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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 22 JANUARY 2014 — Nominally, the exhibition Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New, at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, is a homage to artistic patronage and curation. Sonnabend (1914 - 2007) opened art galleries in Paris (in 1962) and in New York (eight years later) that gave the first significant exposure to the works of a variety of artists who would help define the visual arts of the latter part of the last century.  In actuality, the graciously compact show of prominent works incubated by Sonnabend is also about the one remaining love that dare not speak its name—that between art and money. As Sonnabend herself put it, "I take [artists] when they are young and cheap and I make them famous and expensive."

For the young Jeff Koons to create and exhibit his breakthrough Banality series, someone had to pay the artisans in Europe to "fabricate" (an artspeak form of "actually make") the pieces. And then someone had to make a joyful noise about them so that collectors would come in, see them, buy them for a riotous mark up, appreciate and understand them, and display, loan out, and extol them in some expectation of financial reward.

Jeff Koons: Pink Panther, 1988
 Photo: © 2013 Jeff Koons

For Koons, that angel of mercy was Ileana Sonnabend, and in honor of that event, the MoMA exhibition includes a Banality work, Pink Panther (1988).  It is a porcelain sculpture of the actress Jayne Mansfield, here all blonde locks, boobs and ass, getting a good squeeze from a perplexed looking Pink Panther (a cartoon character whose origins trace back to a 1963 Peter Sellers comedy film). As with the rest of the Banality series, the work was intended as both commentary on, and flagrant commercial exploitation of, the slick execution and simplistic demands of pop culture entertainments. In the informative catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, Koons reports that Sonnabend did not have a full idea of what she had actually paid for until the Banality works arrived at her New York gallery. That story alone tells us two things about Ileana Sonnabend: she had confidence in her own vision and great entrepreneurial courage.

Sonnabend was born Ileana Schapira in Bucharest, the daughter of one of Romania’s richest men. Under the guiding hand of her father’s money, she and then-husband Leo Castelli opened a gallery in Paris just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Being Jewish, they were soon on the run, arriving in New York in 1941 with their daughter, Nina; the nanny; and the family dachshund. There were two kinds of wealthy Jewish émigrés in New York in the second half of the twentieth century: those who brought their wealth with them and those who were forced to leave it behind. Ileana’s father made sure that the family fell into the former category, having earlier put money into American assets. He provided the seed capital for Castelli to open his New York gallery, in 1957. One exceptionally amicable divorce and remarriage (to Michael Sonnabend) later, and Sonnabend was both a competitor of, and a collaborator with, her first husband in championing artists of the era who would soon make names for themselves.

Andy Warhol: Ileana Sonnabend, 1973
Photo: © 2013 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Western art market was then undergoing its great migration, propelled by war and disparate prosperity, away from its European roots and toward an American form of high culture that was accented with newly articulate Jewish voices. That is a long story to encapsulate in a small exhibition, but the curators have done an honest job of it by making well-known works the focal point: much of the successful art on display here became recognized as great art because Ileana Sonnabend worked hard to sell it into the primary market. 

Sonnabend recognized photography as an art form equal to the others before just about anyone else in the business. Representing Bernd and Hilda Becher at the MoMA tribute is Winding Towers (1966-97), a poster-like assembly of nine black and white photographs of obsolescent coal-mine architecture.  Their work has become to the memory of the early phase of German heavy industry what Eugène Atget’s photographs have become for the memory of lost Paris. Tom Wesselmann’s rear-illuminated Great American Nude #75 (1965) is also included—looking as fetching as ever with her cherry-red lips and nipples and a neatly unfinished face that you recognize as alluring only by implication. From Robert Rauschenberg, we have Canyon, with its sawed off American bald eagle jutting in flight-simulating death from a canvas backdrop. Sonnabend owned this most important of the artist’s "combines" until her death. And could we possibly have Andy Warhol at this exhibition without including his 1973 double portrait of Sonnabend herself?

The long corridor to the exhibition is lined with large photographs of Sonnabend, installations, and artists. We are mercifully spared glass display cases of letters, photographs, invitations, and other marginalia of personal history; they would interfere with sightlines in the examination of the works, many of which are quite large. We are, instead, allowed to see art the way that Sonnabend showed it: chaperoned only by more art, with ample room in between and in front for each piece to claim its own space and, through it, context.

There are works the meanings of which are, in the spirit of their era, left to vivid imaginations. Those include Piero Manzoni’s Line 1000 Meters Long (1961), which consists of just that inside a closed metal drum—should anyone one day have need of a roll of paper that long.  There are black and white photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto of taxidermist dioramas of animals in simulated habitats (1976 -1980).  (The dioramas are still in situ at the American Museum of Natural History.)

Claes Oldenburg: Tartines, 1964

In contrast, understanding Senza titolo (Struttura che mangia) (1968) by Giovanni Anselmo is simple: a small block of granite is held to a larger one by a copper wire; a splayed head of lettuce serves as the washer between them, giving the sculpture the appearance of a clever headstone for a beloved pet bunny. If the lettuce should be allowed to wilt, the smaller block will fall to a pile of sawdust on the floor. Someone at MoMA is apparently tasked with going to the grocery store for the replacement lettuce installed each Wednesday, thereby depriving you of the promised Humpty Dumpty experience.  Indeed, the piece would probably be more compelling if the block were permitted to fall now and then.

In time, Sonnabend aged into the role of mother and grandmother for her artists; she lived comparatively modestly; she wore dowdy wigs and baggy dresses and even enjoyed knitting. Sonnabend died in 2007, exactly one week shy of her 93rd birthday. As with any facilitator in a business of massaging money from art—whether at a publisher, a record label, a movie studio or art gallery—Sonnabend could select, refine, guide, and edit.  She might have been the spiritual mother of her artists’ works, but at the end of the day, she had to set her artists and their creations into the world to fend for themselves. She was justifiably proud of what followed.

And those artists, whether dead or alive, continue do rather well, all in all.  Koons’ Pink Panther survived one of the much-debated copyright-infringement lawsuits filed against him (a collateral topic in two respectful dust-ups I have had during panel discussions with his lawyer), as well as some controversy over its resale value, to become a beloved bit of nonsense sure to enliven any exhibition where it lands. Canyon is now in the collection of MoMA due to a legal Catch-22: you cannot sell anything containing a bald eagle, which, as the national bird of the USA, is protected by federal law.  That means Canyon has a resale value of zero—which did not stop the Internal Revenue Service from researching the art market and arriving at a valuation of $65 million. That resulted in a tax bill of over $29 million to Sonnabend’s heirs for receiving title to the unsaleable masterpiece. The heirs sensibly settled with the authorities by donating the work to MoMA, where it will fascinate enthusiasts and frighten preschoolers for years to come.

Robert Rauschenberg: Canyon,
a mixed-media collage from 1959 known as a "combine"
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Sonnabend the business is still in business and apparently doing rather well.  As an exhibition framed around the deeds and the taste of its founder reminds us: art can be beautiful, provocative, transcendent, and even transformative, but art mixed with stacks of money and a dash of law is wicked good fun.

Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New
Through 21 April 2014
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street,
between Fifth and Sixth avenues
New York, NY 10019
Tel: (1) 212 708 94 00

Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New
By Ann Temkin and Claire Lehmann, 2013
Hardcover: 112 pages
The Museum of Modern Art, New York (January 2014)
ISBN-10: 0870708961
ISBN-13: 978-0870708961

Alan Behr practices intellectual property law at the Phillips Nizer LLP and is a member of l’Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art. He last wrote on Bill Brandt at MoMA in New York for Culturekiosque.

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