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Spring 2002

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Opportunity of a lifetime
“Mom of pop art” lends modern masterworks for blockbuster exhibit

by Barbara A. Melville

     International gallery owners Ileana and Michael Sonnabend lived an art-lover’s dream. Starting in the 1960s, they bought widely from the up-and-coming American and European artists they encouraged and exhibited—Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, Anselm Kiefer, Sol LeWitt, Jeff Koons, Candida Höfer, and many more.

     Now their eclectic and visionary collection is the source of a new exhibition, From Pop to Now: Selections from the Sonnabend Collection, on view at Skidmore’s Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery from June 22 through September 29.

     The first Tang-originated exhibit scheduled to travel nationally, From Pop to Now will feature some seventy works by more than fifty modern artists working in pop art, arte povera, minimalism, fluxus, neo-geo, conceptualism, video, photography, and other styles and media. Already making national news in publications from Art in America to Elle magazine, the show will be “a veritable who’s who of the contemporary art world over the last forty years,” according to curator Charles Stainback, Dayton Director of the Tang. The exhibition will include seminal pieces originally shown at the Sonnabend galleries in Paris and New York City, as well as rarely seen works from the couple’s private collection.

Early Colored Liz (Chartreuse), a 1963 silkscreen by Andy Warhol, will be complemented by his Liz in turquoise, as well as other classic Warhol works.
     The opportunity for such an exhibit—of interest to many major national museums—came to Skidmore in a fairly simple way, says Stainback. As director of the International Center of Photography in New York City in the 1980s, he occasionally collaborated with the Sonnabends. “It was always a nice working relationship,” recalls Stainback, who shared the Sonnabends’ affinity for art photography and photo-based artworks. “Maybe what they saw in me,” he surmises, “was that I could bridge both worlds: art and art photography.” Soon after the Tang’s opening in 2000, Stainback stopped by the Sonnabend Gallery and asked if his small-college museum could do a show from the vast collection, which had last been exhibited some fifteen years ago in Europe. The answer was yes. “It was that simple,” he marvels.

     Organized chronologically and in thematic groupings that highlight the historical progression and startling diversity of contemporary art, From Pop to Now opens with the punch of pop art—Jasper Johns’s luscious Figure 8 (1959), a four-foot Claes Oldenburg ice-cream cone (1962), Roy Lichtenstein’s cartoon-inspired Eddie Diptych (1962). And the exhibition sweeps right up to the present, including recent works like Dog (2000) whose polished-metal canine body is topped, seamlessly but startlingly, with a polished-metal likeness of artist Rona Pondick’s head, arms, and shoulders.

They, a 1986 self-portrait composed of sixteen photograph panels, by Gilbert & George
     Between the “pop” and the “now” comes a dizzying parade of art so diverse that it’s hard to imagine the works came from the same half-century, let alone the same collection. Among them are Bruce Nauman’s My Name as Though It Were Written on the Surface of the Moon (1968), gloriously scrawled in sixteen feet of neon; German artist Anselm Kiefer’s anguished 1978 oil painting Baum mit Palette; and Robert Morris’s 1980 minimalist sculpture made from richly draped felt.

     Richard Artschwager’s Double Dinner (1998) appears to be a standard-issue formica diner booth, upholstered in rubberized hair; Jeff Koons is represented by his gleaming stainless-steel Rabbit (1986) molded from an inflatable toy. Among the conceptual works is California artist John Baldessari’s 1966 painting, which consists of the following, block-lettered by a hired sign painter: EVERYTHING IS PURGED FROM THIS PAINTING BUT ART, NO IDEAS HAVE ENTERED THIS WORK.

Stranger than life: Rona Pondick’s Dog is both familiar and monstrous.
     The exhibition’s photography works range from Elger Esser’s exquisitely painterly landscape Blois (1998), a six-by-eight-foot chromogenic photograph, to Christian Boltanski’s The 62 Members of the Mickey Mouse Club in 1955 (1972), an assemblage of Mouseketeer head shots appropriated from a vintage fan magazine. And so it goes. “Ileana and Michael approached the flow of art,” observes Stainback, “with no preconceived notions, just an overarching sense of what fits.”

     A driving force in the contemporary art world for more than half a century, the Sonnabends exercised an influence on the cultural avant-garde matched only by that of Ileana’s first husband, gallery owner and art collector Leo Castelli. (Castelli began showing new work by the likes of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in the late 1950s; by the early ’60s, Ileana was dubbed “the mom of pop art.”) They remained close friends through their divorce and her 1960 marriage to Michael Sonnabend.

     During the 1960s and early ’70s, the Sonnabends often exchanged artworks between their galleries in Paris and New York, to expose audiences in Europe and the U.S. to the most exciting contemporary work on both continents. And over the decades, the couple earned a reputation for showing bold new works other galleries might dismiss as too difficult for the times or simply impossible to sell. (Their 1970 New York gallery opening, for instance, featured The Singing Sculpture by Gilbert and George: two young Brits dressed in proper business suits, their hands and faces painted bronze, standing on a table and robotically performing a 1930s music-hall number.)

O! the drama! Roy Lichtenstein’s 1962 cartoon-inspired classic Eddie Diptych
     Now in her mid-80s and recently widowed, Ileana Sonnabend still shows and collects new art. Famously drawn to work she finds surprising, incomprehensible, or even upsetting, she is known for a passionate support of her artists, no matter how bizarre their visions might seem. Art writer Michel Bourel has noted that Ileana considers herself “more art lover than agent.” Robert Rauschenberg, whose 1956 mixed-media Interior is included in From Pop to Now, once said, “I’ve never finished a painting without wondering what Ileana would think of it.”

      “Ileana has always shown a remarkable willingness to allow her artists to grow, to make art in any way they want to,” adds Stainback. “I feel great respect for what she’s done, and I feel honored to celebrate her wonderful vision.”

     From Pop to Now will be augmented by a series of lectures, “dialogues” with exhibition artists, a preview gala, and hands-on arts activities for families and children. An exhibition catalog will be available at the museum store.

     Although closing to the public at the end of September, much of the exhibition will remain on view at the Tang through Family Weekend (October 11–13) before traveling to the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and additional venues around the country.

Preview party

To formally launch the Sonnabend show, an evening gala will be held at the Tang on June 21. All Skidmore alumni, parents, and friends are invited for dinner and entertainment, as well as a preview of the exhibition. Ileana Sonnabend will be there, as will several of the exhibition artists.

Co-chairs of the gala are Ann Schapps Schaffer ’62 and Argie Tang.

Tickets are $250 a plate, with proceeds benefiting the Tang’s endowment.

For an invitation or further information, contact Barb Casey: 518-580-5640 or bcasey@skidmore.edu.


Barbara Melville wrote Scope’s feature stories on the Tang’s opening show of sound art and last year’s mapping exhibit.

 


© 2002 Skidmore College