NEW YORK CITY — Whether serving as governor of New York, vice president of the United States or art philanthropist, Nelson A. Rockefeller had a vision and thought big. In addition to working with his family to establish the Museum of Modern Art, Rockefeller had a pioneering interest in the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas and founded the Museum of Primitive Art in 1954 to house his burgeoning collection of works from those areas.
A unique figure in American political life and the New York art scene, Rockefeller (1908–1979), became interested in non-Western art through his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a founder of MoMA, and his travels, starting in the 1930s in Latin America. His collecting interests included not only Modern art, but Far Eastern paintings and sculpture and pre-Columbian, South Seas islands and African art. Joining the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art fresh out of college, he agitated unsuccessfully for pre-Columbian art, notably absent from the vast museum’s collection. Frustrated, he organized the Museum of Indigenous Art (later Museum of Primitive Art) devoted to pre-Columbian and other neglected artistic traditions.
According to a Met news release, “Over the course of two decades, the collection of the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the Museum of Primitive Art became the most important ever assembled.” It was guided by Rockefeller’s search for “aesthetic excellence across a vast spectrum of traditions.”
Assisting Rockefeller were museum co-founder Rene d’Harnoncourt, a respected art historian, who recruited another art historian, Robert Goldwater, as director. They shared Rockefeller’s goal of establishing the artworks of Africa, Oceania and the Americas (AAOA) as fine arts in the West, and mounted a series of landmark exhibitions to make their case.
Before his death in 1968, d’Harnoncourt, serving as Rockefeller’s emissary, overcame initial reluctance and brokered an agreement with the Met’s flamboyant director Thomas Hoving to create a department to showcase the holdings of the Museum of Primitive Art and Rockefeller’s personal collection.
In 1974, the museum closed and its staff, library and 3,500 works were transferred to the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing at the Met. The wing was dedicated to the memory of Nelson Rockefeller’s son, who disappeared in 1961 on a photography and artifact collecting expedition in remote New Guinea and is thought to have drowned or been killed and eaten by Asmat warriors. The Rockefeller wing opened to the public in 1982. Today, the arts of AAOA occupy a place of prominence at the Met, fulfilling Rockefeller’s vision.
“The Nelson A. Rockefeller Vision: In Pursuit of the Best in the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas,” on view through October 5, features 50 masterworks and many unpublished documents from the Rockefeller trove on the subject. It was organized by Alisa LaGamma, curator in charge of the department of AAOA, who points out that “A generation before ‘globalism’ became a household name, Nelson Rockefeller’s vision” was to expose “the enormous spectrum of artistic expression absent from the Metropolitan’s fine arts holdings.” In 1969, Rockefeller announced that his non-Western art holdings would be given a permanent home at the Met, thus “rounding out its art archives of the creative accomplishments of [humankind].”
The Met’s African art collection covers a large geographical area, from western Sudan south and east through central and southern Africa. Among the works displayed are an Ethiopian gospel and processional crosses from the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, refined Afro Portuguese ivories from the same period and powerful Fang reliquary figures.
An important trove of royal art from the Court of Benin in Nigeria, Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries, is highlighted by brass figures, architectural plaques, carved ivory altar tusks, musical instruments, boxes, staffs and courtly and personal ornaments.
Among specific highlights is a striking power figure: male (nkisi), which was created by the Kongo peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The carved figure, draped in an extraordinary collection of amulets and secondary figures, was transformed into a nkisi thought capable of healing the sick and punishing wrongdoers.
Also from the Congo is a riveting wood and pigment mask created by the Luba peoples in the Nineteenth–mid-Twentieth Century that was worn at rituals to purify communities of evil spirits.
Measuring almost 4 feet in height, a headdress of a female bust is a striking Nineteenth or Twentieth Century object from the Baga peoples of the Niger River region of Guinea. Called D’mba, she represents the ideal female in Baga society. “She is honored,” say Met officials, “as the universal mother and is the vision of woman at the zenith of her power, beauty and affective presence.
Arts of Oceania, comprising the arts and cultures of the Pacific Islands, encompasses a vast region that covers more than a third of the earth’s surface. It includes the three main regions of the Pacific Islands — Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia — together with Australia and Island Southeast Asia. The area is home to some 1,800 different cultures, Met experts estimate, spanning hundreds of distinct artistic traditions, processes, formats and mediums.
The earliest examples of Oceanic art, the rock paintings of Australian Aborigines, are thought to be more than 40,000 years old, but most works in the collection date to the Eighteenth to Twenty-First Centuries in the form of graceful figures and vibrant geometric compositions.
Regarded as an iconic object in the Oceania collection, an ivory female figure emanated from the early 1900 in Tonga’s Ha-api Islands. Her rounded body embodying the area’s ideal of feminine beauty was worn by women as pendants on special occasions.
Other highlights are elegant, relatively naturalistic figures from Polynesia and Island Southeast Asia, angular, minimalist sculpture and decorative arts from Micronesia and fantastic, otherworldly images of Melanesian ancestors and spirits.
It is hard to miss the dazzling inlaid shield created in the Solomon Islands in the Nineteenth Century. Made with painted resin and inset with mother of pearl, it includes a small human face atop an elongated body. It symbolized its holder was a prominent warrior.
The curious yam mask was a major focus of ceremonial life among the Abelam people of New Guinea. Men gained great prestige if they could raise very large yams; some measure 12 feet long. The heads of these enormous yams are adorned with yam masks.
The oldest surviving Oceanic wood sculptures that survive in any significant numbers are from groups around New Guinea’s Korewori River. The Met’s male figure, Sixteenth–Nineteenth Century, is an example of a man’s image rendered in a fairly representational manner with a stylized open-work torso that exposes internal organs.
Sculpture from New Guinea is well represented, including examples from the Asmat people, many gathered by Michael Rockefeller. One standout he acquired is a mid-Twentieth Century bowl, made by blood-thirsty Asmats that was created specifically for mixing red paint, with all its symbolic identification with blood. Young Rockefeller identified the artist who created the bowl, Ndanim, and photographed him for posterity.
Another interesting mid-Twentieth Century object made by Asmat people is a sago platter, designed to hold sago — a starchy food extracted from the sago palm. When not in use it was hung vertically, showing off its intricately carved surface.
Arts of the Americas start out with holdings of pre-Columbian art, one of Nelson Rockefeller’s first collecting priorities, emanating from the region from Mexico to Peru. Treasures from Mexico include striking Olmec ceramic vessels and figures from the first millennium BCE, appealing cultural ceramics from western Mexico that date to the end of the first millennium, and Aztec stone sculpture from the Fifteenth Century. Maya objects include an elegant, seated figure in wood and astutely carved relief sculptures of the Eighth Century.
Of particular interest is a small ceramic figurine, a female figure, Third Century BCE–Fourth Century CE, which was made in great numbers in Mexico to be placed with the dead in burials together with other funerary objects. Most such figurines were nude, with elaborate coiffures and often wore ear, neck and arm ornaments, as in the collection example.
Works from Peru stand out in the Americas collection.
Among the earliest jewelry forms in ancient Peru were nose instruments in a variety of styles that were an essential part of male and female royal regalia. A nose ornament with shrimp is a particularly handsome example, incorporating two distinctive shrimp into a gold and silver composition.
Colorful feathers were highly prized luxury materials in early cultures of the Americas. The standout in this exhibition is a colorful feathered tunic, dating to the Thirteenth–Fourteenth Century, which was made by Incas of Peru to embellish fancy apparel such as headdresses and sashes. The result of many hours of knotting thousands of small feathers onto strings that were then stitched to the foundation, this vividly colored and imaginative tunic retains appeal to Twenty-First Century eyes.
Another highlight from Peru, a pair of earflares with condors, was worn by Moche peoples in distended earlobes as status symbols in life and death. The collection’s example features two Andean condors made of silver with massive talons and strong beaks attached to sheet gold. “These ear ornaments would have adorned a powerful Moche lord when he was laid to rest,” says the Met.
Some of the most distinctive work emanates from the Caribbean, such as the imagery employed by the Taino peoples to adorn small shell objects and large wooden sculptures. There is an interesting double eagle pendant, created in Panama in the First–Fifth Century, which is an example of bird pendants that are the best known of many gold objects from the pre-Columbian era. It features spread wings over splayed tails and projecting heads with pronounced beaks. Likely functioning as protective emblems, they were spotted by Christopher Columbus being worn by locals around their necks when he sailed along the Caribbean coast of Central America in 1502.
Faithfully representing the extraordinary diversity of artistic traditions in three regions of the non-Western world, the Rockefeller collections offer an unparalleled gateway to wider appreciation of the heritage and visual culture of these areas. Nelson and Michael Rockefeller would be proud of their contributions to global understanding that the artwork of Africa, Oceania and the Americas deserves to be viewed as fine art. The Rockefeller legacy is preserved and their vision is fulfilled in fine fashion at the Met.
The summer 2014 issue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin serves as exhibition catalog. The museum is at 1000 Fifth Avenue. For additional information, www.metmuseum.org or 212-535-7710.