Andy Warhol’s Ileana Sonnabend, 1973. Sonnabend Collection, New York. © 2013 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

NEW YORK - In 1957, Ileana Sonnabend and her then-husband, the dealer Leo Castelli, visited Robert Rauschenberg at his lower Manhattan studio. Not long afterwards, he was promised a solo show with Castelli, but, with the prescience that would define her 50-year career as a dealer, it was Ileana, not Leo, who said yes to the 31-year-old artist. The exhibition of his Combines, in 1959, was a critical sensation. Sonnabend remained a champion of Rauschenberg’s work and the two stayed close friends for decades. “Let’s just say I’ve never finished a painting without wondering what Ileana would think of it,” the artist is quoted saying late in his career.

One of the works she acquired from that show was Canyon, an abstract mixed-media work that famously includes a stuffed bald eagle. The dealer’s family donated the work to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which is celebrating that gift and Sonnabend’s legacy in the exhibition Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New on view through 21 April.

Ileana Sonnabend, founder of Sonnabend Gallery.

Sonnabend (1914–2007) built a reputation in the international art world as a quietly persuasive, politically savvy, shrewd, charming and intelligent tastemaker. Following her instrumental role – long under recognised – in launching Castelli’s gallery, she established herself as a formidable dealer and tastemaker in her own right. In 1962, she opened her first commercial space in Paris with her second husband, Michael Sonnabend. The gallery was the epicentre of the contemporary scene and where Parisians first saw the work of Americans like Jasper Johns, Jim Dine and Andy Warhol. In turn, Sonnabend sent stateside the European art she championed, notably that of Mario Merz, Jannis Kounellis and others associated with Arte Povera and the English duo Gilbert & George.

James Rosenquist’s Volunteer, 1963-64. © James Rosenquist/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

In 1971 she opened a gallery in New York, taking a floor in the same building at 420 West Broadway where Leo Castelli was also moving. (After their divorce in 1959 the two remained lifelong friends and professional confidants.) Sonnabend stayed ahead of the curve in the 1980s and 1990s, helping younger artists like Jeff Koons gain exposure. At MoMA, works by nearly 40 artists including Jeff Koons, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenberg, Andy Warhol and John Baldessari will demonstrate the breadth of her twin legacies as dealer and collector.

Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Through 21 April 2014

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