Asian Art in Post-war America

Bodhisattva. Nepal. Early Malla period (1200–1382), 13th century. Gilt copper with inlays of semiprecious stones. H. 18 3/4 in. (47.6 cm). Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.4944

NEW YORK, March 9, 2009 – In conjunction with the exhibition Asian Journeys: Collecting Art in Post-war America, Adriana Proser, John H. Foster Curator for Traditional Asian Art at Asia Society Museum, presented an intriguing study of the symbiotic connections between international politics and art collecting during the post-World War II reconstruction period. Among the players at this time were the influential art historian and museum director Sherman E. Lee (d. 2008) and the founder of Asia Society, John D. Rockefeller 3rd (JDR 3rd, d. 1978) and his wife Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller.

Proser revealed biographical details of Lee and JDR 3rd that included their unique experiences in post-war Japan. From 1946 to 1948 Lee worked for the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the Pacific and had the privilege of conducting inventories of major Japanese art collections. For his part, JDR 3rd was active in the 1951 Dulles peace mission to Japan and later established the Council on Economic and Cultural Affairs, a US-based organization whose activities focused on Asian nations.

Unlike other collectors, such as his parents Abby and John D. Rockefeller, Jr, Charles Lang Freer, and Avery Brundage, JDR 3rd sought artworks that would have an impact on international relations. With Lee's counsel, he and Blanchette assembled one of the most spectacular collections of Asian art in the United States. It was this collection—formed within 15 years, from 1963 to 1978—that the Rockefellers gave to the Asia Society and now forms the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection.

Proser offered insights into the Rockefellers' collecting interests, which began with acquiring artworks from Japan and China, and by the 1960s included South and Southeast Asia. The pattern of their collecting was integrally tied to laws that protected cultural heritage, international and civil strife, government-imposed trade embargos, and changes in political alliances. The Rockefellers' growing interest in collecting Indian artworks reflected their concern that India was developing closer ties with the Soviet Union; artworks from Nepal, meanwhile, were available only after the 1950s due to Nepal's self-imposed isolation.

Proser presented numerous slides of the Rockefellers, Lee, and their collection that demonstrated the collection's breadth, while explaining how their tastes dictated the form that it took. For instance, there are few Chinese paintings in their collection because the Rockefellers were instead drawn to Chinese ceramics; and unlike other American collectors, they acquired numerous Pala-period sculptures from eastern India. A most important consideration was quality: the Rockefellers sought to acquire only the highest-quality artworks. According to Lee's own grading system (A to D), there was nothing below a “B” in the Rockefeller collection.

Reported by Jacqueline Ganem

Excerpt: "An extraordinary knowledge of the art and politics of Asia" —Adriana Proser on the Rockefeller-Lee team's vision of art collecting (1 min., 29 sec.)

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Listen to the complete program (53 min.)

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