The Eyes Had It: Robert Pincus-Witten, Jeff Koons, and Haim Steinbach on Ileana Sonnabend (1914-2007)

Article excerpt

ROBERT PINCUS-WITTEN

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 Rene Drouin, established a gallery, in 1939, on the Place Vendome. 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 Elysee 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.

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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. …