PRINT January 2008


Ileana Sonnabend

I THINK ILEANA’S DEATH represents the end of an era for a type of blind support for the artist’s work and even for a type of politics. By politics I mean that she was trying to create as positive a situation for the artwork as possible, to empower it, and to keep the focus on the art itself. It wasn’t about money or the gallery; it was about the work.

I was a young artist when I joined Sonnabend. I had produced my own artworks and was responsible for financing them, but when I began my “Statuary” series I needed a different kind of unconditional support. With Ileana, I never had to keep the gallery abreast of anything I was doing. I could just focus on the work, and the day it arrived might be the first time she would see it. Over the years, even though people outside the situation might have thought, “Oh, Jeff’s doing great,” they didn’t really understand the tremendous demands of operating the studio and the overhead involved in the production. Ileana kept me afloat. The gallery was always there supporting me.

In the mid-1990s, there was a very brief period when I stopped working with Sonnabend as my only “official” gallery. I was living in Europe and I wanted to make my artist’s proofs all at one time, which at that moment would have required a greater financial outlay. People were presenting me with a lot of opportunities, always trying to make the grass seem greener. So I tried going on my own by putting together the “Celebration” series with different galleries. I worked with great people, but in the end I realized how good I had it at Sonnabend and that what they did just didn’t exist anywhere else. When it comes to this type of support, there has to be a certain financial backing along with a kind of blind faith. Sometimes somebody would have the faith but not the backing, and sometimes somebody would have the backing but not the faith—Ileana was the only one who had them both.

Ileana was shy, so there was some aspect of her personality that wasn’t completely revealed, but she would always convey a sense of energy. There were people around her, like her husband, Michael Sonnabend, or Antonio Homem, who would sometimes speak more directly. But she would give these nuanced suggestions as to how she felt about something, maybe just a little smile. When I was younger I would hear some of the stories about Ileana being tough or shrewd, but I never experienced any of that at all. She could be very sharp and very observant, but she was also always sweet and kind. I would usually stop by the gallery at least once a week just to say hello. If there was an artwork in the office, she might ask me what I thought about it, or she would tell me different stories about exhibitions with Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. Ileana looked at my work with the same level of seriousness that she looked at theirs, and I was very grateful for the wonderful opportunity to be able to connect to their histories through her. All of her artists would always be at her opening lunches at Da Silvano, and sometimes she would have somebody like Mick Jagger, if he were in town. You felt like you were at the center of the New York art world when you were at one of Ileana’s openings.

Over the years, Ileana was completely behind me no matter what I did, but she would give me her honest opinion, too. Only two people told me that I was really crazy to move forward and marry Ilona [Staller]. They were my father and Ileana, and they both gave me great advice. Everyone was saying, “Go ahead, it’s going to be great,” and she said, “Jeff, do whatever you want in your work, but this is my advice to you.” She wasn’t trying to be controlling; she was trying to protect me as a person—but I was off in my art. Still, once I had made my decision, she was completely supportive of the “Made in Heaven” work. She was always very courageous, and despite all the controversy, I believe Ileana was very proud of the exhibition. She kept one of the strongest, most powerful pieces, Butt Red, 1991, in her office, hanging behind her desk.

Jeff Koons is an artist based in New York.