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"Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador of the New" Brings Fabled Rauschenberg to MoMA


During her lifetime Ileana Sonnabend cemented her place as an art-world force to be reckoned with; now her legacy lives on in a new MoMA exhibition, "Ambassador of the New." Dedicated to her collection, the show includes her family's donation of Robert Rauschenberg's famed Canyon, the iconic work now best-known for a certain stuffed bald eagle that made for messy tax issues. (It is illegal to sell the bird since it is under federal protection so the work is valued at zero, however, the IRS wanted to tax the estate approximately $29 million.) 

Now safely held by MoMA, the work appears as the centerpiece among Sonnabend's enviable collection of work by Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Robert Morris, Mario Merz, Vito Acconci, Mel Bochner, John Baldessari, and Jeff Koons. A pioneering gallerist, she took a daring approach—like mounting Acconci's controversial Seedbed—and introduced or gave early shows to major artists such as Carroll Dunham and Ashley Bickerton in 1980s. 

Sonnabend, who died in 2007, was the onetime wife of legendary dealer Leo Castelli, with whom she helped start his eponymous gallery. Even after their divorce in 1959, the two remained close throughout their lives, talking nearly every day. She later took the name of her second husband, Michael Sonnabend, and opened a Paris gallery in 1962 with a New York venue on the Upper East Side to follow in 1970. Sonnabend and Castelli would go on to simultaneously move their galleries to Soho a year later, in the same building.

Those who knew her described her as "an iron marshmallow," and her taste in art was no less unwavering and bold through the decades. Her personal holdings range from Claes Oldenburg's 1964 Tartines to Bruce Nauman's 1974 neon work Silver Livresto the kitschy 1988 Koons Pink Panther. (In addition, Nauman's Thighing (Blue) will be on view during a film series held in conjunction with the exhibition, along with video work by Joan Jonas, David Haxton, Simone Forti, and Charlemagne Palestine.) The work on view at MoMA displays a wide range of attitudes that more so illustrate the visionary dealer's distinct brand of taste, from the bright Pop of Rosenquist to the quiet Conceptualism of Morris.

Sonnabend's legacy might be best captured by the one image of her that appears in the show: a Warhol silkscreen portrait, in which Sonnabend's skin has been colored a bubblegum pink, her hair shaded in deep purple shadows as she offers the vaguest hint of a smile. It's a mysterious, somewhat opaque image, even under all the glammed-up Pop. 


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