Happy and Nelson Rockefeller wave to crowds from the door of a Pan American airplane.
Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center
New York

From MoMA to Washington: How Nelson Rockefeller Redefined the Role of the Art Patron & Politician for the 20th Century

By Jed Perl

“Love.” “Passion.” “Ecstasy.” These are the words that Nelson Rockefeller reached for when he talked about collecting art. The writer Francine du Plessix Gray described him as “this restless, robust, kinetic cosmopolite.” She was impressed by “the narrow sea-grey eyes, the muscular handshake and the jovial manner.” Rockefeller was unstoppable. He was an activist, who commissioned major works from artists of several generations, and a globalist, who explored the art of many different times and places. He embraced the Parisian avant-garde, New York’s Abstract Expressionists, North American and Central American folk art, the sculpture of Africa and Southeast Asia, Japanese prints and ceramics, and 18th-century European porcelain. In the 1930s he invited Jean-Michel Frank, perhaps the greatest interior designer of the 20th century, to create a Manhattan apartment that featured custom-made furnishings by Alberto Giacometti. Thirty years later, when Pop Art was first exploding, he asked Andy Warhol to paint portraits of his wife, Happy, and himself.

Andy Warhol, Nelson Rockefeller, executed in 1967. Estimate $800,000–1,200,000.
Andy Warhol, Nelson Rockefeller, executed in 1967. Estimate $800,000–1,200,000.

“Property from the Collection of Nelson and Happy Rockefeller,” a two-part auction series in New York, celebrates the eagle eye of this man who moved between the worlds of art and politics with an energy and resolve that had few parallels in the 20th century, as well as the quiet determination of Happy to celebrate and preserve the art and objects they lived with together. The first auction, subtitled “A Modernist Vision,” brings together art and design objects by the 20th-century masters who were closest to Nelson’s heart; the second, “A Collecting Legacy,” captures the astonishing range of the couple's interests and taste, including Meissen porcelain, Chinese export ceramics, silver, Americana and Japanese works of art. From the time Nelson was a boy until his death at the age of seventy in 1979, he had what Alfred H. Barr, Jr., a great friend and the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, called an “insatiable appetite for art.” Rockefeller was the third of six children born to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., whose father had co-founded Standard Oil, and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who was herself a great collector and one of the three women who laid the groundwork for the Museum of Modern Art. Nelson, who admiringly referred to his mother as a “free spirit,” remained forever true to her expansive vision. In the midst of a famously tumultuous political career—he was governor of New York State, Vice President of the United States, and made several unsuccessful runs for the Presidency—he never slowed down when it came to his parallel life as a patron of the arts. “Nelson,” Alfred Barr observed, “needs art more than any man I know.” Everybody who worked with him was excited by the zest and glee he brought to the arrangement and rearrangement of the collections in his many homes. He liked to get up on a ladder and move things around by himself. He referred to these sessions as his “only way of being creative.” Even as he was rethinking his own collections, he was working tirelessly as a cultural institution builder; his deepest personal impulses and apprehensions were wedded to an equally urgent sense of civic pride and purpose. He relished the visionary power of what he referred to as the artist’s “free imagination.” He could wax philosophical as he spoke about the capacity of the art he admired to stimulate “dream worlds and utopias of our own.”

Happy and Nelson Rockefeller. Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.

Nelson Rockefeller wanted to reimagine, amid the democratic vistas of 20th-century America, the lofty cultural ambitions that had fueled the Medici in 15th-century Florence and princely and political figures in many other epochs. Himself a man of boundless energies, he admired the particular kinds of energy that creative spirits brought to their work. He shared that avidity with Happy, their children and his siblings. Late in life, he remembered watching with “fascination” as Fernand Léger—some of whose works are included in “A Modernist Vision” – created a mural to frame one of the fireplaces in the Rockefeller apartment designed by Frank. “Léger,” Rockefeller effused, “was a wonderful human being, and we remained friends until his death.” He liked engaging personally with artists on particular projects; Matisse’s last completed work was a design for a stained-glass window honoring the collector’s mother. Rockefeller savored visits to artist’s studios and didn’t hesitate to buy works when the paint was still wet.

This man with the muscular handshake had a particular affinity for the tactile, sensuous qualities of sculpture. Works by Edgar Degas, Henry Moore, Georg Kolbe, and Pablo Picasso in this sale remind us of the fascination with sculptural form that pushed Rockefeller to fill Kykuit, the family estate in Pocantico Hills, 30 miles north of New York, with an array of 20th-century masterworks of art and design. Happy said of the art gallery at Kykuit, “This isn’t my environment, it’s Nelson’s,” but nonetheless she would have a significant effect on legacy of the house, developing her own relationship with the curators of the buildings, and becoming a trustee of the Sleepy Hollow Restorations, with its mission to preserve this and other great estates of the area. She would go on to carve out her own philanthropic pursuits, becoming President of the Board of the Saratoga Arts Center, and would gain national attention as an advocate for breast cancer awareness.

Joan Miró, Composition, 1933. Estimate $600,000–800,000.

There wasn’t a medium or a material that didn’t engage Nelson’s attention. He was as interested in welded steel as he was in cast bronze. His eye for the experimental possibilities of collage is reflected in the extraordinary 1933 Joan Miró Composition in this sale. Miró’s laidback but dramatic Composition, with a quartet of the artist’s gangly figures superimposed on a picture postcard, a couple of pieces of humble sandpaper, and a few other bits of flotsam and jetsam, was featured in “The Art of Assemblage.” That epochal exhibition, mounted at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961, linked the work of early 20th-century Dadaists and Surrealists with an upsurge of mixed-media experimentation among young artists around the world. Rockefeller, who also collected the pioneering collages of Kurt Schwitters, wanted to explore the many ways that materials could be shaped and reshaped to make works of art. It hardly mattered whether the artist in question was an anonymous 19th-century American working with watercolor, wood, or sheet metal, or the great Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti conceiving a suite of fantastical furnishings in gilt plaster and bronze, to be included in “A Modernist Vision.”

A Modernist Vision: Property from the Collection of Nelson & Happy Rockefeller highlights
Alberto Giacometti, Pair of Andirons, circa 1939. Estimate $200,000–300,000.

When Rockefeller was growing up, one floor of the family’s West 54th Street townhouse was dedicated to a gallery, where his mother indulged what her son saluted as her “eclectic, spontaneous, and almost infallible” taste. Shortly after the Museum of Modern Art had opened in 1929, Rockefeller found himself on the Junior Advisory Committee, along with a group that included Lincoln Kirstein, who would soon mastermind the choreographer George Balanchine’s conquest of the United States, and the architect Philip Johnson, who as a curator at the museum organized groundbreaking exhibitions dedicated to the International Style and the art of the machine age. Over the years Rockefeller served as President of the Museum of Modern Art and was a major supporter of the collection, to which he donated key works, including Henri Rousseau’s The Dream and Matisse’s Dance I. Alfred Barr and another essential figure at MoMA, the curator Dorothy Miller, were critical advisors as Rockefeller continuously expanded his interests as a connoisseur and collector. “He refused to buy anything,” Miller recalled, “simply because the artist was famous or represented some phase of contemporary art which would enrich his collection. His guide always had to be his own feeling.”

Happy and Nelson Rockefeller. Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.

A fascination with the art of Africa and the South Seas--which like so many of his avidities had originally been inspired by his mother--led Rockefeller in 1954 to found New York’s Museum of Primitive Art. His fifth son, Michael, fired by his father’s fascination with faraway cultures, became a student of the art and culture of New Guinea, and tragically vanished while on an expedition there. When the Museum of Primitive Art eventually closed its doors, the collection was transferred to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a Michael C. Rockefeller Wing was established. Nelson Rockefeller was a leading figure in the creation of Lincoln Center in Manhattan. His old friend Philip Johnson, who over the years helped Rockefeller design spaces to house his ever-growing collections, was the architect responsible for the New York State Theater, which gave Balanchine’s New York City Ballet its first permanent home. The New York State Theater’s grand rectilinear lobby, which Lincoln Kirstein referred to as a “parlor for the metropolis,” was ornamented with two huge statues by Elie Nadelman, an artist greatly admired by both Kirstein and Rockefeller. As governor of New York State, Rockefeller pressed for the creation of the Empire State Plaza, which brought important cultural facilities to Albany, and backed the launch of the New York State Council for the Arts, a model for the National Endowment for the Arts. All of these civic projects were fueled by his belief that art demanded what he called our “absolute and unmixed attention.” He was convinced that artistic experience could be both recreation and revelation—a relief from the exigencies of everyday life that simultaneously enabled us to “understand historic changes, fevers and ferments in the body politic.”

Francine du Plessix Gray called him “the highest man in public office to be a champion of the avant-garde.” Nothing was too new, too unexpected, or too difficult for Nelson Rockefeller. Amid the fever pitch of his political career, he always carved out time to study the latest art books and magazines. Even as he was collecting established modern masters including Picasso and Joan Miró, he was turning his attention to Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Nevelson, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol. The works that he and Happy shared and that the Rockefeller family is now sharing with the world offer precious glimpses of the man’s indefatigable spirit and a couple's stewardship of objects that convey boundless cultural and historical significance. In 1969, when the Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition of his collection, Rockefeller offered an epigram from the English writer Cyril Connolly. He knew that some would find Connolly’s words overly romantic, but Rockefeller couldn’t resist. “Art is a religion,” Connolly wrote; “collecting is a form of prayer.” For half a century, Nelson Rockefeller kept the faith.

Jed Perl is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. His many books include Calder: The Conquest of Time, Magicians and Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture, Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World, and New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century.

Sale Calendar

A Modernist Vision: Property from the Collection of Nelson & Happy Rockefeller
13 November 2018, New York

Jewels from Happy Rockefeller’s Personal Collection will be offered in
Magnificent Jewels
4 December 2018, New York

A Collecting Legacy: Property from the Collection of Happy & Nelson Rockefeller
January 2019, New York