October 28, 1914, is the birthdate of Ileana Sonnabend, the aristocratic, Bucharest-born art dealer who played important roles both in introducing European audiences to the work of such American artists as Andy Warhol, Jim Dine and Roy Lichtenstein, and later in exhibiting contemporary Europeans to Americans. Although Sonnabend was long overshadowed by her onetime husband and business partner Leo Castelli, it was her taste and artistic judgment that helped place them both at the cutting edge of the art world.
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Ileana Schapira was the daughter of Mihail Schapira, a financial adviser to Romania’s King Carol II, one of that country’s most successful industrialists, and a Jew, and the Austrian-born Marianne Strate-Felber.
In 1932, she met Leo Castelli (1907-1909), a Jewish businessman from Trieste (his banker father, Ernest Krauss, had adopted the name of his Italian wife). Castelli who had arrived in Bucharest to work for an Italian insurance company.
Marked by Matisse
Although Castelli’s original interest was in Ileana’s older sister, Eve, he soon transferred his affections to the 17-year-old Ileana, and they married later that year. At her request, he marked their engagement not with a diamond ring but with a watercolor by Matisse.
In 1936, in light of the rising tide of anti-Semitism, Leo and Ileana left Romania for Paris. Bored with his banking job there, Castelli decided in 1939 to open an art gallery in their apartment. It was popular, but soon closed, due to the outbreak of World War II.
Only in 1941 did the couple and their five-year-old daughter join Ileana’s parents in New York, where Mihail set them up on a floor of the townhouse he bought on East 77th Street. Through her mother’s second husband, the Russian-born painter John Graham, she and Leo met many young artists, some of whom Castelli began to represent, even while holding a day job running a knitwear firm.
Finally, in 1957, Castelli opened a gallery – again, in the living room of his and Ileana’s home. It was there that painters Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg – soon to be superstars of the New York art world – had some of their earliest solo shows, events that put both them and the Castelli gallery on the map.
Unfortunate habits and bald eagles
The couple divorced in 1959, largely as a result of Castelli’s ongoing philandering. They continued, however, to remain close personally, and Leo continued to rely on Ileana’s advice about art.
In 1960, Ileana married Michael Sonnabend, a scholar of Italian literature whom she had met years earlier in a class at Columbia University, and they moved to Europe – first to Rome, then to Paris, where they opened a gallery of their own.
The Galerie Sonnabend remained open until 1980, even though Ileana and Michael returned to New York in 1969. The French public responded with enthusiasm to the American artists they displayed, but local critics resented the cultural intrusion.
When asked once by a journalist what drove her as a dealer and collector, she responded, “Curiosity and greed.”
Back in New York, the Sonnabends opened a gallery, first on Madison Ave., and later in SoHo, where they showed such artists as Jeff Koons, Christo and Vito Acconci. (Acconci’s 1972 show, “Seedbed,” allowed an audience to listen to the sounds of him masturbating, live, though not visible, in the gallery.)
Clearly, not all of the art she exhibited was sellable, but over the years, Sonnabend – who one critic, talking to The New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins, memorably described as being “a cross between Buddha and Machiavelli” – built up a personal collection of fine art, decorative art and furniture that, at her death, contributed to an estate valued at approximately $1 billion.
When she died, on October 21, 2007, the IRS valued “Canyon,” a Rauschenberg “assemblage” she owned, at $65 million, and hit her heirs with a $29 million bill for it alone. But because one element of “Canyon” is a stuffed bald eagle, an endangered species in the U.S., it could not be sold. In the end, the Sonnabend estate gifted “Canyon” to the Museum of Modern Art, which included it in a 2013 exhibition of some 40 objects either owned or exhibited by Sonnabend, called “Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New.”