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Peggy Guggenheim Collection Presents Exhibition of Gallerist Ileana Sonnabend: An Italian Portrait
James Rosenquist, Sliced Bologna, 1968. Oil on slit Mylar, 259.1 x 266.7 cm. The Sonnabend Collection. On loan to MART (Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto), Rovereto, Italy ©James Rosenquist, by SIAE 2011.

VENICE.- Considered by many to be among the greatest gallerists of late 20th century contemporary art, Ileana Sonnabend (1914-2007) also brought together a major art collection of her own. The exhibition Ileana Sonnabend. An Italian Portrait, on view at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, from May 29 to October 2, 2011, presents works from the Sonnabend Collection, New York, on the theme of Italy: works by Italian artists, and works by international artists which reference Italian culture, tradition, and topography.

Ileana Schapira was born in Bucharest, Romania. Her father was a successful businessman and financial advisor to King Carol II of Romania. She met Leo Krausz (later Castelli) in 1932 and married him a year later. In 1935 they moved to Paris and opened an art gallery there, with René Drouin, before emigrating to New York in 1941. Leo Castelli joined the US army, and Ileana studied at Columbia University, where she met Michael Sonnabend, whom she was to marry in 1959. In the 1940s and 50s the Castellis initiated a collection of art that included works by Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock. In 1957 they opened their first art gallery in New York. Together they discovered and exhibited the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and began lifetimes of showing new art, beginning with Neo-dada and Pop Art (Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and James Rosenquist). Late in 1962 Michael and Ileana Sonnabend opened the Galerie Ileana Sonnabend in Paris, where they exhibited the work of American artists but also the work of several young Italians, beginning with Mario Schifano (1963) and Michelangelo Pistoletto (1964), followed by Gilberto Zorio, Mario Merz and Giovanni Anselmo (1969), Piero Paolo Calzolari (1971), Jannis Kounellis (1972) and others.

In 1970 Ileana Sonnabend opened a gallery in New York, moving in 1971 to the SoHo district, together with the Castelli Gallery, thus spurring a migration of the contemporary art scene in New York. She opened her SoHo gallery with a now-celebrated performance by Gilbert & George. As she continued, through her gallery and collecting, to register new art as it emerged on both the European and the New York scene—Minimalism, Arte Povera, Conceptual Art, performance, Transavanguardia, Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Geo and new photography—she acquired a reputation for her connoisseurship, her appetite for ‘the new’ and for the international character of her gallery.

Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) and Ileana Sonnabend had in common that their careers were as both gallerists and collectors. In New York in the 1940s the Castellis frequented Guggenheim’s Art of This Century museum-gallery (1942-47)—about which Castelli remarked “Peggy’s gallery was a sensation…No one realized that Peggy was doing something of epoch-making importance.” The Castellis bought works of art from Guggenheim. However, whereas Guggenheim’s patronage focused on the generation of the American Abstract Expressionists, Ileana Sonnabend promoted subsequent avant-gardes over a fifty-year period, as if in a line of succession from Guggenheim.

Michael and Ileana Sonnabend had strong personal ties to Italy, and to Venice in particular, where for many years they rented an apartment for the summer. Beginning with a sojourn in Rome in 1960, where they were in contact with the ‘Scuola di Piazza del Popolo’ and the dealer Plinio de Martiis, and in 1962 in Venice, where they were befriended by artists, critics and dealers such as Giuseppe Santomaso, Giuseppe Marchiori, Attilio Codognato, Giovanni Camuffo and Carlo Cardazzo, they formed many close Italian friendships, including Gian Enzo Sperone, Germano Celant, Achille Bonito Oliva, Giuseppe and Giovanna Panza, and the many artists whose works Ileana would exhibit, in Paris and New York. Ileana, with Leo Castelli and Alan Solomon, played an important role in bringing Robert Rauschenberg to the 1964 Venice Biennale, where he won the Grand Prix for Painting—a crucial event in the career of Rauschenberg, in the history of the Venice Biennale and of European and American contemporary art as a whole.

Ileana Sonnabend. An Italian Portrait brings together more than 60 works by almost 50 artists, selected by Antonio Homem (director of the Sonnabend Gallery, New York, and adopted son of Ileana Sonnabend). It will include Andy Warhol’s portrait of Ileana Sonnabend, works on Italian themes by Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, works by Italians such as Tano Festa, Lucio Fontana, Mimmo Rotella, Schifano and Piero Manzoni, works by American artists inspired by Italian culture (Jim Dine, James Rosenquist, John Baldessari for example), by artists of the Arte Povera movement (Zorio, Anselmo, Calzolari, Jannis Kounnelis, and Merz), by several international photographers (including Bernd and Hilla Becher, Candida Höfer, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Max Becher and Andrea Robbins), and by many others—whether Italian (Giulio Paolini, Luigi Ontani) or not (Bruce Nauman, Anselm Kiefer, Philip Haas, Rona Pondick for example). The exhibition moves beyond its Italian leitmotif to a more general survey of the diversity, originality and indeed brilliance of Ileana Sonnabend’s career as a promoter and collector of emerging art.

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