“Ileana Sonnabend Ambasador for the New”, Museum of Modern Art,

 Village Voice,

by R.C. Baker,

Dec. 21, 2013- April 21, 2014_


“Ileana Sonnabend Ambasador for the New”, Museum of Modern Art, Dec. 21, 2013- April 21, 2014

MOMA's exhibition of works that passed through Sonnabend's Paris and New York galleries offers a hit parade of postwar heavyweights — Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Bruce Nauman, Jeff Koons — and some lesser known masters such as David Haxton, whose 1975 video Overlapping Planes creates, through negative film, gorgeously irradiated shadow play.

Sonnabend gave Warhol his first European solo show, though a 10-foot-tall masterpiece from the beginning of the powerful "Disaster" series was too big to fit into the gallery. On view here, 1947 White (1963) features a Life magazine photo, screen-printed 17 times, of a young woman who had leapt from the Empire State Building and landed atop a car. Her face appears shockingly serene, as if floating in a gentle pond rather than amid sinuous curves of caved-in metal. Warhol, the church-going Catholic, comes across in a statement he once made about his catastrophe canvases: "It's not that I feel sorry for them, it's just that people go by and it doesn't really matter to them that someone unknown was killed. So I thought it would be nice for these unknown people to be remembered by those who ordinarily wouldn't think of them."

A cheerier empathy emanates from Robert Rauschenberg's sublime 1959 Combine painting Canyon, which Sonnabend presciently purchased for herself even while there was substantial controversy over the Texas-born artist's talent; that same year, Hilton Kramer assailed the Combines' "breakdown in standards" and Rauschenberg's "window decorator sensibility." Yet Sonnabend's European eye saw in the work's enigmatic force something profoundly American — a celebration of the everyday in such secondhand detritus as a flattened steel drum, a tattered stuffed eagle, frayed fabrics, "and whatever the day would lay out," as Rauschenberg once put it. There is also, through a cinched pillow recalling uplifted buttocks, a taboo-challenging intimation of homosexual desire that further outraged Eisenhower-era prudery.

Canyon gets at the conundrum of a museum show that might be seen as shilling for a gallery that is still in business. When Sonnabend died, the piece was deemed unsalable because it featured a federally protected species, that pesky eagle. And so, after jousting with the Internal Revenue Service, her family made a gift of it to MOMA. Just the way Sonnabend liked her art — complicated, and way more than skin deep.