The Public Art of Robert Moses’s New York
This story originally appeared on CityLab. Find the original here.
Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from Michele Bogart’s Sculpture in Gotham: Art and Urban Renewal in New York City.
Public sculpture in post-World War II New York City was rather fallow terrain. Statues and monuments had been an integral part of the turn-of-the-20th-century civic landscape, but declined in number during the Depression and World War II, the outgrowth of professional power struggles and changing artistic styles and aesthetic priorities.
Monuments were less civic art, as had been conceived in older days, than decorative accompaniment, often rendered in relief, for Art Deco or more severe “classical moderne”-style buildings. Commentators disavowed figurative statuary as outmoded and disingenuous. Some veterans and neighborhood groups attempted to erect war memorials in the late 1940s and early 1950s. However, inter-organizational dissension, and resistance from both the city’s design review body (the Art Commission of the City of New York, ACNY), and from the powerful Commissioner of Parks Robert Moses, meant that little went forward.
Indeed, when it came to public space and design in general, Moses wielded exceptional influence. Moses (1888–1981) had a strong civic-minded orientation, but monuments were not necessarily a part of it.
As previous commissioners had, he called the shots on what was suitable for placement in New York City parks (where the majority of monuments were situated). In fact, he disliked most public sculpture, regarding it as outmoded, sentimental, and poorly designed; he even penned a two-part New York Times Magazine article expressly to mock it. “God help this town,” Moses opined, “if we are to be measured by our monuments …The great opportunity to rid ourselves of the monstrosities we inherited has come and gone. The fact is that we just did not have nerve enough to seize it …There is no field of municipal government which has more headaches, heartaches, contentions, asininities and humor.”
Moses rarely took the lead in commissioning work, and there was little money in city coffers in any event. When Moses did have occasion to be involved with new projects, he leaned toward figurative art in a modern archaicizing mode, with simplified, angular silhouettes, roughish surface treatment, and muddier brown patinas than New York’s Beaux-Arts-style precedents. When offered sculptural gifts for New York City Parks property, he chose subjects that advanced Cold War agendas or appealed primarily to children. The three “Good Neighbor Policy” equestrian monuments of South American liberators at a newly redesigned entrance plaza of Avenue of the Americas and Central Park South (José de San Martín, José Martí, and Simón Bolívar), as well as Hans Christian Andersen and Alice in Wonderland in Central Park, were representative among them.
Cold War play sculpture
The Hans Christian Andersen and Alice in Wonderland statues were notable new additions to Central Park, whose custodians had vigilantly guarded against monumental intrusions. Following a pattern of patronage common in the United States since the late 19th century, private groups donated the funds for both statues. Thus, for example, the Danish-American Women’s Association of Jackson Heights, Queens sponsored Hans Christian Andersen with monies raised in part from Danish-Americans and children (a well-worn fundraising tactic), in honor of philanthropist and Association founder Baroness Alma Dahlerup. Moses was in the process of re-landscaping the eastern interior of the park in the lower 70s, and was looking for private donors to help underwrite costs.
As the author of beloved children’s stories, Hans Christian Andersen was a pleasing and suitable subject for that park locale. Along with the model boat basin and Conservatory Pond (a rehabilitation project also underwritten with private money), the statue would create an oasis that would help attract families and residents from posh surroundings such as Fifth Avenue. These populations were a desirable force for revitalization of parks at a moment when urban decentralization was taking hold in New York City and the George Lober and Otto F. Langmann, perspective drawing for Hans Christian Andersen monument site.
Department of Parks (DPR) needed money for both capital projects and basic maintenance. Thus when the Danish-American Women’s Association proposed the gift in spring 1955, Moses accepted it with little hesitation.
The work also had a subtext with deeper significance that resonated with preoccupations of the Cold War era.
Georg Lober (1891–1961), a traditionalist figurative sculptor, won the commission and set to work. The ACNY, for which Lober worked as Executive Secretary, rubber-stamped the project soon after submission, a fact that did not go unnoticed by astute newspaper critics. The statue was dedicated in 1956 (1955 having been the 150th anniversary of Andersen’s death) on the western side of the Conservatory Pond. As intended, it immediately became popular among children, thus contributing to the youth and active leisure focus of city parks that was a hallmark of Moses-era design.
Moses’s receptivity toward Hans Christian Andersen made sense. Andersen had international renown. The subject advanced Moses’s vision of parks as magnets for children, as did the heartwarming “Ugly Duckling” story of transformation. These associations alone may not have been the only reason that Moses took interest, however. The work also had a subtext with deeper significance that resonated with preoccupations of the Cold War era. Within the context of post-WWII politics, the date and choice of subject were notable. In the wake of the German invasion of Denmark on April 9, 1940, that nation had abandoned its centuries- old position of long-standing neutrality. In 1949, Denmark joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Andersen was thus not just a significant figure within the canon of great children’s literature. He was, as well, for the Danes, identified with the Kingdom of Denmark, a symbol of nation and of ethnic pride. Hence the gift to the City of New York signified the unbreachable alliance between Denmark and the United States. It served as an expression of Danish resilience and fortitude and as vindication for the risky political path that that kingdom had chosen to take. As such, the work had a higher purpose, one consistent with the ideals represented by the Latin American liberators whose equestrian likenesses were installed at Central Park’s southern end.
Alice in Wonderland
As Hans Christian Andersen had been, Alice in Wonderland was made possible because its subject was consistent with Moses’s predilection for parks as play spaces. Statues depicting beloved fictional characters invited climbing, thus complementing the playgrounds and ballfields that Moses had constructed in great numbers since 1933. The Alice commission represented not only Moses’s preoccupations, of course, but—as was invariably the case with monuments that relied upon private patronage—the self-interests of others: here, those of donor and sculptor. Diverging agendas produced decidedly adult disagreements, although limited enough to be managed by Parks administrators, and hence not ultimately fatal.
Alice in Wonderland did not have the same ideological overtones as Hans Christian Andersen, but as Hans Christian Andersen had, it contributed to the aura of Central Park as a family-oriented playland. Alice in Wonderland as a subject was a departure from statuary traditions, Alice being neither a god nor a hero, but rather a figure from children’s literature. The work was the sculptural counterpart to the popular imaginative renditions that began with John Tenniel’s famed 1865 illustrations for Charles Dodgson’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and continued on into the 1910s, ’20s, and ’30s, with the animated cartoons of Walt Disney and the Fleischer studios. Sculptor José de Creeft’s interpretation whimsically evoked the famous Mad Tea Party scene (which had a widespread appeal in American culture as a celebration of irrationality), although it did not depict specific text or the Tea Party’s parody of aristocratic pomposity. At a moment when pervasive fears about nuclear holocaust prompted occasional bouts of existential angst, the absurdism conjured up by the Alice stories also resonated: not for nothing did the Walt Disney studio return to Alice as a full-length animated feature, released in 1951.
Mythical figures were part of a sculptor’s stock and trade, but most were classical or ideal in nature. Gods, goddesses, and allegorical personifications were still quite prevalent, even in the art of Moses’s era, in works like The Rocket Thrower in Flushing Meadows Park in the borough of Queens. Alice in Wonderland was a new departure for its time in depicting specific but fictional characters and stories, a practice seen in the 19th-century statuettes of John Rogers and Daniel Chester French, but rarely in the work of 20th-century sculptors, and certainly nothing on this scale.
Although the name Robert Moses certainly does not spring to mind when one thinks of the “Mad Tea Party,” Moses was in fact quite interested in the subject and in securing Paul Manship to sculpt it. The challenge was finding money, which, according to Moses, the DPR did not have. A Joseph M. Hartfield notified Moses that a Mrs. Martineau was a possible donor, but that for reasons unknown she was unwilling to “employ Manship.” Ever the pragmatist, Moses responded that Parks would not dictate the sculptor but would also not select an artist who was likely to be turned down by the ACNY or Parks authorities (like him). “This is a delicate business and leads to endless complications if it is not managed properly at the beginning,” he wrote.
“While Paul Manship is a topnotch man for the Alice in Wonderland group, there are certainly half a dozen others whose work would be acceptable.” One of those half-dozen others was Georg Lober, secretary for the ACNY, and sculptor of Hans Christian Andersen. Appreciating a competent artist when he found one, Moses had no qualms about using him on multiple projects. Moses found a patron in Dell Publishing Company founder George T. Delacorte (1894–1991), who told Moses in 1956 of his desire to fund a memorial to his late wife Marguerite. Delacorte offered $150,000 “for some improvement in Central Park in the area which she loved, which is from 72nd Street to 80th Street.” Moses, clearly pleased, let Delacorte know that he was looking for “alternatives” for him. Alice in Wonderland was just that. By the time that Delacorte committed to his gift, the Department of Parks had given the commission to sculptors Fernando Texidor (1907–1992) and José de Creeft (1884–1982). De Creeft would be paid $2,500 for a sketch model. Texidor would do the drawings for the overall design, and De Creeft would complete the sculptor’s work. De Creeft would pay Texidor 25 percent of his total payment of $25,000, and the two would share rights.
The process began smoothly, but tensions arose, first over aesthetics, and then over publicity. That the benefactor was one individual rather than a committee was key. Delacorte had a good deal of sway, along with park administrators, and there was a disconnect between the clients’ and sculptors’ conception of the Alice story. The Alice as rendered embodied the theme of worldliness versus innocence; the clients preferred innocence. Reporting to Delacorte on the progress of the work, Moses’s chief deputy for Central Park, Stuart Constable, informed Delacorte that the sculptor had done a “beautiful job,” except for the fact that Alice was looking “a little too old, a little too sophisticated, and probably just a little too pretty.” Constable conceded that it was hard to predict from the Plasticine model what the finished version would look like, stating that he was confident that “our friend” De Creeft would follow the “pleas” to make Alice “convincingly” a “little girl.” Delacorte concurred, telling de Creeft, “I love her expression. She has charm and grace, but she makes me feel that she is seventeen or eighteen, and I would like a child of twelve.” Constable continued to lean on the sculptor, reminding him that Delacorte and Constable wanted to be sure “she really looks like a little English girl. The other characters are excellent and recognizable as straight from the story.” De Creeft complied.
The sculptor was insufficiently compliant, however, when it came to exposure and publicity. De Creeft posed for a photograph with his completed statue in the New York Times Sunday magazine section before the official dedication: a “premature,” self-serving action that “shocked” the publisher. “You were aware that we did not want any advance publicity,” Delacorte protested.
“You are spoiling a good deal of the efforts I have been preparing for it . . . I can realize that you want to propagandize yourself, but you are really cheating yourself by doing it in the manner in which you did in The New York Times. Now that this pre-release has come along, I am sure the amount of publicity we get in the future will be cut down severely… ”
Hands-on executives like Delacorte and Moses could not tolerate challenges to their authority. There was little that could be done about this infraction, however. De Creeft was still working on the job. The statue was dedicated in a well-publicized ceremony on May 7, 1959; thus began children’s love affair with Moses-era sculpture as play equipment.
The World’s Fair
Moses’s art patronage of the 1950s was representative of the city’s relative indifference to civic statuary and monuments. The 1964 New York World’s Fair revealed a transition in attitudes toward art in the cityscape. The public art in the official portions of the fair highlighted Moses’s conservative-modern tastes, but other types of sculpture were also visible—the outgrowth of art-world pressure on Moses to display more current and cutting-edge work. The process revealed how shifting tastes and new aesthetic institutional forces would gradually alter public sculpture patronage, process, and appearance in New York City.
The World’s Fair of 1964 was part of a long-standing effort, championed by Moses, to transform a swampy dump in Flushing, Queens, into a large urban park. City officials negotiated with Moses to step down as Parks Commissioner (a post he had held for some thirty years) to become President of the New York World’s Fair Corporation. The fair’s themes were “Man’s Entry into Space,” and “Peace Through Understanding.” Following precedent, the pavilions and decorations would ostensibly evoke these subjects. World’s fairs of the past had been showcases for modern topics and contemporary sculpture, be they classical, Beaux-Arts allegories, as in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, or a mix of classicizing figures and more radical experiments, as in the corporate sections of Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress Exposition or New York’s 1939 World’s Fair, the precursor to 1964.
Moses, however, took the position that the sculptural decoration for the 1964 World’s Fair was more or less extraneous and not worth much effort. When word got out as early as 1960 that there was to be a fair, sculptors began soliciting Moses for possible jobs. Some merely offered their services; others put forward specific ideas—such as a design depicting flat, childlike sunflowers with smiling faces springing out of a pot. Moses and Fair director and planner Gilmore Clarke worked to fend off these artists in order to minimize the amount of sculptural decoration in the official design portions. Moses’s priority was to save money for the post-Fair transformation of Flushing Meadows into a park. Architectural sculpture was no longer crucial for articulating a world's fair’s larger meaning.
In any event, none of the unsolicited submissions generated much enthusiasm among New York World’s Fair administrators. Clarke’s response to a proposal for an equestrian figure by eminent figurative sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington was that he would be “burned at the stake” were he to accept such an artwork. “That sort of academic work of the last century will not ‘go’ at a world’s fair in 1964,” he insisted. Reactions to some of the other design suggestions for sculpture, both classical and modern in style, were equally dismissive.
Architectural sculpture was no longer crucial for articulating a world's fair’s larger meaning.
Given the anticipated visibility of the fair, however, Moses knew that there had to be some sort of organized process for vetting design proposals. Heeding recommendations from fair architect and inner circle member Wallace Harrison, Moses instructed Clarke to set up a committee of experts, consisting of Metropolitan Museum director James Rorimer, Brooklyn Museum director Thomas Buechner, World’s Fair Vice President Stuart Constable, Clarke, and him. Despite Moses’s insistence that the museum directors believe that that they had “a voice and that their advice is genuinely welcome,” the experts group had limited engagement or input. Moses and Constable made certain to obtain only statuary that suited their taste preferences.
Foreseeing pressure from art-world advocates of the avant-garde to include some modern sculpture as fair adornment (efforts that Moses described as a “spasm”), the panel experts suggested several prominent artists as a way of paying lip service. To that end, Moses and Constable invited Alexander Calder, Isamu Noguchi, José de Rivera, Richard Lippold, and Theodore Roszak to submit designs: Calder for a “composition to be placed at an appropriate site at the Fair”; Noguchi for an abstract composition; de Rivera for the work that became Free Form. Moses knew that the most troublesome “Moderns” could be relied upon to reject the overtures, which is exactly what they did. Thus when neither Calder nor Noguchi responded to his invitation, Moses was hardly disappointed. He simply dismissed them. Noguchi and Moses had not seen eye to eye ever since Moses had rejected Noguchi’s proposed sculptural playgrounds for the grounds of the United Nations; they were presently embroiled in a battle over Noguchi’s proposal for the Adele Levy playground in Riverside Park and 103rd Street.
The reasons for Calder’s failure to respond are unknown, but given Moses’s and his successor Newbold Morris’s known antagonism toward Modernism, which would affect him directly at Lincoln Center, Calder probably felt that a fair commission would not be worth the bother.
De Rivera and Roszak both accepted. Roszak sent Moses a drawing. That, and José de Rivera’s Free Form, were Moses’s concession to Modernist sculpture. Paradoxically, however, although the theme of the fair was “Peace Through Understanding,” and the subject of Roszak’s sculpture evoked transportation and the fair’s main theme of “Man’s Entry into Space,” Moses, unable to relate to Roszak’s jet-like design for Forms in Transit, gave Roszak a difficult time over it. Moses insisted on inclusion of an explanatory label, stating that the “final sculptural project . . . does not seem to me to realize at all the promise of his reasoning and sketches.” Moses deferred to his committee (one of whose members, James Rorimer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had recommended Roszak), but insisted, “that an explanation with diagrams . . . be in some fashion framed and attached to the sculpture so as to make it understandable by visitors to the Transportation Area and to the general public. Please tell me how this can be done.”
The commissions approved for the official portions of the Fair were unprepossessing and aesthetically unambitious. They consisted of a mix of original and recycled works of art. The latter included Frederick MacMonnies’s Bacchante and Infant Faun (1893), Harriet Frishmuth’s cast of The Vine (1924)—on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art—and Paul Manship’s Armillary Sphere (1924). The most recent of these sculptures dated from 1939.
Among artists assigned new commissions, only de Rivera and Roszak created designs in an abstract idiom that might be considered to respond to advocates’ calls for more contemporary art. The only other two official commissions, Triumph of the Human Spirit by Marshall Fredericks and The Rocket Thrower by Donald De Lue, were figurative and on the conservative end of the style spectrum. Both monuments expressed the celebratory, space-age ideals of the fair’s theme and exhibits. But whereas Roszak and de Rivera sought to evoke space-age futurism metaphorically, through Cubist-influenced abstract form, De Lue evoked metaphorically, via a gesturally expressive mode of modern archaic classicism, the current Cold War preoccupations with the wonders of rocket-ship space travel.
The commissions approved for the official portions of the Fair were unprepossessing and aesthetically unambitious.
Moses regarded De Lue’s Rocket Thrower as the centerpiece of the 1964 World’s Fair. For him, the work’s contemporaneity was grounded in its figurative deviation from traditional classical proportion, in its expressive, exaggerated gestures, and in its reference, as allegorical personification, to the very contemporary preoccupation of modern space exploration. The 43-foot bronze was the largest and most expensive of the official fair commissions (De Lue was paid $105,000, compared to Fredericks’s $90,000). Moses and De Lue were professional acquaintances; the two agreed on the unfortunate direction in which they believed art seemed to be headed. Men such as them needed to forestall such developments. “So much of modern art is political protest opposition to the established order,” wrote De Lue to Moses, “and to my mind the visual evidence of the moral decay. The part that is difficult to understand is how great wealth such as the Rockeffellers [sic] and Fords can so heavily finance an ideology so dedicated to thier [sic] own destruction.” Moses responded: “I am with you and Sir John as to abstract art, Sandy Calder stabiles and mobiles, and Moore monstrosities.”
Modernist and avant-garde design made its way into the fair, despite Moses. Through interventions by Governor Nelson Rockefeller and architect Philip Johnson, for example, Pop Art paintings were installed on the exterior walls of the New York State Building; Moses, quite unenamored of this work, censored one portion of the display, Andy Warhol’s Thirteen Most Wanted Men mugshots of criminals. In spite of Moses’s actions, however, the State of New York had now officially legitimized contemporary art. Once Moses was out of office, public sculpture’s institutional structures and forms began to make a notable shift.
Civic sculpture as an expression of municipal order and unity was on the wane during Robert Moses’s late tenure as Commissioner of Parks and his term as 1964 New York World’s Fair president. Moses’s taste for the traditional and for the figurative certainly continued to leave its mark in the realm of civic statuary, but, as at the World’s Fair, would be complemented by other alternatives. The Fair represented that bridge between old and new.
During Robert Moses’s tenure, the shape of the civic built environment often hinged on his whims. Municipal sculpture and patronage changed markedly after he left office. Broader social preoccupations, bred of the turbulence of the late 1960s and early ’70s Civil Rights and countercultural movements, began explicitly to drive cultural policy. Officials sought to extend the reach of city government as nurturer of the arts in ways not seen since the federal arts projects launched during the administrations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Fiorello La Guardia. Striving to respond to community activists, fend off militants, and maintain the support of middle-class and white ethnic voters, moderate bureaucrats and culture advocates began to turn to public sculpture as an instrument for urban renewal and community mollification. They regarded this enterprise as a more constructive, judicious path to social change than the more incendiary programs put forward by the Left.
The mayoral administration of liberal Republican John Lindsay (1966–1973) was especially transformative in this regard. Lindsay advisors such as Doris Freedman and August Heckscher encouraged thinking about culture progressively, as a way to stabilize and renew New York City at a time when the white middle classes were abandoning it. They regarded public sculpture as a way to help empower minorities, reassure tradition-minded residents, and maintain the social order. Inspired as well by the formation of the federal General Services Administration and the National Endowment for the Art’s public art programs (discussed below), and energized by Lindsay’s “Fun City” agenda for urban revitalization, mayoral officials embraced a more celebratory, process-oriented approach to sculpture that intersected with both the East Coast worlds of avant-garde gallery art and with the West Coast-generated countercultural spirit of play.
Deputies for Lindsay’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs agency turned away from the traditional permanent and figurative civic forms favored by Moses. They instead sponsored temporary outdoor displays of cutting-edge art that included process, installation, performance, Earth Art, and especially Minimalism. Women achieved new influence in this administration, along with cultural leaders affiliated with the art worlds of New York museums and downtown galleries. New artistic opportunities, priorities, and procedures emerged.