Ileana Sonnabend, 92; influential N.Y. art dealer, collector

Times Staff Writer

Ileana Sonnabend, an art dealer who helped launch the careers of Pop artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in the late 1950s and later promoted a number of other progressive young artists as the owner of Sonnabend Gallery in New York City, has died. She was 92.

Sonnabend died Sunday at her home in Manhattan, said Antonio Homem, her son and director of the gallery. She had been in failing health for some months with a heart condition and other ailments, Homem said.

Sonnabend and her first husband, art dealer Leo Castelli, were at the forefront of the contemporary American art scene in the 1950s, and she went on to establish her own career after the couple divorced in 1959.

She married Michael Sonnabend, a Dante scholar, in 1960. Two years later, they opened Galerie Ileana Sonnabend in Paris, where she introduced art by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and others, and helped establish a European market for their work.

"What Ileana Sonnabend achieved was remarkable," Los Angeles art dealer Margo Leavin said in an interview this week. "Introducing so many American artists to European collectors and museums was extremely important."

Sonnabend was known to be quiet and discreet in public. "It was Sonnabend Gallery, and the artists, that Ileana promoted. Not herself," veteran New York art dealer Paula Cooper said in an interview this week.

In business, however, she was said to be shrewd and manipulative, which made her "a cross between Buddha and Machiavelli," according to a New Yorker magazine profile of Sonnabend by Calvin Tomkins in 2000.

Throughout her career, she was attracted to art that was considered strange or difficult.

"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," Tomkins wrote.

Several times Sonnabend exhibited selections from her private holdings. Displays of Conceptual and Minimal sculpture by Dan Flavin and Robert Morris, mixed-media works by German-born Anselm Kiefer, installation art by Mario Merz and other members of the Italian-based Arte Povera movement, and kitsch-inspired works by Jeff Koons suggested the range of her personal tastes.

In interviews, she said she did not know how many works she owned.

"We never count and we never look back," Homem said of the collection this week. He referred to it as "a self-portrait of Ileana, and an autobiography." The future of the collection has not been decided, he said.

Born Ileana Schapira in Bucharest, Romania, on Oct. 28, 1914, she was the daughter of a prominent Jewish industrialist.

She met Castelli when she was 17 and married him the next year. Instead of a ring, she asked for an artwork. She and Castelli picked out a watercolor by Henri Matisse, Tomkins wrote.

After the outbreak of World War II, the couple escaped Europe and settled in New York City, where Castelli was a private art dealer until he opened a gallery in their home in 1957. They had one daughter, Nina, before they divorced.

She remained close to Castelli for the rest of his life and held a number of art shows with him before he died in 1999.

In 1971, Sonnabend joined Castelli and other top New York dealers who opened galleries in a building at 420 W. Broadway in lower Manhattan. The industrial chic restoration instantly became the center of the emerging SoHo art scene.

At about the same time, she opened a gallery on Madison Avenue, specializing in French Art Deco furniture.

In the 1980s, Sonnabend and her second husband adopted Homem, then in his 40s. He had worked closely with the couple for some years.

She continued to bring in emerging talents while her husband, Michael, held articulate discussions with gallery visitors, even about the most baffling works on view.

In 2000, after she had closed her other galleries, Sonnabend and Homem moved the SoHo gallery to West 22nd Street in the Chelsea district.

In addition to her daughter, Nina Sundell, and Homem, Sonnabend is survived by three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Michael Sonnabend died in 2001.


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