Ileana Sonnabend And Nina Castelli Sundell Collection Hits The Auction Block

Works from two pioneering art world figures: Ileana Sonnabend, one of the most innovative, daring, and stimulating gallerists of 20th-Century art, and her daughter Nina Castelli Sundell, the visionary curator and scholar who worked to introduce contemporary art to audiences throughout the United States are to go under the hammer at Christie’s. Ileana Sonnabend devoted her life to the discovery, appreciation, and promotion of new talent, often championing minimal, conceptual and performance works that were outside the comfort zone of the majority of her peers. From her gallery in Paris, Ileana Sonnabend introduced European connoisseurs to the untested American talents of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jim Dine. A decade later she reversed the process, using her New York gallery to expose Americans to a new generation of European artists. She also brought together a major art collection of her own, one that has never been on the market and that boasts classic examples of Post-War and Contemporary paintings, drawings, and sculptures, as well as major works of Arte Povera. Highlights of the collection will be presented in San Francisco and Los Angeles in April, before being offered at auction in New York on May 13-14.

Laura Paulson, Chairman and International Director for Post-War and Contemporary Art, declared: “It is such an honor for Christie’s to present this remarkable ensemble of WORKS FROM THE COLLECTION OF ILEANA SONNABEND AND THE ESTATE OF NINA CASTELLI SUNDELL. Many of Sonnnabend’s exhibitions helped determine the course of art history in the late 20th Century, as she discovered and promoted some of the most significant artists of her time. Not only did her shows in Paris introduce a fresh new wave of American art to Europe, but the galleries she founded also became important centers and forums of avant-garde communication and cultural exchange. Nina Castelli Sundell, who grew up surrounded by some of the greatest artists of the 20th Century, followed her parents’ passion, and strove to foster that same environment around the world. Sundell introduced Contemporary art to audiences throughout the United States at a time when its exhibition was largely restricted to New York. The presentation on the market of this important ensemble in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York will highlight the astounding scope of Sonnabend and Castelli Sundell’s taste.”

Armed with intellect, drive, and passion, Ileana Sonnabend was considered one of the most innovative gallerist working in the latter half of the 20th Century. Her enduring love for art and fascination with challenging, difficult, and important new work not only singled her out from other gallerists and dealers, but also established her as a key figure in the recent history of art. In ‘The Art Dealers’ Ileana Sonnabend declared, “I like things that make me think, that make me look for their meaning, things that force me to investigate the mental life of the artist. I am very instinctual, and I seek things that are problematic, difficult to classify on the basis of things already known.”

Ileana Sonnabend’s daughter, Nina Castelli Sundell, followed in her parents’ artistic tradition. In 1968, she established the New Gallery, which later became the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. She also co-founded Independent Curators International (ICI), a nonprofit organization that has developed, organized, and traveled contemporary art exhibitions since 1975. She was the curator of many ICI exhibitions, including American Pop Art (1976), The Sense of Self (1978–80), and the ICI Traveling Video Festival (1981–84). From 1984 to 1990, she was Director of the Lehman College Gallery in the Bronx, New York, and served as president of the Yaddo artists’ community in later years.

Ileana Sonnabend stands as one of the most influential and provocative figures of the recent art historical canon. Captivated by the groundbreaking work of twentieth-century Post-War and Contemporary artists, she was a tireless champion for their role as challengers of the status quo and initiators of creative thinking. From her engendering of cross-continental dialogue between American and European artists to the introduction of Pop art to Europe and Arte Povera and Neo-Expressionism to the United States, the impact of Sonnabend’s exhibitions, initiatives, and connoisseurial eye is truly immeasurable. Ileana Sonnabend’s passionate yet considered approach to the business of fine art was complemented by a penchant for the aesthetically and artistically problematic. “I only want what I don’t like,” the gallerist famously—and perhaps only half-jokingly—declared. “I found that things I didn’t like very much made me think,” she explained, “while things that I liked, I accepted and that was that.”

The product of a lifetime spent amongst artists and their work, the Sonnabend Collection is therefore a testament to Ileana’s enduring search for the new, as well as the Sonnabends’ shared dedication to promoting great talent.

The Sonnabend Collection Foundation was founded by Ileana’s Sonnabend’s family to honor and promote her legacy through the public display of works from her collection; the foundation’s holdings are currently on long-term loan to the Ca’ Pesaro museum in Venice.

Nina Castelli Sundell was the inheritor of Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend’s passion for Contemporary art. Like her parents, she was dedicated to disseminating this work to new audiences, and became an advocate for promoting fine art across the United States. Having been raised surrounded by some of the most prominent creative figures of the twentieth century, it seemed only natural that Sundell would wish to share these artists’ energy and inspiration with others. In 1968, alongside Marjorie Talalay, she co-founded Cleveland’s New Gallery, a for-profit exhibition space in a former dry cleaning storefront. Responding to what they perceived as Cleveland’s regrettable lack of Contemporary art, the women presented work by artists such as Rauschenberg and Warhol to a bemused local audience. “Even though they had really good stuff,” noted art patron and Cleveland native Agnes Gund, “… they couldn’t get anybody to buy it.” Yet with the backing of individuals such as Gund, as well as the publicity from initiatives such as Christo’s wrapping of the Cleveland storefront, the New Gallery survived. Although Sundell eventually left Cleveland to return to the East Coast, she remembered the New Gallery as “more fun than anything else I’ve ever done in my professional life, and as much fun as the best things I’ve ever done in my private life.” The New Gallery metamorphosed into what is now the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, an institution as celebrated and innovative as its original founders.

In 1975, Nina Castelli Sundell and Susan Sollins established Independent Curators International (ICI). Dedicated to the organization and exhibition of Contemporary art, ICI continues to support the work of both emerging and established curatorial voices around the globe. Through her work with ICI, Sundell drew attention to the essential voice of the curator in shaping public engagement and the trajectory of Contemporary art. A respected curator and scholar in her own right, she personally oversaw such shows as American Pop Art, The Sense of Self, and the ICI’s Traveling Video Festival. Throughout the 1980s, Sundell also served as director of the Lehman College Art Gallery at the City University of New York.

In the years prior to her death in 2014, Nina Castelli Sundell furthered her own cultural mission as president of the artists’ community Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. Established in 1900 by the financier Spencer Trask, the community has been residence to thousands of distinguished cultural figures, including Milton Avery, Aaron Copland, Sylvia Plath, Patricia Highsmith, Truman Capote, Philip Guston, and Clyfford Still. For Nina and her husband, the humanities scholar Michael Sundell, Yaddo was not only a polestar of artistic talent, but also a historic site of American creativity; together, they oversaw the gifting of the community’s archives to the New York Public Library. Following the deaths of Leo Castelli, Michael Sonnabend and, in 2007, Ileana Sonnabend, Nina Castelli Sundell became something of a guardian to the many masterworks in the Sonnabend Collection. Through the gifting of pieces such as Rauschenberg’s Canyon to the Museum of Modern Art and other bequests, she continued in her mother’s tradition of showcasing important, innovative art to the world.

The Sonnabend Collection remains one of the twentieth century’s greatest assemblages of fine art, one that is indelibly linked to the fascinating personal history and connoisseurial vision of Ileana Sonnabend. In its diversity, quality, and magnitude of artistic achievement, the collection stands as the tangible symbol of a woman whose unwavering passion came to affect countless lives and communities, and the daughter who lived by her mother’s example. Ileana Sonnabend’s legacy can be found in the many artistic minds whose work she nurtured, promoted, and purveyed—the intersection of artist and patron at one of art history’s most significant moments. “In my life,” Ileana said, “I’ve been doing pretty much what I wanted to do, and I go on.” 

At auction in New York on May 13-14 Christie’s NY


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