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
Ms. Sheets is a contributing editor to ARTnews magazine.