PRINT January 2008


Ileana Sonnabend

ILEANA SONNABEND’S obituary appeared in the New York Times of October 24, 2007. I read it with an equanimity that took me by surprise, having assumed that, after decades of quasi-Oedipal affection, I would be laid low by the news—hardly unexpected—of her death at the age of ninety-two. Instead I found myself rehearsing the picaresque details of her life and nonpareil career: Born to one of Romania’s wealthiest families on October 28, 1914, Ileana Schapira married Leo Castelli, scion of a Triestino banking family, when she was eighteen. Always feeling bested by her sister Eve—whom the propinquitous Leo had first courted—Ileana and her new husband quit Bucharest for Paris, where Leo and a friend, the interior designer René Drouin, established a gallery, in 1939, on the Place Vendôme. Fashionably Surrealist, the enterprise was ill-timed, opening just a few months before the outbreak of the Second World War. With the advent of those grim hostilities, the young family—now enlarged with daughter Nina, the nanny, and the dog—managed a Casablanca-like fugue that carried them to safety in New York shortly before the United States’ entry into the conflagration. There they settled in with Ileana’s parents, who by then had established themselves in Manhattan. After dealing privately for several years, notably with Sidney and Harriet Janis, Castelli opened a gallery in his living room in 1957. Two years later, the “divorce made in heaven”—Ileana and Leo were devoted to each other until the end of Leo’s long life—sparked Ileana’s independent career.

In 1960 she married Michael Sonnabend, a Dantephile and filmmaker some years her senior, and they decided it would be a good idea to leave New York and get all that behind them—“all that” being, in part, the fractured Paris days; Ileana’s sorties up to Columbia to study while Leo was away serving in Army Intelligence; Leo’s organization of the Ninth Street Show (a seminal event in the history of the New York School) and his unique non-artist role at the Club (the storied AbEx hangout), with Ileana clearing away the glasses and cigarette butts after the lectures and debates; the gradual emergence of the Castellis as a power couple close to Alfred H. Barr, the great curator of the Museum of Modern Art; the purchase of the East Hampton house that became an Abstract Expressionist summering place; and the establishment of Leo’s gallery in his father-in-law’s marble town house at 4 East Seventy-seventh Street.

“All that” then became albatross and millstone. So Ileana and Michael set off for Paris with Robert Rauschenberg—there would never be an artist dearer to her—since Daniel Cordier, a forward-minded Parisian dealer of the day, owed “Bob” some money. They arrived in a Paris under sandbags, fearing the worst because of the failed Algerian War. Plastiqueurs were thought to be lurking everywhere, especially around the Place Beauvau, where the Cordier Gallery was situated, just kitty-corner from the Élysée Palace. Concerned about the contretemps, Ileana and Michael determined to open there for a test period to last no more than six months. They were to remain eighteen years. From Ileana’s inaugural show on the quai des Grands-Augustins in 1962 (one of the very first European exhibitions of Jasper Johns’s work) she defended the gratin of American Pop and Minimalist artists—Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, Dine, Lichtenstein, Wesselmann, Oldenburg, Warhol, Judd, LeWitt, and Morris, to name only a few—against the skepticism of an apathetic European audience. The history of those years, impressive as it may be, is supplemental to the already noteworthy achievements of the 1940s and ’50s and anterior to the dazzling accomplishments of the later Sonnabend galleries in New York.

Indeed, Ileana’s work was essential to the history of the art of the ’60s through the end of the century; ditto Leo’s. Before Chelsea won out over SoHo, their galleries were located one above the other at 420 West Broadway, an address perhaps as famous as 291 Fifth Avenue once had been, especially when, late in the day, Mary Boone moved into the ground-floor space; Ileana found Boone’s flaming emergence distinctly unnerving. At 420 (from 1971 until 2000) and finally at her new space in Chelsea, Ileana continued to mount audacious shows, including early or first New York exhibitions of Bochner, Le Va, Wegman, Acconci, Baldessari, the Bechers, Kounellis, and Merz. In the ’80s, Sonnabend had a second life, luring the absurdly named “neo-geos”—Bickerton, Halley, and Koons—away from their East Village home bases, as well as signing Terry Winters and Carroll Dunham, not to mention the new German school of Penck, Immendorff, and Baselitz, among others. Ileana’s credo, “I want what I don’t like,” kept the exhibitions fresh and up to date, continually vindicating those artworld wags who contended, well before the Castellis’ divorce, that “Leo was the ears, Ileana the eyes.” Few other gallerists of the postwar period—or of the century, for that matter—match her record. The affection and confidences bestowed by this extremely private personage made me feel proud, even heady, as I took tea with her or wore the winter mufflers she knit for me.

It would be a daunting chore to dress a list of Ileana’s pioneering exhibitions, detail her loans, cite the publications related to her artists or her collections. Up to a point, this tallying has been achieved by Collection Sonnabend: 25 années de choix et d’activités d’Ileana et Michael Sonnabend, CAPC Bordeaux’s catalogue to a 1988 survey exhibition that traveled to ten cities in Europe and Japan (and generated five further catalogues). Another guide would be Selections from the Ileana and Michael Sonnabend Collection (1985), a publication (again associated with a traveling show, this one originating at Princeton University) that, in addition to souvenirs of Ileana, also included journal extracts concerning Michael, who, though a delightful fellow, remains an underknown personality. He died in 2001, at the age of one hundred.1

Ileana’s commitment to new American art was, as we have seen, mirrored by her passion for the contemporary European artists she also championed: not only the Bechers, Kounellis, Baselitz, and Merz, but Manzoni, Zorio, and Fischli & Weiss, among others too numerous to recount. Ileana was, as well, at the forefront of dealers drawn to Photography Resurgent when, in the ’80s, it moved from the penumbra to the limelight, and she amassed along the way a critical holding of photographs just as she owned an immensely important body of American and European art—and of Art Deco, too. Some of this astonishing material, including Rauschenberg’s supreme Canyon of 1959 and many noteworthy Warhols, has been on extended loan to the Baltimore Museum of Art for years now, largely forming that institution’s core holdings of contemporary art; for the most part, the rest remains in storage. The collection includes, among many celebrated works, paintings by Jasper Johns, both numbers and flags; Rauschenberg Combines, including the beautiful Hymnal, 1955; early Twomblys; Lichtensteins, Oldenburgs, Baldessaris, Gilbert & Georges, Kiefers, and on and on. What will happen now? That question has, no doubt, recently aroused much speculation.2

IT WOULD SEEM that pure chance took Ileana and Michael Sonnabend to Paris in the early ’60s (originally they were going to set up shop in Rome)—better luck for me. I was already there, working in art galleries to supplement the modest fellowships I lived on while completing my doctoral research. Galerie Ileana Sonnabend opened on the piano nobile of the former Relais Bisson Hotel on the quai des Grands-Augustins. From its windows one looked down the Seine to the towers of Notre Dame, up to the Pont Neuf, and across to the Palais de Justice, a picture-postcard view that in its way rather obviated the need to show art. Sham-luxurious—black-and-white marble floors, vast French windows, a fancy marble staircase rising from the lobby to the gallery space, and no office to speak of—how could one not love it? I certainly did, since no sooner had it opened than, mirabile dictu, I was working there. Ileana hired me, perhaps recalling that I had been a high school chum of her daughter’s. I also knew that Nina’s dad had already opened a noteworthy gallery; that she actually knew Pollock and de Kooning, who summered near the Castellis at the eastern end of Long Island; that she even called de Kooning “Bill.”

Thus, I found myself beside the sphinx-like Ileana, with her fluty voice, her guarded chuckle; the mercurial Michael, abrim with effervescent aperçus; and a mysterious fellow, Georges, who, as the lover (we all believed) of the landlord, came along with the rental to do the mopping-up. Ileana paid me the munificent equivalent of $100 a week under the table. Apart from the Europeans she championed, the Paris gallery—it would eventually move to the rue Mazarine in the long shadow of the dome of the Institut de France—showed the Gotha of American Pop. Leo, in New York, was seen as the movement’s pop; Ileana, in Paris, its mom.

Once the influential weekly Paris Match caught wind of Pop art’s “absurdity,” it sent over its ace reporter to check out these new “abominations” with an eye to keeping up with le dernier cri. Ileana, repulsed by the journalist’s winking tone of complicity, as if they were of one mind, peremptorily ordered him off the premises. “Get out!” she shouted. I had never heard her raise her voice, not till then, nor ever since.

I didn’t stay long with Ileana—perhaps a serious misstep—but my personal life was at sixes and sevens. I longed for Ileana to ask me to stay, and I would have in a flash. But she was rather wise (and familiar with the wiles of psychology, which both she and Michael had studied at Columbia while Leo was in the army), so she said instead, “There are two things I do not give advice on: love and work”—echoing Freud’s famous recipe, a chance to love and a chance to work. “I am a nondirective therapist.” So I returned to New York and my academic rise began, one that permitted me to continue on in art criticism and to maintain an attachment to Ileana and her clan that weathered some thirty-five years more. One of my books is dedicated to her (not that she much noticed).

Despite her tentative speech, her few words, her phobic shyness, her wide eyes, Ileana was really quite fearless. Two world wars, marriage and motherhood, flights and displacements, exile and beginning again, mortal battles with chronic illness, abrupt curtailments of long-standing friendships—all served to contradict the myth of Ileana’s Meissen fragility. She talked of her platinum-spoon childhood in Romania, her visits to a shantung Paris between the wars, her concupiscent paterfamilias, her willful mother (who eventually married the artist John Graham), her despised sister, and of Leo. An entry from my journals, dated January 14, 1977, reads (quoting Ileana): “ ‘I met Leo. He was not like the others. He was on the move. He was going to get out of Romania and I was going to get out too, so I married him.’ ” Then comes my naive exculpation: “I know Ileana not to be ruthless but, as things boil down to memories, they lend themselves to simple ruthless phrases.” Now I know better. Many were cajoled and subdued by what Ileana herself flirtatiously dubbed her “Don Juanisme,” artists and civilians both. We believed in her diaphanous affection only to discover that, when no longer useful, we were no more than kittens in a paper bag.

The ’80s marked the high tide of our friendship. In 1982, Bruno Bischofberger organized an exhibition in Zurich of Leo’s artists to honor both his seventy-fifth birthday and the Castelli Gallery’s twenty-fifth anniversary, accompanied by a catalogue called Gentle Snapshots, in which I detailed the long and deep connections between Ileana and Leo. From Zurich we all proceeded on to Kassel for Documenta. These visits are remembered in a suite of journal entries published in the February 1983 issue of Arts Magazine under the heading “Vaulting Ambition.” The following passage, deleted from that piece, reveals the edgy comedy possible among guarded art dealers.

19 June 1982
Last night, dinner at the Schloss Wilhelmshöhe. A Feydeau farce—well, Labiche, anyway—of which the star is Anselm Kiefer, who, by the second day of the fair, is clearly the anointed choice and the object of a thousand hopes and duplicities. Ileana, Antonio, and I awaited him for dinner. Ileana is rather nervous as Mary suddenly turns up. Mary coyly extemporizes, inquiring after a mutual friend. They were supposed to meet Kiefer, she says, in town for dinner, but they’ve been a no-show. So she’s come up here to look for them. Mary surmises that Ileana is antsy because she has bird-dogged her date. “Mary,” Ileana says in her most butter-wouldn’t-melt voice. “I invited a guest tonight. Do you mind if we see him alone?”—thereby confirming the dire suspicion. Mary is momentarily nonplussed at the rebuff. But Ileana is put off by Mary’s performance and then becomes angry with herself for showing it (as does Antonio, too, at Ileana, for blowing it). And yet, they know full well that Leo had already taken Marian Goodman aside to see what he could arrange as Marian shows Kiefer in New York. So much terrain to be sliced, Caesar’s Gaul. I am a bit shocked at even the minimal snub, but Mary’s proved a trouper throughout the fair—Benson’s Lucia—dashing about Documenta, meeting everyone, looking beautiful, and, as for turning off the endless publicity, that was hardly the case in Kassel.

In hindsight, of course, Ileana’s professional life might seem charmed, but it certainly wasn’t roses all the way. In periods of straitened circumstances—and there were a few down markets these past four decades—Ileana was forced to part with masterpieces she deeply treasured, Rauschenberg’s Charlene, 1954, among them. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam took it off her hands for roughly $12,000 in 1965. Recently, Rauschenberg’s comparably great Combine Rebus, 1955, after escalating in value as it traveled through several well-known collections, sold for more than $30 million to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Such a heady price only serves to underscore the enormous value of Ileana’s collection today, as it still contains—among its myriad treasures—Combines of proximate size and date: not only Hymnal and Canyon, but Interior, 1956; Magician, 1959; and Dylaby, 1962, among them.

A final souvenir: In 1982, Ileana and I were together in still-divided Berlin for “Zeitgeist,” an epoch-marking exhibition at the Martin-Gropius- Bau organized by Christos Joachimides and Norman Rosenthal. We were staying at the Kempinski, chatting quietly over tea, seated comfortably in its overstuffed armchairs. Little by little, the denizens of Vanity Fair came by to pay respects to Ileana and to join in the small talk. After a moment, a small group had formed around us and Ileana quietly gestured for me to follow her to another corner. Again, the same thing happened: People came by and sat with us. Once again, Ileana motioned for me to follow her to yet another place in the room. Once more we were served tea. “Ileana,” I finally asked, “why are we doing this—getting up and moving about this way?”

“Remember,” she said, “we are the magnets. They are the iron filings.”

Robert Pincus-Witten is a New York–based critic and art historian.


1. Unlike Ileana, whose childhood was one of great privilege, Michael was raised in extreme poverty in Buffalo. While Ileana’s family rented fashionable town houses in Neuilly, Michael’s experience of Paris—he began going there following the First World War, serving as a guide to American families that had lost sons in the war—was, in the beginning, scarcely more than just learning to know the Metro stops. “So this is the Opéra. So this is the Madeleine,” he charmingly exaggerated in recounting stories of his early Paris years. Once more in New York, during the Second World War, he was a friend of both Leo’s and Ileana’s. “Don’t worry,” he once told Ileana. “If you divorce Leo, I will marry you.” She did and he did. And all three remained close till the ends of their long respective lives.

2. Personally, I think there will be few, if any, testamentary bequests to institutions. The simple family obligations were worked out ages ago: Ileana would look after Nina while Leo would attend to Jean-Christophe, the son of his second marriage. Ileana, who always registered a fear of death—she would attend no funerals, for example—was curiously loath to let go of material things where art was concerned. In that light, she competed with her collectors. But no one had less personal vanity. Her affection for Arnold Lehman and Brenda Richardson, whose presence at the Baltimore Museum of Art first drew her long-term loan to that institution, in no way guarantees the loan’s becoming a gift. Similarly, MoMA’s seeming courtship of Mrs. Sonnabend and her presumed beneficiaries will probably not lead to what the museum might reasonably hope for—and not for an immediately self-evident reason. Though Ileana was in every respect an agnostic, her father’s ardent Zionism (early in the century, he saw himself as a kind of new Baron de Hirsch), her own childhood recognition of Eastern European anti-Semitism (while admitting the cushion provided by great wealth), the escape from the Nazi terror, all conspired to make her preternaturally sensitive to even the most subtle and coded anti-Semitic expressions, such as those (whether real or imagined) she perceived in the conduct of the early grandees of the Museum of Modern Art, despite the Castellis’—well, Leo’s, at any rate—profound admiration for Alfred Barr. So, as to the question of the fate of the Sonnabend holdings, a goodly portion will probably have to be put to auction to cover the considerable estate taxes; the rest will likely remain largely in the hands of Antonio Homem, Ileana’s adopted son and the director of the Sonnabend Gallery (and the grandnephew, apparently, of a Portuguese bishop—an irony that amused Ileana no end when she realized that, through Antonio’s adoption, she had become mishpoche to an Iberian prelate).