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Bending for Sonnabend: Should MoMA Break Precedent by Mounting a Dealer-Tribute Show? UPDATED

Center: Robert Rauschenberg "Canyon," 1959, 2012 gift from Family of Ileana Sonnabend, as installed at the Museum of Modern Art 2012 gift from family of Ileana Sonnabend Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Robert Rauschenberg, “Canyon,” 1959, a 2012 gift from Family of Ileana Sonnabend, flanked by two major Rauschenberg combines–”Rebus” (left) and “Bed,” at Museum of Modern Art
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

UPDATE: More on this, here.

People like me who believe that museums should keep the commercial artworld at arms length may have raised an eyebrow at the Museum of Modern Art’s announcement last week regarding its first-ever show paying tribute to a commercial dealer—the late Ileana Sonnabend, who died in 2007 in possession of a huge trove of landmark works by a wide range of artists.

Having spoken today with Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, about the concept behind the Sonnabend show, I agree that the pioneering dealer of everything from Pop to performance art is an intriguing, even worthy, subject—one of the prescient female dealers who “helped shape the course of postwar art in Europe and North America,” in the words of MoMA’s announcement.

“A point that comes across from the diverse mix of artist and works” owned or collected by Sonnabend “is the remarkable fact of her not having been tied to one style or generation,” Temkin observed. She said that one of the goals of “Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New” (Dec. 21-Apr. 21) is “to give MoMA visitors a whiff of the tremendous impact this person had.”

It also gives me “a whiff” of the problematic impact that this show could have on museum practice.

The dealer tribute was part of the discussions that clinched the deal for Sonnabend’s children to donate Robert Rauschenberg‘s highly coveted 1959 “Canyon” (which they couldn’t sell because it included a bald eagle—an endangered species) to MoMA, rather than to the Metropolitan Museum, where it had been on loan for several years:

Installation shot of "Canyon" at Metropolitan Museum last year Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Installation shot of “Canyon” at the Metropolitan Museum last year
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

To its credit, the show does not merely consist of works remaining in the estate, which could theoretically be later sold by the family, with their value enhanced by their MoMA exposure. Temkin told me that “no more than 20%” of the “no more than 40 works” to be displayed in December are family-owned. The rest belong to MoMA itself, other institutions (including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Guggenheim) and private collectors. Temkin said that acquisition by MoMA of other Sonnabend works was not part of the discussions regarding “Canyon” or the upcoming exhibition.

Notwithstanding MoMA’s understandable desire to celebrate its stellar acquisition with a temporary exhibition, our nation’s preeminent modern art museum may be setting a problematic example by encouraging a spread of dealer-derived shows to other museums. I’ve seen (and cringed at) plenty of installations at small, low-budget institutions that are drawn almost entirely from works owned by or consigned to a single dealer. But an increased willingness of even the most distinguished museums to blur the boundaries between the commercial artworld and nonprofit institutions could be a disturbing side effect of MoMA’s lending its prestigious imprimatur to a still active gallery (co-directed by Antonio Homem, Ileana’s son and beneficiary).

MoMA itself doesn’t regard its Sonnabend show as a one-off. “It’s a fascinating subject,” Temkin told me. “The Met did the Vollard show and the Pompidou has done shows of dealers such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. It’s not unprecedented [at other institutions] and there’s no question that the role of dealers in general is absolutely vital to the history of art. Whether at our place or at others, I certainly see this as a branch of research that will come out more fully in exhibitions in the coming years.” When I asked Ann what other dealers might be ripe for such treatment, she quipped: “I’m not going to give those ideas away!”

Can the late, legendary Leo Castelli (Ileana’s first husband), the late Sidney Janis, or even the still active Arne Glimcher of Pace Gallery (who played in their league) be far behind? Will mega-dealer Larry Gagosian want equal time?

Do we really want to go there?

Andy Warhol, "Ileana Sonnabend," 1973 Sonnabend Collection, New York  © 2013 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Part of  MoMA’s upcoming show: Andy Warhol, “Ileana Sonnabend,” 1973, Sonnabend Collection
© 2013 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS)

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