60 years later revisiting Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance in Papua Part II: The Rockefeller’s role in the acceptance of primitive art as fine art

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The Michael C. Rockefeller wing at the Met Photo credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

IO – When we look at the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in Papua in 1961, we cannot separate it from the subject of primitive art, a topic very close to the heart of Michael’s father Nelson Rockefeller. Michael shared that love with his father and it created a very special bond between them. It was also the reason for Michael being in Papua in the first place. Modern art and in particular primitive or indigenous art as it is now known, lies at the centre of the whole story of Michael’s disappearance, and even after his death, Michael and his father’s fascination with primitive art continued to influence its role and acceptance as a fine art.

John D. Rockefeller Jr 1920. Photo credit: Underwood & Underwood, Public domain, via Wikimedia Common

Michael Clark Rockefeller was the great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller Sr., the founder of Standard Oil who with US$ 900 million was during his time the richest man in the world. He was not a popular man in the United States and neither was the Rockefeller name. He was accused of trying to create a monopoly within the railroad industry and in 1911 Standard Oil was found guilty of breaching anti-trust laws, and was ordered dissolved. The public viewed the Rockefellers as unethical in their business practices and despite donating half his wealth to charity, the Rockefeller name remained tarnished.

Michael’s grandfather, John D. Rockefeller Jr. was a conscientious, serious man who dutifully dedicated himself to restoring the family reputation in the public eye. To do so, he too donated hundreds of millions of dollars to charities and insisted that his family behave ethically flawlessly. He succeeded in changing the image of the Rockefellers which by the end of his life was associated with “the good of mankind”. By helping to establish or supporting outstanding institutions including amongst others the United Nations, national parks, several universities, the United Negro College Fund, the Lincoln Center, the Rockefeller Centre, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and many more, they helped to create a new America.

The Rockefeller Center with its annual Christmas tree. Photo credit: Michael Vadon, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

In 1901, John D. Rockefeller Jr married Abigail Greene Aldrich, known popularly as Abby Rockefeller. It proved to be a happy marriage and Abby helped her children to better understand their strict and formal father. She had a deep interest in modern art despite her husband’s disapproval and in 1925 began collecting paintings by contemporary American artists as well as the European Modernists. Abby became a patron of the arts and was the main driving force in the establishment of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, also known as MoMA and which her children referred to as ‘Mother’s Museum’.

Portrait of Abigail Aldrich Rockefeller in 1893. Photo credit: Anonymous Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

American folk art was another of Abby’s interests which she became a patron of and soon also began collecting. Six years after her death in 1948, her husband established the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in St Williamsburg, Virginia – a town that the Rockefellers restored and preserved to its 18th century appearance. Meanwhile, at MoMA, she sat both on its board of trustees as well as later on its board of directors. Abby’s son, Nelson Rockefeller also developed a great love for modern art, perhaps stirred by his mother’s deep passion for it. He too became involved in MoMA and eventually became its president. The prints room and the sculpture garden at MoMA were both named after his mother.

Michael’s father, Nelson Rockefeller was the governor of New York at the time of Michael’s disappearance and would later become the Vice-President of the United States of America, besides also running for president in which he did not succeed. Despite such a busy political life, his passionate fascination for art especially, modern art never waned, and the love of modern art that he had shared with his mother, he also shared with his son, Michael.

What made Nelson Rockefeller unique during his time, was that he was passionate about collecting not only Western modern art but also sculptures and paintings from the Far East as well as Pre-Colombian, South Sea Islands and African art. This may have been inspired by his mother’s interest in folk art. In 1930, he was already a member of the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is one of the finest and leading art museums in the world with a collection of over two million works of art spanning all periods and most of the world’s cultures. At the time however, it was not interested in modern art and this was one of the reasons why Abby Rockefeller established MoMA in 1929.

Nelson Rockefeller as vice president. Photo credit: unknown, The White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As far as art was concerned Nelson very much followed in his mother’s footsteps. He began by trying to persuade the Met to include Pre-Colombian art in its collections but its director Herbert Winlock was not to be persuaded. So, in 1954, not far from MoMA, Nelson set up the Museum for Indigenous Art which in 1957 became the Museum of Primitive Art. Within two decades, he managed to assemble there the most important and finest collection of art from the Americas, Africa and Oceania, in a determined quest for aesthetic eminence in traditions across the globe. His goal was to have the arts of these indigenous cultures accepted as fine arts in the West, and as one of the great artistic expressions of the world. In this he was assisted by the art curator, René d’Harnoncourt who became the Museum’s co-founder and vice-president and the art historian, Robert Goldwater who became the Museum’s director.

When the museum opened, Michael was only 19 years old but he was already made a board member. His sister Mary, says that both her father and her brother were dyslexic and that dyslexic people often compensate for their disability by having a very fine visual sense and what Abby Rockefeller referred to as ‘the arranger’s disease’. They were always very interested in how objects were placed, and could not resist rearranging them. With the same passionate love for modern art and primitive art as his father, Michael wanted to collect some of the most superb indigenous artwork in the world for the Museum.

He decided to go to the remote Asmat area in Dutch New Guinea. There are about 70,000 Asmats living in around 100 villages. Now, the Asmat are known for their intricately carved and highly aesthetic wood carvings which are desired by art collectors all over the globe. With their strong, elegant lines the Asmat sculptures are amongst the most powerful primitive art in the world.

The Asmat have an extremely elaborate and intricate culture that is filled with symbols, the spirits of the ancestors and their worship, animals and in the past headhunting and cannibalism. Their outstanding sculptures and carvings are an expression of their culture and belief system. Like many indigenous cultures, their belief system centers around the search for balance.

Nelson Rockefeller approached primitive art through the lens of aesthetics in trying to obtain world recognition for it as a fine art. The Asmats however, viewed their sculptures differently. Like the West centuries ago, their art was about their belief system. As an anthropologist Michael Rockefeller would perhaps have had a better understanding of that.

This different way of viewing an object, either purely from an aesthetic perspective or looking also at the cultural, historic and belief system behind the object is one that has caused disputes within museums. A case in point was the ‘Asia in Amsterdam’ exhibition held in 2016 by the Peabody Essex Museum where the Peabody Essex Museum had to struggle within itself to determine whether they would look at objects purely as works of art or also take into consideration their historical and cultural dimensions.

After Michael graduated with honors as an anthropologist from Harvard he served for six months in the army in 1960. Then, he went out on a Harvard Peabody Museum expedition to the Dani tribes in the Baliem valley for six months. During this expedition the documentary film ‘Dead Birds’ was filmed by Robert Gardner.

Michael Clark Rockefeller on the cover of Life magazine. The photograph was taken before his disappearnce. Photo credit: HurayforZay, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Michael was deeply impressed by the Asmat carvings that he witnessed on his first trip to Papua and in the following year he went out again with a Harvard Peabody Museum expedition to the Asmat. On the expedition he acted as sound recorder and photographer but also used the trip as an opportunity to collect Asmat carvings for the Museum of Primitive Art. During his collecting trips he managed to reach 13 villages where he collected hundreds of objects including four enormous, carved bisj poles which are amongst the most striking objects now at the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Each is They are around 18 feet high with carvings of men standing on top of each other with birds and crocodiles and other creatures carved in between. Michael was planning an exhibition about the untouched world of the Asmat and their outstanding sculptures. After his death his collection of Asmat art was housed at the Museum of Primitive Art and in his father’s private collections.

In 1962 a temporary gallery was erected in the MOMA sculpture garden to exhibit Michael’s collection of Asmat artifacts together with his best photographs. There were hundreds of exhibits. In January 1964 Michael was declared legally dead by a court in White Plains, New York. Four years later the Museum of Primitive Art published a book of Michael’s Asmat photographs and quoted from his notes. Nelson said of his son Michael, “He had that joy of life that is so rare today. Maybe he was too lacking in fear. But there is no use in speculating. He wanted to do it.”

In 1964, Nelson Rockefeller’s work to obtain recognition for primitive art as a fine art and as one of the great artistic expressions in the world was not finished yet. It was a continuation of his mother’s struggle for modern art and it became a tribute to his lost son, Michael. With the help of Rene d’Harnoncourt, Nelson was able to finally persuade and enter into an agreement with the great and renown Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Male Figure, 19th–early 20th century from the Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection at the Met.
Photo credit: Wikipedia Loves Art participant “trish”, CC BY 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons

Consequently, in 1969 the Metropolitan Museum of Art, made the ground breaking and controversial decision to include primitive art in its fine arts collection. It agreed to establish a new department for primitive art by creating a Rockefeller wing. It took over the Museum of Primitive Art and Nelson Rockefeller’s personal collections of non-Western art, including Michael Rockefeller’s Asmat collections. The Museum of Primitive Art closed in December of 1974 and its library, staff and 3,500 artefacts were moved to the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the Met.

“When an encyclopedic museum like the Met finally decides to incorporate non-Western art, it is making a statement saying this art is as important as Greek statues and the Impressionists,” says Nancy Lutkehaus. “It’s broadening its canon in terms of what is considered to be art, and that has a cultural impact in terms of a statement about a broader recognition, a more multicultural, more racially and ethnically diverse national identity.”

Nancy Lutkehaus is professor of anthropology, gender studies and political science at the University of Southern California who has done research in Papua New Guinea and is writing a book entitled “The Met Goes Primitive: Postwar America, Cultural Politics, and the Creation of the Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

Lutkehaus explains that as a politician Nelson Rockefeller was very interested in the role that art could play in cultural politics. She reveals how he used this interest to promote democracy, “When he became president of the Museum of Modern Art, he created an Inter-American Council and used it to bring Latin American artists to the U.S. and to send American art to Latin America. He was concerned during World War II about fascism overtaking Latin America, so he used art and the Museum of Modern Art as a vehicle for intercultural exchange to create a counterforce to fascist interests in South America.”

Ceremonial Fence Element, Late 19th–early 20th century from the Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection at the Met.
Photo credit: Wikipedia Loves Art participant “shooting_brooklyn”, CC BY-SA 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons

If we compare this with the situation in Indonesia than it is not surprising that Indonesian philosopher, sociologist. linguist and novelist Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana who played such a prominent role in the creation and development of an Indonesian national language and culture, was an admirer of Nelson Rockefeller in this respect. He too promoted the values of democracy through language and culture and through novels such as Defeat and Victory.

Nelson Rockefeller died in 1979, three years before the wing, dedicated to his son, Michael was opened to the public in 1982. In the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing on the first-floor gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, visitors encounter the striking funerary bisj poles intended to guide the spirits of the dead that Michael gathered in Papua for his father’s museum and the exhibition he had planned. Indonesia is indebted to the Rockefellers for their struggle for the recognition of indigenous art for it opened the way for the acknowledgment that Asmat art receives all over the globe today, as both a fine art and as one of the great artistic expressions of the world. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed reading this article you may also enjoy by the same writer:

Part I: https://observerid.com/60-years-later-revisiting-michael-rockefellers-disappearance-in-papua-part-i-in-defence-of-max-lapre/

Part III: https://observerid.com/60-years-later-revisiting-michael-rockefellers-disappearance-in-papua-part-iii-a-twins-grief-and-whether-savage-harvest-proved-michaels-disappearance/