First, a note: I am wary of exhibitions that celebrate dealers and collectors. If we accept that the unbridled market stifles the art world of today, we should also be careful of the logic behind celebrating market dealers past. That grain of salt in mind, the two coincidental exhibitions in New York, on the gallerists Ileana Sonnabend (1914–2007) at the Museum of Modern Art and Holly Solomon (1934–2002) at Mixed Greens and Pavel Zoubok Gallery, make for engaging historiography, selective histories within the established art narratives. It’s worth noting that both gallerists were women in a field dominated, especially until the 1980s, by men. Both, as argued well by each exhibition, put their taste above the immediate demands of the market.
The publicity image for each exhibition is a portrait of the gallerist by Warhol. For Solomon, it is a vertical photo booth series from 1983, Solomon clearly enjoying herself as she mugs for each shot. In Sonnabend’s 1973 diptych portrait, Warhol applied his signature mess of zig-zags around the contours of the silkscreened image. The reliance on Warhol is no coincidence: his alchemical touch makes these women familiar, even to those who don’t frequent the back rooms of the art world.
Hooray for Hollywood! at Mixed Greens opens with a room full of portraits of the gallerist by artists from Robert Mapplethrope to William Wegman to Christo. It has the feel of an altar to Solomon, proof of her dearness to this eclectic group. As pointed out in the press release, her tastes largely fell into two categories: Gordon Matta-Clark and his circle, and the “Pattern and Decoration” group for which the gallery became known.
Though the “P and D” artists have not been canonized like some of their peers, their legacy can be seen in the slight, colorful, playful “new casualist” works that populate so many Lower East Side and Bushwick galleries. Robert Kushner’s 1976 “Wedding Dress” cheerily dominates one wall of the upstairs Pavel Zoubok gallery (whose space is also given over to the Solomon exhibition); inviting and delicate, the work towers over and embraces you at once. Valerie Jaudon’s “North Carrollton II,” 1979, could have been made yesterday: a red and black pattern filled in with masterfully-textured paint.
In Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New, the gallerist is less of a visual presence in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition — you can spot her in some vintage photographs of openings and events at the Sonnabend Galleries in New York and Paris, and of course in the Warhol work that greets the viewer.
Instead, Sonnabend shines through in the exhibition’s wall texts. The pithy quotations the curators selected portray the gallerist every artist wants on their side. To John Baldessari she says: “John, occasionally you’ll probably do a show that maybe we don’t care for, but it doesn’t matter, we’ll always be behind you.” To Tom Wesselmann, whose luscious, cartoonish “Great American Nude #75” was a concern for criticism, she wrote from Italy: “Don’t worry, the censors haven’t been around—it’s too hot here in Venice.”
Much of the work is familiar to museum- and Chelsea-goers, from Jeff Koons to Gilbert and George to Hiroshi Sugimoto, proof of Sonnabend’s influence. More exciting and less commonly seen are some choice arte povera works. Pier Paolo Calzolari (whose 2012 show at Boesky and Pace was a revelation) is represented by the neon-studded tobacco leaves of his 1969-70 work “Non”; the odd copper spindles of Mario Merz’s “Igloo Fibonacci” dominate another corner. Sonnabend was an early champion of video art, establishing (with her ex-husband) Castelli-Sonnabend Tapes and Films to distribute the works of Joan Jonas, Vito Acconci, and William Wegman.
At the entrance to main gallery of the Sonnabend exhibition, Robert Rauschenberg’s iconic “Canyon” is triumphantly on display, given to MoMA in 2012 by Sonnabend’s heirs after hanging for years in the Metropolitan Museum’s galleries. It’s the ideal piece for the exhibition, a reminder that collections, and the gallerists who make them, matter.
Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New is on view at The Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd St, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 21.