The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, 1964

Oasis in the City

Read an excerpt from MoMA’s comprehensive volume on the Sculpture Garden and its long history inspiring artists.
May 6, 2020

In 2018, MoMA published Oasis in the City, a celebration of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. Edited by Peter Reed and Romy Silver-Kohn, with contributions by Quentin Bajac, Reed, Silver-Kohn, and Ann Temkin, the book also includes a portfolio of images of the Sculpture Garden by some of the world’s most renowned photographers. Here, we bring you an excerpt of the essay by Ann Temkin and Peter Reed, which outlines the history of the garden from its founding days as a “happy improvisation” to some of the contemporary installations that have made it such a beloved space for artists, museumgoers, New Yorkers, and visitors from around the world. You can read the full essay and also preview even more from this lavishly illustrated volume by downloading the PDF, or get a copy for yourself from MoMA’s online store.

An image from a 2014 portfolio by Richard Pare, as seen in Oasis in the City

An image from a 2014 portfolio by Richard Pare, as seen in Oasis in the City

“A Garden Grows”
by Ann Temkin and Peter Reed

Part I: 1939

When The Museum of Modern Art opened its first permanent building, on May 10, 1939, an accompanying press release also announced the opening of a new sculpture garden. A large empty lot behind the one slated for the Museum, abutting Fifty-fourth Street, had been transformed into an “oasis in the city.” Only a few years earlier, two magnificent townhouses belonging to John D. Rockefeller Sr. and John D. Rockefeller Jr. occupied the site (fig. 1, bottom of this page). Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the wife of John Jr., had raised her family in their nine-story house, which is also where the idea of a new museum of contemporary art took shape (fig. 2). From her study and her private gallery, Abby led the founding of the Museum, which made its debut in 1929, with her friends Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan. Its rapid success led the trustees to commission, for its tenth anniversary, a state-of-the-art building designed by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone. To make way for it, the townhouses and other properties owned by the family were demolished.

Photo: Richard Pare

Photo: Richard Pare

Photo: Richard Pare

Photo: Richard Pare

The modernist six-story museum on Fifty-third Street, with its walls of white marble and glass, formed a striking contrast to the nineteenth-century townhouses around it. A modestly sized outdoor sculpture garden adjoining the rear of the museum had been included as part of the building program, and the Rockefellers had donated a plot of land 75 feet wide for this purpose. But in the excitement of inaugurating the new building—the Museum’s tenth anniversary would coincide with the opening of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which was expected to attract dignitaries and visitors from around the world—John Jr. lent an adjoining property to the Museum to create an even larger garden. With this unanticipated gesture, the garden temporarily grew to approximately 100 by 400 feet, and in only a few weeks, with relatively little expense, the garden was hastily designed, constructed, planted (with assistance from a gardener at Rockefeller Center), and installed with sculptures.

Photo: Richard Pare

Photo: Richard Pare

Dorothy Miller installing Alexander Calder’s Black Widow (1959), c. 1964

Dorothy Miller installing Alexander Calder’s Black Widow (1959), c. 1964

This first sculpture garden, fondly described by a former curator as a “happy improvisation,” was designed and installed by John McAndrew, Curator of Architecture and Industrial Art, and Alfred H. Barr Jr., Founding Director, in consultation with the buildings’ architects (figs. 3,4). Although McAndrew had studied architecture at Harvard and worked briefly in an architectural office, neither he nor Barr were experienced garden designers. The gray and ochre pebbles that covered the ground were arranged in organic, curvilinear patterns that echoed one of the most characteristic aspects of Goodwin and Stone’s design: the signature canopy over the new Museum’s front door. The canopy swelled out over the sidewalk while the entryway curved inward, ushering visitors into the lobby where the ticket desk further echoed the flowing contours (fig. 5). McAndrew developed the nonorthogonal shapes in the designs of the gravel paths, the plantings, and the screens and fencing made of wattle, plywood, saplings, and wire, which served as backdrops for the sculpture. The Garden’s informal quality presented a counterpoint to the architecture and unrelenting regularity of the city’s grid of streets, and it was strikingly unconventional (fig. 6). Its underlying biomorphic shapes were evocative of contemporary art and architecture, such as the paintings and sculpture of the Swiss artist Jean Arp, the flowing patterned gardens by the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, and, most evidently, the designs of the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, whose distinctive glassware, furniture, and architecture had been exhibited at MoMA the year before, in 1938. In the catalogue published for that exhibition, McAndrew lauded the young Finn’s imaginative forms and fresh sensibility. The translation of the vocabulary of avant-garde art and design into pebbles, gravel, plantings, and standing screens resulted in a unique setting for works that could withstand outdoor display.

To read more, download the PDF.