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

By Jed Perl
NELSON ROCKEFELLER, WHO WAS ELECTED AS PRESIDENT OF THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, EXAMINING ONE OF THE PAINTINGS TO BE HUNG IN THE NEW $2,000,000 BUILDING OF THE MUSEUM, MAY 1939. PHOTO BY BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES

“L ove.” “Passion.” “Ecstasy.” These are the words that Nelson Rockefeller reached for when he talked about collecting art.1 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.

“Eastern Traditions & Western Visions: Property from the Collection of Nelson Rockefeller” celebrates the eagle eye of this man who moved between the worlds of art and politics with an energy and a determination that had few parallels in the 20th-century. The dedicated auction captures the astonishing range of his interests and his taste, bringing together Chinese export ceramics with art and design objects by the 20th-century masters who were closest to Rockefeller’s heart. From the time he was a boy until his death at the age of seventy in1979, Rockefeller 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.”2 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.”3 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.”4 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.”5

NELSON ROCKEFELLER AT THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART. COURTESY OF THE ROCKEFELLER ARCHIVE CENTER

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 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 Wilhelm Lehmbruck, 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 Pocantino Hills, 30 miles north of New York, with an array of 20th-century masterworks of art and design. 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 – epitomized in Alberto Giacometti’s suite of fantastical furnishings in gilt plaster and bronze on offer in this sale.

NELSON ROCKEFELLER CAMPAIGNING IN OREGON BEFORE THE MAY 1964 REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY. COURTESY THE ROCKEFELLER ARCHIVE CENTER

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. 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.6





NOTES:
1 William Lieberman, Twentieth-Century Art from the Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller Collection, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1969, p. 9; Francine du Plessix, “Anatomy of a Collector,” in Art in America, April 1965, p. 27.
2 Lieberman, p. 9.
3 Francine du Plessix, p. 27.
4 Francine du Plessix, p. 27.
5 Lieberman, p. 9.
6 Lieberman, p. 9.

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