Long before I began working at MoMA, I happened to sit next to the former wife of a renowned artist at a dinner marking his posthumous retrospective. I asked her awkwardly about how she had met him, and with tenderness she painted a memorable picture of their first encounter, which centered around MoMA. The year was 1959, and she, a young woman working at the membership desk, was nudged on by a coworker to introduce herself to a security officer who was in the Sculpture Garden, guarding a geodesic dome installation by Buckminster Fuller.
What happened over a coffee break encounter in the Sculpture Garden developed into a life together in which the Museum—the place that brought them together and provided just enough support to help launch his career and their family—would play a significant role.
I think of that story frequently when I pass by what I consider my favorite gallery space at MoMA. In all seasons and from all viewpoints—above, below, east, west, peeking through the screen-like walls—The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden to me is the art-viewing space at the heart of MoMA.
In a city that permits limited space for most of its citizens, the generous openness of this space provides views not only of the rich diversity of architecture—a veritable history of design that surrounds the Museum on all sides—but views of the sky and its ever-changing emotional state.
Designed with the idea of a piazza in mind, the Sculpture Garden is sunken below grade with two distinct levels, intersected by “canals that block circulation” and “bridges that establish a route.” The design, based on architect and former curator of the Department of Architecture Philip Johnson’s 1953 plan, was intended to engage people with the art and the surroundings—to become, in his words, “a place to wander, but not on a rigidly defined path” (Art In Our Time, pg. 103)
The first iteration of the garden, cobbled together (allegedly over beer and sandwiches) by then curator of Architecture and Industrial Design John McAndrew and Director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., only weeks before the 1939 opening of the new Goodwin-Stone Building, was a “loose organization of more or less intimate spaces, comfortable for people as well as sculpture and defined for the most part by free-standing screens.” (Art In Our Time, pg. 59)
In contrast to the modern institution of the “white cube” gallery—a purified space for viewing modern art, often with a very specific trajectory of room after room—the evolution of sculpture gardens invited the outside world into the mix for viewing and experiencing art. Nature, architectural context, and the physical experience of “wandering” and exploring in a less rigidly defined way were elemental to the sculpture garden experience.
Each day that I pass by MoMA’s Sculpture Garden I think about how people are such an essential element of this space and how the context for art is enriched by the human drama playing out day after day. Last summer Ann Temkin, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, placed several wildly colorful Franz West pieces in the garden, and watching people of all ages, from all over the world, as they playfully interacted with the art was a delight to behold.
The Sculpture Garden is full of memories, and not only of the historical events. The exhibitions of cars; installations of full-scale houses, including a modernist house by Marcel Breuer (1949) and a seventeenth-century Japanese house (1954–55), a precursor of modernism; the Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome (1959); installations by living artists, most recently the massive Richard Serra sculptures (2007); and let’s not forget Yayoi Kusuma’s (1969) impromptu Happening, which involved a skinny-dip with co-conspirators in the reflecting pool. Countless summer concerts and dance programs have also enlivened the Sculpture Garden over the years. During the Second World War the Sculpture Garden provided a place for veterans to relax and enjoy a drink together, part of a larger history of MoMA’s support for war efforts and veterans that goes back to the early founders of the Museum.
The transient nature of the garden—how it evolves daily as nature and human landscapes change—intrigues me; but even more, I am interested in how this garden space, an oasis of art, nature, and life tucked within the density of Midtown Manhattan, lives in people’s lives and memories. Central to the identity of MoMA, The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden is an experience of place that people of all ages most often recall with a certain fondness, as if it was put there just for each individual to enjoy.
Recently I have noticed a doppleganger for my mentor, Robert J. Loescher, an art historian who passed away several years ago, strolling in the garden at least once a week. I smile to myself as I see this regal man of substance, cane in hand, and I like to fantasize that he returns frequently to enjoy my stomping ground and remind me of the pleasure of working at such a wonderful place filled with art and life.
Do you have any vivid memories of MoMA’s Sculpture Garden? I welcome your stories.