A private woman's pervasive influence in the contemporary art world
By CALVIN TOMKINS
Ileana Sonnabend at her gallery, photographed by Mary Ellen Mark.
Ileana Sonnabend enters the restaurant unobtrusively, wearing a shapeless gray dress that somehow looks elegant on her. She is eighty-five, plump, and slightly stooped, but the grandmotherly appearance is deceptive; there is a seignorial calm about her, and her glance is sharp and alert.
Other diners rise to greet her. She is well known here at Da Silvano, the art world's reigning downtown hangout, which is only a few blocks from the SoHo gallery she has run for three decades. This is the first time I have seen her since the death, in late August, of Leo Castelli, her former husband and lifelong best friend. Their sixty seven-year relationship was a sustaining influence in both their lives, but, as Leo sank deeper into illness and withdrawal, Ileana came to terms with its ending. "I really started mourning Leo a long time ago," she tells me.
Castelli was the most famous art dealer of our time more famous than many of the artists he represented while Ileana, who was remarried in 1960 to Michael Sonnabend, has remained a little-known and rather mysterious figure even within the art world. Her role in the formation of the Castelli Gallery is rarely mentioned. Her own gallery in Paris, which she started in 1962, established the European reputations of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Jim Dine, and several other American artists (some, but not all, of whom were represented by Castelli in the United States); the Sonnabend Gallery in New York, which dates from 1970, reversed the flow by opening the American market to a new generation of Europeans. In many ways, her contribution to post-1950 international art has been as important as Castelli's, but, even in the publicity-driven art world of the nineteen-eighties and nineties, Ileana has kept a low profile. Her friends attribute this to shyness and reticence, but it is more complicated than that. "Ileana is a cross between Buddha and Machiavelli," Brenda Richardson, a museum curator who has worked closely with her for years, said recently. "The Buddha part is that incredibly still, centered quiet, which is a very powerful thing. At the same time, she is clearly Machiavellian in her shrewdness, not to mention her manipulativeness."
The Sonnabend Gallery has often been a showcase for difficult and uningratiating art, and, upon occasion, for art so rigorously noncommercial that it was impossible to sell. That has never deterred Ileana, although it has sometimes obliged her to part with works from her private collection to keep the gallery afloat. Her collection, in spite of these de-accessions, may well turn out to be her most impressive legacy. In addition to the vast numbers of contemporary paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints that Ileana and Michael Sonnabend have acquired over the years, the collection includes significant holdings in Art Deco furniture and decorative arts, vintage photographs, and God knows what else-there is no catalogue raisonné, not even a rough inventory, and the parts of the collection that have been shown publicly, at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Art Museum of Princeton University, and at several museums in Europe, are generally believed to represent only the tip of an ever expanding iceberg. One of the strange things about the collection is that most of it has always been either in storage or out on loan. The Sonnabends never have more than a few pictures hanging in their apartment, on lower Fifth Avenue-an apartment that I was not allowed to visit, but which, I have been told, has the nondescript, temporary look of a graduate student's sublet. Where, I once asked Ileana, is the pleasure in collecting what you don't live with and rarely see? "I'll tell you where," she said, in her soft, indecipherably accented voice. "Every time you see something of yours in a show, or a museum, or a catalogue, you say, Ah, there it is, my little painting.' It's a very complex experience, really. The truth is that I am not very possessive."
On another occasion, Ileana said she thought that gallery owners were better collectors than collectors. Not many gallery owners are as acquisitive as Ileana, however-certainly not Leo Castelli, who managed to hold on to remarkably few of the great contemporary works that passed through his hands. It is generally agreed that Castelli's personal response to works of art was neither as rich nor as complex as Ileana's. "Ileana takes more pleasure in art and artists than Leo does," Jasper Johns has said. "I don't think Leo really likes works of art in that way-he likes to sell art." Rauschenberg, the artist whom Ileana has been closest to over the years, believes that she has a deeper intuitive understanding of his work than anyone else. "It always seemed to me that Leo went for the intellectual side, and she headed to the sensual," he told me. "Let's just say I've never finished a painting without wondering what Ileana would think of it."
In the art business, as Castelli once remarked, you need a good eye and also a good ear. To suggest that the Castelli Gallery came together around Leo's ear and Ileana's eye would be overly simplistic, but there is no doubt that the combination of their very different approaches was crucial to the gallery's early success, and to many subsequent developments in contemporary art. "Leo and Ileana were divorced legally, but never emotionally or professionally," as Leo's friend Barbara Jakobson puts it. They shared certain artists, collaborated on exhibitions, and consulted each other on a daily basis. Their personal and professional relationship was deeply resented by Castelli's second wife, Antoinette (Toiny) du Bost, a French au-pair girl he had met on the beach in East Hampton in the early nineteen-sixties; it was accepted, if not exactly encouraged, by his third, Barbara Bertozzi, a young Italian-born art historian whom Castelli married in 1996, when he was eighty-nine and she was thirty-three. (Ileana, asked by a journalist for her thoughts on this marriage, gave one of her sibylline replies: "I have many thoughts, but no statement.") By that time, the Castelli Gallery had been in decline for several years, and a number of its artists had defected to other dealers. Last spring, Castelli and his new wife moved the gallery from SoHo to a much smaller space uptown, at 59 East Seventy-Ninth Street; its future, without Castelli, is uncertain.
The Sonnabend Gallery, meanwhile, is moving in February to a large space at 536 West Twenty-second Street, in Chelsea, the new mecca for contemporary galleries driven out of SoHo by high rents and boutique culture. At some point, Ileana will turn over the direction of her gallery to Antonio Homem, who has been with her for thirty years, and whom she and Michael Sonnabend legally adopted in the early eighties. The adoption puzzled people at the time-Antonio was in his forties then, and had a teen-age son of his own-but it simplified the eventual transfer of the gallery and its assets. At present, Ileana is still in charge, making all the major decisions affecting the gallery, keeping herself informed about the art market and other matters (she is addicted to crime stories in the Daily News), and taking discreet care of Michael Sonnabend, who retains, at the age of ninety-nine, astonishing reserves of wit and independence. The only real sadness in Ileana's life these days involves the ending of her long relationship with Castelli. "It's difficult for me to talk about Leo," she said, during our lunch at Da Silvano. "He was my oldest friend, you know, and we had so many, many memories in common."
Ileana was seventeen when she, and Leo met, in Bucharest in 1932. She describes herself at that age as a spoiled, absurdly sheltered, inwardly rebellious heiress who "had a governess until I had a fiancé." Her father, Mihail Schapira, was one of the richest men in Romania-a self-made Jewish industrialist, who showered luxuries on his Austrian born wife and their two daughters. When Leo Castelli arrived in Bucharest, from Trieste, in the spring of 1932, to work for an Italian insurance firm, he met and promptly fell in love with Ileana's older sister, Eve, who was already married. Ileana was introduced to Castelli a few weeks later, at a dinner party. "I sat across the table from him, thinking, He's not so scar he looks quite possible," she recalls. Castelli had grown up in Trieste. He was the son of a Hungarian Jewish banker named Ernest Krauss, who, for business reasons, had adopted his Italian-born wife's family name. Leo was twenty-four then, an intelligent and ambitious dandy with elegant manners and a knack for enjoying life. Ileana's lifelong rivalry with Eve, who was the more beautiful sister, made it all the more thrilling when his attention turned in her direction, yet Ileana makes it clear that theirs was no great love match. "I desperately wanted to get away from home," she recalls. "Leo was on the move. He was going to get out of Romania and I was going to get out, too, so I married him."
Their wedding trip, the following October, was to Vienna, a city Ileana had long adored. She had become interested in art, as a child, at the Kunsthistorisches Museum there; she liked looking at the Titians and the Velázquezes and the Dutch masters so much that when she was seven or eight her mother and Eve used to drop her off at the museum for hours at a time, alone, while they shopped for clothes. Instead of a diamond ring, Ileana asked Leo to give her a painting as a wedding present. In Vienna, they picked out a Matisse watercolor, which she remembers as "really pretty and really small."
The newlyweds moved into one of the first modern apartment buildings in Bucharest, and furnished it with old pieces they found by driving out into the country on weekends and buying directly from farm families. But Castelli was bored by the insurance business, and the spreading cancer of anti-Semitism, which metastasized rapidly in Eastern Europe after Hitler's rise to power, in 1933, made life increasingly disagreeable both for him and for his wealthy in laws. In 1936, the Castellis moved, with their newborn daughter, Nina, to Paris, where Leo's father had arranged a job for him at a branch of the Banca d'Italia. Ileana's father set them up in an Art Deco apartment in Neuilly, with an Italian chauffeur, two maids, a cook, a laundress, and a baby nurse. Ileana was not particularly happy in Paris, though, because Leo, as bored with banking as he had been with insurance, devoted a lot of his energy to romantic dalliances. She tried to be philosophical about it, but for a while in 1938 she made Leo move out of their apartment. Ileana took no part in a gallery that Leo and his friend René Drouin, the architect and interior de
signer who had remodelled their Neuilly flat, decided to open in 1939, on the Place Vendôme. The gallery was to be a showcase for furniture designed by Drouin, but the Surrealist artist Léonor Fini, whom Castelli had known as a child in Trieste, became involved in the planning, and the opening show that spring turned into a Surrealist event, with fantastic chairs, chiffoniers, and other pieces designed by Fini, Eugene Berman, and Meret Oppenheim. The show was a great success, but the gallery closed for the summer, and that was that-the war broke out in September. After many anxious months, and with funds provided by Mikhail Schapira, who had moved to New York, the Castelli family made its way there in 1941, travelling via North Africa, Spain, and Cuba with Nina's English nanny, Ileana's longhaired dachshund, Noodle, and twenty-two pieces of luggage.
Schapira lost most of his money in the war, but he had brought enough out of Europe to make some business investments and to buy a town house at 4 East Seventy-seventh Street. Leo and Ileana occupied its fourth floor. When Leo went into the United States Army, in 1943 (he served three years with an intelligence unit, and ended up as an interpreter in Bucharest), Ileana enrolled at Columbia University, mainly as a way of improving her English. She signed up for several courses. In one of them--a French-literature course on Proust the only student besides her who knew French was a bright, talkative, and, in Ileana's eyes, "totally bohemian" American named Michael Sonnabend. Like many Columbia students in those years, they were both considerably older than the peacetime norm: Ileana was thirty and Michael was forty-four. He told their French teacher that he was a refugee. "Where are you a refugee from?" Ileana asked him after class. "From Buffalo," he said. In spite of her shyness, they became friends.
Castelli's Army service had made him an American citizen, and when he came back after the war he and Ileana knew that they wanted to stay in New York Her ever-accommodating father bought Leo a part interest in a knitwear firm, but Leo, as usual, found office life boring. He became a private art dealer on the side, selling modern paintings sent over on consignment from Paris by René Drouin. Leo's womanizing had not abated, and Ileana was often depressed. The strongest bond in their marriage at this point was a growing interest in contemporary art. At Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery, on Fifty-seventh Street, they saw paintings by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and other New York artists who were forging the new art of Abstract Expressionism. The Castellis didn't buy this work at first, but they met most of the artists, and they gravitated increasingly toward what was then a very limited milieu of people interested in advanced art.
Each summer, several New York artists moved out to the east end of Long Island, where one could still find inexpensive rentals. Robert Motherwell owned a place in East Hampton, and he told Leo about a big shingled house for sale across the street from his, on Jericho Lane. "It was ten thousand dollars, so we bought it," Ileana recalls. "A very romantic old house, like a Russian dacha, with roses and porches and wonderful views of the sea beyond the potato fields." On weekends, the house's many rooms were usually occupied by the Castellis' new artist friends. Willem and Elaine de Kooning spent two summers there, painting every day but taking time out for trips to the Coast Guard Beach. Jackson Pollock dropped by frequently; once, roaring out of the driveway in his secondhand Cadillac, he knocked over a sculpture that Larry Rivers had given to Leo. ("That's one way to deal with the younger generation," the painter Paul Brach observed.) To most of the art crowd out there, Ileana seemed to be very much in the background. She didn't drink, for one thing-an experimental drug she was taking for depression had given her a bad case of hepatitis, and her doctor had ruled out alcohol in any form. "Besides, Leo was the one they knew," Ileana says. "I was only the wife, and I didn't dare express my opinion on anything." (Not entirely true, one gathers; Castelli once described Ileana as "a strong personality who makes you think she needs protection.") Several of Leo's friends found Ileana narcissistic and self-absorbed, especially in relation to her daughter, Nina. "I was a bad mother," Ileana concedes today. "Nina and I are very close now, and have been for the last ten years. But she had a nanny who stayed much too long, and I was somewhat displaced. If I scolded Nina, Leo would take her side." It was clear, however, that Ileana ran the household, and that the money required to run it was hers.
Besides the de Koonings, there was another permanent guest in the East Hampton house: Michael Sonnabend, Ileana's "bohemian" classmate at Columbia. Just over five feet tall and endlessly articulate, Michael had done many things in the past-guided tourists in Paris, worked as a receptionist at the Group Theatre's office in New York, made a documentary film on Michelangelo-but now his principal occupation seemed to be reading Dante. He had taught himself Italian so he could read it in the original, and his life's ambition was to memorize the entire Divine Comedy. "Nobody thought there was anything going on between Ileana and Michael," according to Paul Brach. "Leo was always perfectly accepting of Michael, who seemed asexual, as Ileana's special friend."
De Kooning kept telling Leo he should start a gallery. Leo had sold his interest in the knitwear firm, and he was using the proceeds to buy and sell paintings. Ileana was also buying things: a Léger, two Dubuffets, several Pollocks. One summer afternoon on the beach at East Hampton, de Kooning started to harangue Leo again about opening a gallery, and for once Ileana spoke up. "I think that Leo will open a gallery," she said, "and that you won't be one of his artists." Dc Kooning wanted to know why not. Ileana explained that she thought Leo would want to be involved with what was coming up, not with what was already established.
The Castelli Gallery opened in February, 1957, in the living room of Leo and Ileana's apartment at 4 East Seventy-seventh Street, with a group show of paintings by Mondrian, Picabia, Dubuffet, Léger Pollock, de Kooning, and other established Europeans and Americans, most of which Leo had acquired as a private dealer. No new ground was broken there, or in Castelli's next few shows, which featured Paul Brach, Jon Schueler, and some younger European artists, but the season-ending group show of "New Work" that May included two paintings that struck a different note. One was by Robert Rauschenberg, the other by Jasper Johns.
Rauschenberg, a thirty-one-year-old Texan, had been troubling the New York art world for several years with his high-spirited assaults on the barriers between art and life. A 1954 show of predominantly red paintings at the Egan Gallery-paintings that incorporated mirrors, flattened umbrellas, comic strips, reproductions of Old Master paintings, torn fabrics, and blinking light bulbs as collage elements-had struck Castelli as "an epiphany, an astonishing event." A second and even more compelling epiphany overtook Castelli when he saw his first painting by the twenty-seven-yearold Jasper Johns, in a 1957 group show at the Jewish Museum. It was a green collage-painting that looked like a target, with concentric circles, and it was done in encaustic-an archaic technique using wax-based pigment. Ileana was sick with the flu that day, and she remembers Leo sitting on the end of her bed and talking for quite a while about it.
Two days later, they went down to Rauschenberg's studio, on Pearl Street, to look at his work. Ileana had been intrigued by Rauschenberg ever since she first met him, at the "Ninth Street Show," a 1951 group exhibition financed largely by Casteffi. ("Who is that young prince?" she had asked Leo.) Now, seeing the new collages and "combine paintings"-Rauschenberg's term for works that incorporated scrap lumber, stuffed birds, an old quilt from his bed, and other objects from the real world-both she and Leo were impressed. "But then Bob said he was going downstairs to Jasper's loft to get ice for drinks," Ileana recalls. "It turned out that Jasper Johns lived in the studio on the floor beneath, and they had only one refrigerator between them." Leo, suddenly very excited, said he wanted to meet Johns, so they all went downstairs to his studio, where, to Ileana's amazement, they saw what looked like a formal exhibition: "Many, many marvellous paintings-paintings of targets, of flags, of numbers, all very strange and very beautiful. We were overwhelmed." Ileana bought one of the white number paintings on the spot, and Leo told Johns he wanted to give him a show. "What about Bob?" Johns inquired--a question that went unanswered. Neither of the Castellis realized how crushing their visit had been for Rauschenberg. He had seemed delighted by their reactions to his friend's work, but a few days later he came by the gallery and told Ileana (Leo was out at the time) that he had to know whether or not they planned to offer him a show. Without hesitation, Ileana said that they did, and gave him a date for the following March. Would Leo have done the same? "I think Leo had decided to show the work," Ileana told me, tactfully and a bit evasively. It was Ileana, at any rate, who said yes to Rauschenberg.
Jasper Johns's first one-man show opened at the Castelli Gallery in January of 1958, and changed the direction of contemporary art. ARTnews, the most influential art monthly, had already put Johns's "Target with Four Faces" on its cover. Alfred Barr came to the opening, stayed for three hours, and bought three pictures for the Museum of Modern Art. All but two paintings were sold, and countless artists and collectors realized that there was an alternative to the Abstract Expressionist juggernaut. The Rauschenberg show, two months later, was not nearly as successful commercially: only two paintings were sold, and Castelli bought one of them. (It was "Bed," the piece incorporating the artist's quilt.) But MOMA put both Johns and Rauschenberg in its touring "Sixteen Americans" show in 1959, and the Castelli Gallery became, within its second season, the main launching pad for new American art.
The Castellis' marriage, meanwhile, was coming apart. For years, Ileana had been "trying very hard to get over Leo's escapades," as she puts it. "I had decided that there must be an understanding, and I didn't want to take it out on the girls, because I didn't think they were at fault." But one morning, infuriated by Leo's involvement with Toiny du Bost, she threw all the breakfast dishes on the floor and walked out. Most of the couple's friends agree that Leo, who dreaded confrontations, would never have ended the marriage on his own. Even after they were divorced, in 1959, he continued to consult her on art and artists. (And on other matters as well: before marrying Toiny, in 1963, he flew to Paris to tell Ileana. "My opinion didn't count that time," she dryly notes.) Leo asked her to visit the studios of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol in 1961, when he was trying to decide between them. Both artists happened to be working just then with images taken from comic strips. Ileana urged Leo to take both of them, but Leo, feeling that Warhol's paintings were not as good, opted for Lichtenstein. (Warhol would join the gallery three years later.) Leo also wanted Ileana to confirm his choices of Frank Stella, Cy Twombly, and several others. All this presented problems, because Toiny, who had not yet married Leo, was frantically jealous. Toiny used to call up Ileana and warn her to stay away from Leo. "I think that Leo in the beginning wasn't quite sure of himself," Ileana said, "so he liked to talk things over with me. Eventually, he accepted the role-he knew what the role should be and then he grew into it."
Ileana was too involved with contemporary art to consider giving it up. For several years, she had been visiting artists' studios, looking at new work, and occasionally buying what baffled or excited her: Lichtenstein drawings, 'Warhol silk screens, key early paintings and drawings by Johns, and a number of aggressively challenging Rauschenbergs, including "Charlene," "Hymnal," Thyme," "Interior," "Odalisk," and "Canyon." A few years later, she also bought, from Castelli, one of the early black paintings that made Frank Stella famous; Ileana's was called "Point of Pines," and it became the source of a public dispute with Castelli. According to Ileana, Leo called her, saying that Stella needed to see the painting in his own studio-temporarily, she assumed-so she sent it to him, and never got it back. She hired a lawyer and eventually filed suit, but then, "to save Leo embarrassment," she agreed to an out-of-court settlement, under which Stella, who kept "Point of Pines," agreed to give Ileana a number of his later works in exchange. "Even now," she said recently, "Stella is afraid to face me." Stella's recollection, needless to say, is a little different. "Leo sold that painting to Ileana without my permission, for a price that was very beneficial to her," Stella told me. "I don't know why I had to give her anything."
In 1960, Ileana married Michael Sonnabend. (She proposed to him, according to Michael.) Neither of them felt any great urge to stay in New York at this point. Nina had graduated from N.Y.U., married a graduate student named Michael Sundell, and gone to live in Cleveland. Soon after their marriage, at any rate, the Sonnabends moved to Europe, with the idea of organizing shows of the new American art. In Rome, where they went first, a few galleries expressed interest, but nobody wanted to pay the costs of insuring and bringing over works by Rauschenberg, Johns, Lichtenstein, and the others. It was the same story in Paris a year later, when they moved there. Apparently, the only solution was to open a gallery themselves, and so, with Michael's encouragement and a few thousand dollars that Ileana had in reserve, they rented a small room on the Quai des Grands-Augustins, directly above a fashionable restaurant called the Relais Bisson.
Ileana's gallery opened in November, 1962, with a show of paintings by Jasper Johns. Rauschenberg came next, early in 1963, and was followed by Jim Dine, Roy Lichtenstein, George Segal, and two group shows of American Pop art. The shows were well attended; the critical reaction was generally hostile. Alan Jouffroy and Jean-Jacques Lebel, two young French critics who had been very encouraging at first, turned against the Sonnabends when Ileana declined to show the Surrealist artists Jouffroy and Lebel were promoting. Other critics and several dealers, angry over New York's emergence as the new center of contemporary art, accused them of cultural chauvinism.
Castelli made his artists available to show with her on the most favorable terms-"ruinous terms," according to his gallery manager at the time, Ivan Karp. Castelli paid the shipping and insurance costs, he "made sure Ileana got exactly what she wanted," Karp recalls, "and there was no pressure to turn over revenue." But Ileana did not depend exclusively on Castelli artists. Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, and George Segal were showing then with Richard Bellamy's Green Gallery in New York, and Jim Dine, who became her bestselling artist, was with Martha Jackson. Ileana ran the gallery, and Michael talked. He talked to everyone who came in, advancing acrobatic theories about the art on view to artists and students and critics and museum curators, more and more of whom flocked to Sonnabend to find out about the latest developments in New York. Behind the scenes, Michael encouraged Ileana to be tougher and more daring. "Michael was an enormous catalyst for Ileana," according to Antonio Homem, a reedthin, voluble Portuguese engineering graduate who went to work for the Sonnabends in Paris in 1968. (He took the job after his wife, who had had it before him, decided to leave both the gallery and the marriage, taking their two-year-old son with her.) "At the gallery, it was Michael who gave the initiative, and Ileana who acted," Antonio told me. "That's the way their relationship works."
When Rauschenberg won the international grand prize for painting at the 1964 Venice Biennale something no American artist had done before-artworld gossip implicated Leo Castelli: his devious political maneuverings, it was said, had influenced the jury. Leo and Toiny had been in Venice for a week before the vernissage, to be sure, holding court every afternoon at a table at Florian's, while Ileana and Michael presided over a table of their own nearby. But the groundswell of enthusiasm for Rauschenberg in Europe really originated with the shows that Ileana gave him in Paris, and other shows that she arranged for him at several European galleries. In 1962, just before she left New York for Paris, Rauschenberg had given her an intensely personal good-luck charm-a partially sucked Life Saver, which he encased in soft metal, and which she wore on a chain around her neck for many years. "The Life Saver means what it means," Rauschenberg told me not long ago, and it was intended to work both ways. "It became an icon of our friendship, beyond the call of duty"
As Leo Castelli's wife, Ileana had been a largely silent partner, but in Paris, where the attitude toward women in business was even more patronizing than it was in New York, she developed a reputation for being blunt, outspoken, and "difficult." When the art critic of Paris Match came to the gallery one day and spoke condescendingly about the art there, Ileana ordered him to leave.
("Dehors!") Away from the gallery, Ileana was still fairly reclusive. She and Michael would show up most evenings at the Café de Flore, with their dog, a longhaired dachshund named Piccina (one of Noodle's successors), but when Michael went off to the theatre afterward, as he often did, Ileana went home to their extremely modest flat, next door to the gallery, on the Quai des Grands-Augustins, and read a book Implausibly, she took up knitting, and made sweaters for Michael, Antonio, and certain close friends. Ileana and Michael travelled a lot, going to Venice in the summer, and spending time in museums. Later on, she discovered the opera, which she enjoyed greatly but selectively-Lully, Mozart, some Verdi, most of Wagner, but definitely not Puccini (too sentimental). Ileana took pleasure in the sensual and aesthetic aspects of life, but she remained, as Judith Goldman, who is writing Castelli's biography, once put it, like a Jasper Johns painting, "full of doors that open and shut."
Now in her early fifties, Ileana felt increasingly inclined to embrace risk and adventure. She showed American Pop art, minimal art, conceptual art, and, a little later, video and dance and performance art. She also took on a number of European artists, and developed a network of European collectors. Ileana was much tougher to deal with than Castelli. She drove hard bargains, pitting one buyer against another and sometimes playing games with clients. She told a client that a Johns painting was "not for you," and coolly informed another, who had asked if she knew who he was, "Yes, I do, and the price will be a little higher." She could be coquettish in business dealings. Now and then, when a collector pressed her to sell a painting, she would murmur, "Tempt me." She had what one of her artists, Mel Bochner, called "the mentality of a seductress."
The Galerie Sonnabend in Paris never made money, even after it moved, in 1966, to larger quarters on the Rue Mazarmne and became a meeting place for everyone interested in advanced art. Ileana tried opening a second gal[cry, in Geneva, but the European market for new art dried up almost completely in 1968, in the political turmoil
following the student insurrections, and Michael Sonnabend began to argue for a return to New York. Ileana kept the Paris gallery going until 1980, but, from the mid-seventies, the New York gallery was her center of operations.
She opened uptown in 1970, at 924 Madison Avenue. SoHo, the downtown industrial district south of Houston Street, was starting to become a new center for contemporary-art galleries, however, and Leo Castelli had bought an interest in a building at 420 West Broadway. André Emmerich was taking the fifth floor there, John Weber the fourth, and Castelli claimed the second and persuaded Ileana to move into the third. The opening of all four galleries on the same day (September 25, 1971) marked SoHo's real debut as a major art center, and the main event was Gilbert and George's "The Singing Sculpture," at Sonnabend. Gilbert and George were two youngish Britons who, in identical tight suits, their faces and hands
painted bronze, stood on a small table in the middle of the gallery and, with stylized gestures and no expression whatsoever, sang the words to an endlessly repeated tape of a nineteen-thirties British music-hall ditty called "Underneath the Arches." In the highly chauvinistic art world of those days, the message was that New York's monopoly on outrageous innovation was up for grabs.
Some art galleries have a clear and specific direction in the art they show. Ileana's never did; her range of interests was too wide and unpredictable. Asked once what motivated her as a dealer and a collector, Ileana answered, "Curiosity and greed." She was drawn to work that she found troubling, or even upsetting. As a result, she showed and often bought art that seemed incomprehensible at the time, but which later came to be recognized as the artist's best work. "I only want what I don't like," she said, half jokingly. What she wanted above all was to be surprised. Vito Acconci managed that with 'Seedbed," his first show at the SoHo gallery, in 1972. He built a wooden -amp at one end of the gallery, under which, concealed from view, he masturbated at intervals during the show's two-week run, his sighs and mumbled fantasies made audible to gallerygoers through loudspeakers. (When Ileana was told what he planned to doshe vas in Venice at the time-her only concern was that he might hurt himself.) The plan had been that Michael Sonnabend would run the New York gallery and Ileana would spend about half her time in Paris, but running things was not Michael's strong point. Ileana and Antonio oversaw both the New York and the Paris galleries, commuting between them; they hired younger people to direct the day-to-day operations, and Michael kept an advisory role. In the choice of new artists, his opinion was sometimes decisive. Ileana and Antonio were uncertain about David Salle, for example,
but Michael didn't like his work, and Salle went elsewhere-first to Annina Nosei, then to Mary Boone, and, more recently, to Gagosian.
In New York, Ileana showed the European artists she had discovered in Paris-Mario Merz, Jannis Kounellis, Pier Paolo Calzolari, and others, whose use of throwaway, non-art materials became known as Arte Povera. She showed photographs and photo-based work, and conceptual work, and (at the uptown gallery, which she kept running until 1973) the Art Deco furniture and decorative objects she had collected in Paris, because they appealed to her as sculpture. Advanced art in the seventies was anti-painting and, in some ways, anti-buyer. "We were all being wonderfully sanctimonious about the fact that there was nothing to sell," according to Ealan Wingate, the droll young man whom Ileana had engaged to manage the SoHo gallery.
In the early eighties, Ileana was one of the first to present the new German art in New York, showing Georg Baselitz, Jorg Immendorf and A. R. Penck She bought out Anseim Kiefer's studio at one point-around twenty paintings-but then Kiefer disappointed her by going to the Marian Goodman Gallery. In 1986, when four ambitious young American artists who had been presenting their own work in an East Village gallery called International with Monument decided that they wanted to enter the big time, it was the Sonnabend Gallery they chose. They liked its historical resonance and the fact that it was not overburdened with famous artists. Ileana's group show of those four-Ashley Bickerton, Peter Halley, Meyer Vaisman, and Jeff Koons-ushered in the "neo-geo" movement, and precipitated its move from the lively but precarious East Village galleries to SoHo. Ileana's New York gallery may have lacked the superstar panache of Castelli's, one floor below, but her shows were striking, thoughtprovoking, not to be missed. "I always liked the no-nonsense, almost clinical look of her gallery," Larry Gagosian, today's highest-riding dealer, said recently. "The way she presented things, they always looked important, even when they weren't."
Although quite a few artists have stayed with Ileana since the nineteen seventies, many others have left her, sometimes with deep regret. Jim Dine was one of the first to go, in 1975. Like most Sonnabend artists, Dine couldn't fathom Ileana's byzantine accounting methods. "I never saw a statement," he said. "If you asked her for money, she would pull out this wad of bills in every possible currency, and peel off a few. The reason I left her gallery, finally, was that I had kids growing up, and I had to have more money, so I went to Pace. There were no hard feelings. I loved her--I still love her. I've never known anyone who had more feeling for my work. She always made me feel there were more possibilities for it."
Some artists found her manipulative and controlling. Ileana wasn't keen on letting her artists show at other galleries, as Leo did. "She wanted to keep control over my entire output," says Meyer Vaisman, who hasnt shown with Sonnabend since 1992. "I felt that Ileana came first, second, third, fourth, and fifth, then came Antonio, then the collectors, and eventually the artist."
Peter Halley's defection to the Gagosian Gallery was accompanied by bad feelings and a legal skirmish. William Wegman reports that soon after a fire destroyed his studio-and everything in it-Ileana told him she was reducing his stipend. Wegman went on to have great success with Holly Solomon; he is on good terms with Ileana today, but at the time he found it startling that a dealer could be more difficult than an artist. Jeff Koons left the gallery in 1992, because Ileana balked at his endlessly escalating financial needs, but he recently started to work with her again.
When Ileana feels betrayed by artists or associates, she is unforgiving. She has stopped speaking to Ealan Wingate and Robert Pincus-Witten, both of whom worked for her in the past, because they went on to work for Gagosian and (she believes) lured artists to leave her gallery for his. Ileana never turned against Leo Castelli, though, and in many ways she and Leo remained closer to each other than to anyone else. The deep affection between them was based, as such bonds often are, on their being so different in most ways and yet so alike in others. "You know," Ileana said jokingly to Leo, some years ago, "both of us are such adolescents." "That's true," Leo agreed, "and nobody knows it but us." A few months before Leo's death, I asked Ileana whether she remembered that exchange, and she said she did. We were having lunch with Antonio Homem and Michael Sonnabend, who commented that he still thought of Leo Castelli as a child. "Somebody must take care of him, always," he said. "Ileana is not a child, she's a mother. “No, no, no," protested Antonio. "Ileana is a child, Michael, and so are you. I'm the only mother in this family. “Ileana is the boss," Michael said. "Everything she does surprises me."Thank you," Ileana murmured. "That's very nice. Nina Sundell, Ileana and Leo's daughter, told me that, as far as she knows, Ileana has made no arrangements for the future disposition of her vast collection. The Baltimore Museum of Art, where many of her paintings and sculptures have been on loan for several years, obviously has its hopes, and so does the Museum of Modern Art, which has been angling for several years to buy things from her-MOMA would particularly like to get Rauschenberg's "Canyon," an early combine painting whose main collage element is a large stuffed eagle-but Ileana has yet to be tempted. Recently, she hinted that the collection might end up at Sotheby's or Christie's. "What about 'Canyon'?" I asked her. "Well," she said, laughing, "if they build a pyramid for me when I die, I would like it in there with me."
A few years back, Leo Castelli agreed to sell Rauschenberg's "Bed" to MOMA. A meeting was called to discuss the price, which, judging from recent auction and private sales of the artist's work, was expected to be in the millions, but Castelli stopped the proceedings short by reminding everyone that he had promised, long ago, to donate the work to the museum. "I said I would give it," he announced, "and I will give it." This sort of grand gesture, so characteristic of Leo, did not impress Ileana. "I thought it was crazy," she told me. "It certainly would not have been my choice. Of course, he did well for the painting. But, you know, I am not so enchanted with museums. Things change in museums, director’s change. I would much rather sell to collectors, who appreciate what they've got."
In 1998, she did sell her two very important early Jasper Johns paintings, "Gray Target" and "Flag Above White," for what was reported to be twenty million dollars. S. I. Newhouse, Jr., the collector and publisher (of this magazine, among others), was the buyer; he kept "Gray Target" for himself and arranged for David Geffen, the entertainment mogul, to buy "Flag Above White." Newhouse had to wait five months before Ileana agreed to his offer. "I was unhappy to part with them," Ileana told me, "but I thought it would be nice to have some security. It happened because I realized my age. Usually I am unconscious of my age, but once in a while I remember, and then I wonder what I'm doing." She gave a slightly mischievous smile, and sipped her caffe macchiato. "In my life," she said, "I've been doing pretty much what I wanted to do, and I go on."