It is well known that legendary art collector Peggy Guggenheim preferred to invest her fortune in modern masters rather than fashion. She preferred Brancusi over Balenciaga and Dalí over Dior. Yet the American heiress who championed a whole new wave of art and nurtured a generation of American Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock was also pioneering in her style. Though when she settled in Venice she commissioned just two outfits – by Mariano Fortuny and textile designer Ken Scott – she was famous for her signature accessories. Her iconic bat-wing and butterfly fly sunglasses that she commissioned from painter Edward Melcarth were accompanied by a generous splash of bright red lipstick and always extravagant earrings.

Indeed, some of her most fabulous earrings have recently returned to the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, Guggenheim’s former residence that is now home to her museum. At the opening night of her museum/gallery Art of This Century in 1942 in New York, Guggenheim said of her choice of gems: “I wore one of my Tanguy earrings and one made by Calder in order to show my impartiality between Surrealist and Abstract Art". These are the miniature masterpieces that have now returned to Venice: gold mobiles by Calder and striking tiny proportioned paintings by Tanguy that hang off pearl studs. Shown in Venice in the context of Guggenheim’s fabulous collection of art – made up primarily of Cubist, abstract, and Surrealist works and including names such as Francis Picabia, Georges Braque, Salvador Dalí and Piet Mondrian – the earrings are elevated from mere artist-designed jewelry to objects that encapsulate the extraordinary world of Peggy Guggenheim.

Ileana Sonnabend. An Italian Portrait
May 29 – October 2, 2011
Peggy Guggenheim Collection

The summer exhibition at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is dedicated to Ileana Sonnabend (1914-2007), a gallerist and collector who was a personal friend of Guggenheim. Whereas Guggenheim focused on a generation of the American Abstract Expressionists, Ileana Sonnabend promoted subsequent avant-gardes over a fifty-year period, as if in a line of succession from Guggenheim. With strong ties to Italy, Sonnabend’s collection also included major holdings of Italian artists, which alongside works by international artists which reference Italian culture, is what this exhibition showcases.

Bringing together more than 60 works by almost 50 artists, the show includes Andy Warhol’s portrait of Ileana Sonnabend, works on Italian themes by Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, works by Italians such as Tano Festa, Lucio Fontana, Mimmo Rotella, Schifano and Piero Manzoni, works by American artists inspired by Italian culture (Jim Dine, James Rosenquist, John Baldessari for example), by artists of the Arte Povera movement (Zorio, Anselmo, Calzolari, Jannis Kounnelis, and Merz), by several international photographers (including Bernd and Hilla Becher, Candida Höfer, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Max Becher and Andrea Robbins), and by many others. The exhibition moves beyond its Italian leitmotif to a more general survey of the diversity, originality and indeed brilliance of Ileana Sonnabend’s career as a promoter and collector of emerging art.

Guggenheim commissioned painter Edward Melcarth to create bat-wing and butterfly eyeglasses. Along with her pouf of white hair, red lipstick, and extravagant earrings, they became her signature.

When asked how many husbands she'd had, twice-married Guggenheim quipped, "D'you mean my own or other people's?"

Marcel Duchamp introduced her to the art world and taught her, as she put it, “the difference between abstract and Surrealist art.”

Of the opening night of her museum/gallery Art of This Century in 1942 in New York, Guggenheim wrote: “I wore one of my Tanguy earrings and one made by Calder in order to show my impartiality between Surrealist and Abstract Art".

As the World War II began, Guggenheim "decided now to buy paintings by all the painters who were on Herbert Read's list. Having plenty of time and all the museum's funds at my disposal, I put myself on a regime to buy one picture a day." At the end of her spree, she had acquired ten Picassos, forty Ernsts, eight Mirós, four Magrittes, three Man Rays, three Dalís, one Klee, one Wolfgang Paalen and one Chagall among others.

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Ileana Sonnabend: An Italian Portrait runs until October 2, 2011.