The important role played by women in 20th-century art history remains a fertile field of study. Many historians, curators, and critics have focused their attention on great artists—Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, for example—and on countless others who are lesser known but also fascinating. History is being rewritten as long-overlooked names and bodies of work come to light. But the investigation hardly stops at artists. If one expands the field to include collectors, curators, and art dealers, suddenly a whole world of attention-worthy women opens up. Artists are the first, and the essential, figures in our community. But they would not be able to exist, and we would not know about their work, without the vast complex of people who devote themselves to supporting and presenting that work (including, by the way, the innumerable women who have sustained MoMA as trustees and staff since its founding).
These thoughts were in my mind as I set about preparing an exhibition that would pay tribute to the renowned art dealer Ileana Sonnabend (1914–2007). At the start of the 1960s she joined an already significant roster of women who were mavericks in that profession. In New York, these include Edith Halpert, who established the Downtown Gallery in 1926; Peggy Guggenheim, Art of This Century in 1942; Betty Parsons, her eponymous gallery in 1946; and Eleanor Ward, the Stable Gallery in 1953. In Paris, where Sonnabend opened her first gallery in 1962, prominent dealers such as Iris Clert and Denise René already had thriving enterprises. While all these women were vastly different in background and temperament, they shared a fierce devotion to art and a necessarily high degree of determination. Despite its sizable challenges, the vocation of dealer had many attractions, chief among them the independence that came with running one’s own business. An ambitious woman did not have to rely on an institutionalized hierarchy, or established norms of authority. The role provided the opportunity to exercise real influence in a cultural environment that offered women few such options.
Like many prominent women in politics and other fields, Sonnabend began her professional trajectory as a wife. She was an indispensable partner in the gallery her husband, Leo Castelli, established in 1957, and by all reports her opinions and advice were crucial to its early successes. The two divorced in 1959, and she subsequently decided with her new husband, Michael Sonnabend, to move to Paris and open a gallery there devoted to bringing the newest American art to the Continent. The rest is the extraordinary history that our highly concentrated exhibition and its accompanying catalogue only begin to describe. I found the opportunity to delve into that history immensely inspiring, and a potent reminder that our work today relies on the strong foundations laid by the pioneering women in our field.