Gallerist and patron Ileana Sonnabend (née Schapira) stands as one of the most influential and provocative figures of the recent art historical canon. From her early childhood interests to her marriages and subsequent collaborations with Leo Castelli and Michael Sonnabend, her life revolved around championing art and artists—particularly works that challenged the status quo. The Castellis presided over the conversations and debates that shaped the art world in New York, eventually opening a gallery in the sitting room of their Manhattan residence in 1957. Ileana came to be known for her connoisseurial eye and artistic judgement, and the Castellis’ sphere of influence included such figures as Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Harold Rosenberg and Sidney Janis.
Following her divorce, Ileana married Michael Sonnabend, an erudite scholar and writer, and opened Galerie Sonnabend in Paris. After setting the European cultural scene ablaze with their fearless shows of American Pop art, they returned to New York, opening the Sonnabend Gallery in the same building as Leo Castelli. Like so many prescient collectors before them, Ileana and Michael Sonnabend embraced the controversial and ‘difficult’ works now considered masterpieces of post-war and contemporary art. Encompassing major works of painting, sculpture, drawing and prints from a diverse range of masters, their collection was the natural outcome of a lifetime spent with artists. The Sonnabends’ collection, much of which passed through inheritance to Ileana’s daughter, Nina Castelli Sundell, was so vast that it was regularly lent to museums across the United States and Europe. It remains one of the 20th century’s greatest assemblages of fine art, one that is indelibly linked to the fascinating personal history and connoisseurial vision of Ileana Sonnabend.
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