Pop art was in European collections and museums. "Castelli said, 'Well, you know, they wanted to buy it,'" a laughing Mr. Homem says.
The real watershed moment for Pop art in Europe was Rauschenberg winning the grand prize at the 1964 Venice Biennale—a first for an American. Sonnabend and Castelli were viewed askance by some Europeans for their efforts in heavily promoting him for the prize. After that, the market for Pop art took off. "In 1968 so many people told me how upset they were that they hadn't bought Warhol or Johns or Rauschenberg and now it was too late because they were so expensive," Mr. Homem says. "Of course buying those artists in 1968 was a very good idea."
What may have been seen as improper then is taken for granted today, as dealers push their artists forward for opportunities as a matter of course. "It was really the infancy of the way the gallery world works now," Ms. Temkin says. "The art world in Paris was this very discreet insider's world." But Sonnabend shook it all up. "Her whole goal," says Ms. Temkin, "was to make art accessible and known in a widespread sense."
Ms. Sheets is a contributing editor to ARTnews magazine.