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“Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New” at the Museum of Modern Art is a cold and impersonal show which comes across as what it is, the outcome of legal hassles and diplomatic campaigns surrounding her billion dollar estate. Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Romania in 1914, she married no other than Leo Castelli, born Leo Krausz, in 1932. During World War II, they and their young daughter, Nina, fled Europe for New York, where Castelli opened a gallery that would be legendary. Artwise they were the perfect art dealing couple. Even though it might be thought that Castelli was the adventurous one, this MOMA exhibition show that she was the one with the discerning eye and he was the charmer. Together, in 1957 they made a famous exploratory trip to Robert Rauschenberg’s studio, where they met Jasper Johns. Sonnabend bought a Johns painting on the spot and became Rauschenberg’s avid and lasting advocate.

After she and Castelli divorced in 1959, Sonnabend remarried, moved to Paris and opened a gallery of her own. She introduced American artists like Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Rauschenberg to Europe, helping, long-distance, to position New York as the new art capital. When she moved back to Manhattan in 1968 and set up business in SoHo, she pulled traffic in the other direction, drawing avant-garde European art from across the Atlantic. She sustained this cosmopolitan mix for five decades, and stayed interested in new art until her death at 92 in 2007. The MoMA show, organized by Ann Temkin, the museum’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, and Claire Lehmann, a curatorial assistant, is a sampler of some 40 objects covering that span, some owned by Sonnabend at one time and others she exhibited in her gallery. Rauschenberg’s monumental 1959 assemblage or “combine” titled “Canyon” has pride of place just inside the gallery entrance, and for good reason. It was Sonnabend’s favourite among the thousands of objects she acquired. It was a much-reported MoMA acquisition in 2012. And it’s still a startler. Its central element, a taxidermied bald eagle, spread-winged and with a trussed pillow dangling from its claws, conjoins an American emblem with a reference to the Greek myth of Zeus and Ganymedes, which might be the only truly gay reference in mythology.

Seen as a group, these Rauschenbergs show how the last sixty years of US art history are about shock and advertising. This is obvious in Warhol’s spectacular “Death and Disaster”  with repeated images of a suicide shuddering across the canvas. (Although shipped, this painting didn’t end up in Warhol’s Paris show because it was too big to fit in the gallery.) She brought more Pop from New York — James Rosenquist, Tom Wesselmann — but by the mid- to late-1960s her interests had moved on to American Minimalism, evident here in a majestic Robert Morris sculpture in draped industrial felt. At the same time, she was captivated by a European near-equivalent, Arte Povera, distinguished by a grounding in radical politics and by a poetic use of materials, as in an untitled Giovanni Anselmo sculpture made from carved granite and fresh lettuce.

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She exhibited and collected photography at a time when many people didn’t accept the medium as art. And she challenged those who did by promoting hard-to-love work, like the mid-1960s “portraits” of German industrial architecture taken by Bernd and Hilla Becher. She gave fledgling media like video and performance an early berth.

It’s safe to say that Vito Acconci’s notorious 1972 performance, “Seedbed,” for which the artist masturbated, invisibly but audibly, for hours, under a gallery floor, would not have been welcome at many other SoHo spaces, including, one suspects, the Castelli Gallery. When Sonnabend found an artist interesting, she let him (her roster was almost entirely male) do what he wanted, no questions asked. Her final commitment to something like a movement came in the 1980s when she took on young American artists like Ashley Bickerton, Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach, who cribbed from Pop, Minimalism and Conceptualism and who, in ways that make even more sense now, were gripped by a love-hate infatuation with the market. Classic pieces by all three are here. At this point of the show, one must admire the clarity of this woman eye and determination.

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Unwillingly, by placing Rauschengerg’s ‘Canyon’ at the center of the exhibition, the curators transformed the show into an allegory of how much is at stake in today’s world. One sees these works and cannot help to think: ‘Lucky, bitch’. But then, as after any party, comes the comedown. In fact, the show revolves around Canyon in a very vertiginous way. Because it incorporates the remains of a bald eagle, an endangered species, the work could not be sold. When Sonnabend died and her collection was appraised for tax purposes, her heirs — her daughter, Nina Sundell, and her adopted son, Antonio Homem — valued the unmarketable “Canyon” at zero; the Internal Revenue Service, however, estimated that it was worth $65 million and was prepared to tax the estate accordingly. A deal was struck. If the piece was donated to a museum, the estate tax on it would be dropped. Both the Met and MoMA badly wanted it, and Sonnabend’s heirs made conditions for a gift. The receiving institution would be required to mount an exhibition in Sonnabend’s honor and inscribe her name in the museum’s list of founding donors. In the end, Sundell and Homem deemed MoMA, which owns five Rauschenberg combines, the more appropriate setting.  Sonnabend’s name is now dutifully listed among the founders in the museum’s lobby.

That might be the reason why this exhibition feels cold, dutiful and cautious. MoMA is clearly concerned about perceptions of impropriety, the taint of commerce. Sonnabend Gallery is still in business; what remains of the collection (portions have already been sold) could go on the block at any time. Apparently to avoid the impression that the MoMA exhibition might serve as a sales show, the curators have surrounded “Canyon” mostly with work already in museum collections, including its own. Such caution is wise, but in this instance it also prevents a subject from getting its full due. Sonnabend’s is an important story, not only because of the range of art she embraced, but because she lived in an era when few women were doing what she did. This, however, is not explored and it is as if the show is just complying to that purchase agreement and that’s it. It feels like a lost opportunity if you ask me. Just a thought.