Nelson Rockefeller, vice-president, four-time governor of New York, twice-defeated candidate for president, chairman of the Museum of Modern Art (which his mother Abby co-founded) and one of the strangest collectors ever, is now a forgotten figure in American history. A visit to Kykuit, the John D. Rockefeller estate in Tarrytown, N.Y., where Nelson Rockefeller reigned and collected until his death in 1979, is a primer in the arrogance and idiosyncrasies of art and wealth.
Donated after Nelson’s death to the National Historical Trust by the Rockefeller family, Kykuit is an expensive ticket: $23 for a three-hour tour, which includes the house, the grounds and its extensive collection of public sculpture and the stables. One must arrive by shuttle bus and cannot wander around freely. The entrance is dominated by a replica Florentine fountain of the God Oceanus dividing the waters of the world into rivers. The tastes of three generations of Rockefellers clash: John D.’s beloved nine-hole golf course; John D. Jr.’s family portraits by John Singer Sargent; and Nelson’s contemporary hodgepodge.
Nelson regarded art as a plaything that he could shape and dominate. It was nothing for him to have an ugly, heavy Jacques Lipschitz sculpture of harp players helicoptered onto Kykuit in a grand public ceremony. A story which has long circulated in New York political circles illustrates the full Nelson: the governor had a perfect view across Central Park to the Hudson from his Fifth Avenue penthouse. The Democrats passed a bill to erect a skyscraper for public housing on the West Side of Manhattan that would obstruct Nelson’s view. Rockefeller called in the Democrats’ leader, blue collar Meade Esposito, to his penthouse. "Meade," Nelson said, "If you stop construction of that skyscraper, I’ll give you that Picasso." Esposito gazed at the picture on the wall, and agreed to the deal. As Nelson related the story to his cronies over the years, he added the punchline, "It was only a print!"
The Kykuit tour begins with a Brancusi bird and a headless Giacometti woman on the front porch. A huge, overdone Miró in the living room is, of course, a copy; the real one is in some MoMA warehouse. Towards the end of his life, Nelson Rockefeller actually opened an uptown store, devoted to selling overpriced knockoffs of his collection, on the theory that everyone wants a piece of the Rock, however ersatz. He had a number of Picasso masterpieces, including Nightfishing at Antibes, turned into wall tapestries, which are tackily displayed in a basement gallery at Kykuit, as "Picasso treasures."
This brings to mind another of the governor’s strange art experiments. Albany, the state capital, has an underground system of walkways that connect the state legislature to other venues such as taverns and the OTB. Forty years ago Rockefeller filled the walls of these tunnels with real contemporary masterpieces by Stella, Motherwell, etc. Unfortunately he forgot to provide adequate security, and many of the works were vandalized or stolen!
There is no risk of theft in the basement galleries at Kykuit, but there is the risk of bad taste. Two of the worst Warhol portraits are on view: garish pink likenesses of Nelson and his wife Happy, splashed with haphazard color like puke. On the plus side, two Lee Bontecou reliefs and two limpid, Monet-like Grace Hartigans entice, in contrast to some minor Calders and a painting or two by a Rockefeller relative, whom I won’t name, because I took a drawing class from him years ago.
At a time when hedge-funders are melting down the U.S. economy like gold jewelry, a place like Kykuit reminds us of the harm continuously delivered by concentrated wealth, especially, in this case, through the status emblems of art. What is spiritually inspiring to us are just toys to them.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).