Saturday, May 31, 2014

From Rauschenberg to Jeff Koons - The Eye of Ileana Sonnabend at Ca' Pesaro, Venice

Nine Jackies by Andy Warhol (1964)
© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Inc., by SIAE 2014 
© Sonnabend Collection, New York
(Venice, Italy) The visionary gallerist and art collector Ileana Sonnabend left behind a treasure trove of art when she died in 2007, eight days shy of her 93rd birthday, and a good chunk of her collection has found a "European Home" here in Venice. From today, May 31, 2014 through January 4, 2015, seventy pieces from the hundreds of works on long-term loan from the Sonnabend Collection that have been housed here in Venice since 2013 are now on show on the entire second floor at Ca' Pesaro, Venice's International Gallery for Modern Art.

Eat Death by Bruce Nauman (1972)
Ileana had a daring eye, and many artists are now household names thanks to her championship. Together with her former husband, Leo Castelli, she shaped post-war art both in Europe and North America. From Neo-Dada to Pop Art, Minimal Art to Arte Povera, Conceptual to Neo-expressionism, and up to contemporary photography, artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons, Jasper Johns, and Jim Dine achieved an international level of recognition due to her efforts.

Little Aloha by Roy Lichtenstein(1962)
© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein, by SIAE 2014 
© Sonnabend Collection, New York
Ileana was born into luxury in Bucharest, Romania; her Jewish  father, Mihail Schapira, was financial adviser to the king; her mother, Marianne State-Felber was a refined, intellectual Viennese. As a child, Ileana was dropped off at museums at her own insistence to look at art while her mother and older sister, Eve, shopped for clothes. When Ileana was 17-years-old, she met Leo Castelli, who was born Leo Krausz in Trieste, Italy to a Hungarian-Jewish banker; his mother was the Italian heiress Bianca Castelli. Leo was a voracious reader who spoke many languages, who, at the time of their meeting, reluctantly worked for an insurance company, positioned there by his father. Ileana married him a year later. Ileana remarked:

"Since I found my life rather stifling, I had only one wish: to get married. As a child, I always knew that someone would take me away. I met Leo. He wasn't like everyone else. He was going somewhere. He was going to leave Romania, and as I wanted to get out of Romania at any cost, I married him."

The young couple moved to Paris in 1935, Leo getting a job, again through his father, in banking, which he found as boring as insurance. He began womanizing, and Ileana tried to keep an open mind, taking a lover of her own -- their new daughter's pediatrician. Ironically, Ileana would spend her days shopping at Elsa Schiaparelli, designer to the elite on Place Vendôme. Thanks to Ileana's father, who loaned Leo the money, he, without Ileana, opened a gallery in 1939 with his friend and partner René Drouin located in between the Hotel Ritz and Schiaparelli's boutique. The Surrealists flooded in -- as did the war. The Castellis fled to New York, where Ileana's father had bought a townhouse, and where, years later, Leo would open his first gallery in his and Ileana's apartment. 

The 62 Members of the Mickey Mouse Club in 1955 by Christian Boltanski
During the 1940s, Ileana's mother, Mariana Schapira made the leap into the world of art, divorcing Mihail Schapira and marrying the Ukranian-born artist John D. Graham; if I have tallied correctly, she would have been his fifth wife. John Graham was born Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowsky in Kiev, and changed his name when he became a US citizen in 1927. Graham was a mentor to artists such as Jackson Pollock, William de Kooning and Arshile Gorky, and also became a mentor to Ileana and Leo.

During the war, thanks to his many languages, Leo was employed by the OSS, the US intelligence agency, and stationed back in Bucharest, while Ileana enrolled in a French literature class at Columbia University. There, while studying Proust, she met the only other person who could speak French: Michael Sonnabend. 

Figure 8 by Jasper Johns (1959)
© Jasper Johns, by SIAE 2014

© Sonnabend Collection, New York
Leo's war contribution made him a US citizen, and he returned to New York, becoming a partner in a knitwear firm -- again, thanks to his father --and  dealing art privately on the side, while continuing his womanizing, leaving Ileana depressed. But they shared a strong bond when it came to contemporary art. Together they went to visit Robert Rauschenberg's studio on Pearl Street. Rauschenberg went downstairs to get ice from a refrigerator he shared with Jasper Johns; the Castellis met Johns, and Leo exclaimed he wanted to give Johns a one-man show. Johns' show opened at the Castelli Gallery in January, 1958 and transformed contemporary art; Rauschenberg's show opened two months later. The Castellis divorced in 1959.

Interior by Robert Rauschenberg (1956)
© Estate of Robert Rauschenberg, by SIAE 2014

© Sonnabend Collection, New York
In 1960, Ileana married Michael Sonnabend. They moved to Paris and opened a gallery, the first show again by Jasper Johns, introducing Europe to the new American art. The shows were well-attended, but the critics and dealers were harsh, resentful at having the center of the art scene moved from Paris to New York. Leo often supplied Ileana with artists, but she also had her own eye, with strong encouragement by Michael, and showed artists such as Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg. Andy Warhol's first European show opened at Gallerie Ileana Sonnabend in January, 1964.  

Del Monte Boxes by Andy Warhol(1964)
© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Inc., by SIAE 2014

© Sonnabend Collection, New York

When Robert Rauschenberg won the International Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1964 -- the first American to do such a thing -- all hell broke lose. Leo Castelli was accused of manipulating the jury. The week before the opening, he had been holding court at Caffè Florian with his second wife; Ileana and Michael Sonnabend were only tables away. The United States of America had thundered into the world of contemporary art. 

Then, in the late 1960s, the Sonnabends hired Antonio Homem, a Portuguese student, as gallery director, who was said to be a kind of alter-ego to Ileana. In the early '80s, they adopted him -- something unusual as he was then in his 40s and had a son of his own, but looking toward future, it would legally make things easier to transfer.

Per Purificare le Parole by Gilberto Zorio(1969)
© Gilberto Zorio, by SIAE 2014

© Sonnabend Collection, New York
Ileana's Paris gallery stayed in operation until the mid-80s, but in 1970s, the Sonnabends made their presence known once again in New York. Ileana reversed the trend she had started in Europe, introducing Americans to Arte Povera, European artists such as Gilberto Zorio, who used throw-away materials to create their work. After she opened a gallery on Madison Avenue, Leo convinced Ileana to move down to SoHo at 420 West Broadway back when it was a wasteland of empty industrial space inhabited by artists who valued the high ceilings and natural light. On September 25, 1971, four galleries opened at 420 West Broadway, Ileana one floor above Leo, starting another revolution in the World of Art.

The art scene next moved to Chelsea, and in 2000, Ileana opened a gallery there with her adopted son, Antonio Homem, who is co-curator of this current exhibition, Da Rauscenberg a Jeff Koons Lo sguardo di Ileana Sonnabend, along with Gabriella Belli, Director of Venice's Musei Civici.

Wild Boy and Puppy by Jeff Koons (1988)
© Jeff Koons

© Sonnabend Collection, New York
Even though they would divorce and marry others, Eleana Sonnabend and Leo Castelli would remain lifelong friends, their respective galleries promoting American art in Europe, and European art in North America. Ileana had her own distinct eye and her own specific taste, and is gently coming into her own after living in the shadow of her flamboyant ex-husband. Ileana gathered together an immense collection of precious art, while Leo was more about the deal. Together with Peggy Guggenheim, these distinct individuals helped to transform the World of Art after the Second World War.

From Rauschenberg to Jeff Koons
The Ileana Sonnabend Collection

From May 31, 2014 to January 4, 2015
Ca’ Pesaro – International Gallery of Modern Art, Venice


Ciao from Venezia,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog