One focus of the 1964-65 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows was art. Fairgoers could see paintings by Goya and Michelangelo’s famous “Pieta.” But a few of the artworks specifically designed for the fair were controversial, and some of them remain there today.
Five sculptors were commissioned to create works that would stay in the park after the fair ended. They were Theodore Roszak, Paul Manship, Marshall Fredericks, Jose de Rivera and Donald De Lue.
Roszak designed “Forms in Transit,” a 43-foot-long aluminum and steel sculpture that looks like a plane and is also meant to show the concept of motion and change.
It reflects one of the fair’s themes, space exploration, and is located near the New York Hall of Science. There has been some deterioration over the years and portions of a damaged wing were removed in 1970.
Fredericks designed “Freedom of the Human Spirit,” a large bronze statue showing male and female figures with wild swans heading skyward. It, too, evokes space exploration.
The artist gave his interpretation of the piece: “I tried to design the work so that it was as free of the earth, as free in space as possible ... The thought that we can free ourselves from earth, from the material forces which try to restrain and hamper us, is a happy, encouraging and inspiring one, and I sincerely hope that my work will convey this message.”
It is located between the Unisphere and the Billie Jean King Tennis facility. The Parks Department hopes to get funding to restore its finish.
De Rivera’s abstract and kinetic sculpture, “Free Form,” consists of a curvilinear tapered band of stainless steel on a steel pin atop a black granite pedestal. Inside is a motor which causes the sculpture to slowly revolve.
It was restored in the 1990s and is located between the Queens Museum and the USTA.
Perhaps the most controversial sculpture, “The Rocket Thrower,” was designed by De Lue and almost didn’t arrive in time for the fair’s opening 50 years ago. It, too, reflects space exploration.
The 43-foot-tall bronze features a muscular man hurling a rocket into the sky with his right hand and reaching for a constellation of gilded stars with his left. De Lue was a late entry to the fair corporation, which sanctioned it, and his work was later cast in Italy, arriving just in time for the fair’s opening.
But critics were less than enthusiastic about it. New York Times art reviewer John Canaday said the piece was “the most lamentable monster, making Walt Disney look like Leonardo Da Vinci.” World’s Fair President Robert Moses did not agree and told De Lue: “This is the greatest compliment you could have ... Canaday hates everything that is good.”
The statue was restored last summer and is located north of the Unisphere.
Manship’s artwork did not fare as well as that of the other four commissioned sculptors. His contribution was the Armillary Sphere that stood in a reflecting pool adjacent to the Unisphere and the New York City Building, now the Queens Museum.
The bronze work, with some gilding, was a classically styled sphere adorned with the signs of the zodiac. According to Jonathan Kuhn, director of art and antiquities at the Parks Department, several pieces were vandalized and stolen in the late 1960s and early 1970s and secondary castings were made of the signs of the zodiac.
On Sept. 25, 1980 the remainder of the entire piece was cut up and stolen. Two of the original signs of the zodiac, “Aries the Ram” and “Taurus the Bull,” were recovered in 1990 from private collectors and Kuhn plans to include them in a summer exhibition, “Tomorrow’s World: The New York World’s Fairs and Flushing Meadows Corona Park,” opening at the Arsenal Gallery in Manhattan on June 25.
Despite the loss of Manship’s sculpture, Kuhn said there are only a handful of city parks with as many monuments as Flushing Meadows. “They relate to the fair and we take them seriously,” he said.
An unexpected priceless artifact that was given to the fair is the Whispering Column of Jerash. It was donated by King Hussein of Jordan, who visited the fair right after it opened.
The 25-foot-high stone pillar stood next to the Pavilion of Jordan and features a modified Corinthian capital that was erected in AD 120 by Romans in the ancient Jordanian city of Jerash and was part of the Temple of Artemis.
It is located west of “The Rocket Thrower” and is the second-oldest antiquity at a city park. The other is an Egyptian obelisk in Central Park.
One of Moses’ greatest artistic achievements was securing the “Pieta” from the Vatican. He personally persuaded Pope John XXIII to allow the display of the masterpiece, which had never been removed since it was installed in 1499. A replica can now be seen in the Queens Museum.
Moses was also able to persuade the government of Spain to send works of Goya, Velazquez, El Greco, Picasso and Miro that helped make Spain’s pavilion a standout.
The New York State Pavilion — which is getting a lot of attention lately over the drive to save it rather than let it continue to decay — featured a hot-bed of contemporary artists in 1964. Commissions went to such Pop artists as Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Robert Indiana and Robert Rauschenberg.
Their works were hung on the outside of the Theaterama, now the Queens Theatre. By far the most controversial was Warhol’s “Thirteen Most Wanted Men.” It showed screened mug shots of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives.
New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller heard about the display and had it removed before the fair opened, believing it would not be good for votes since many of the men were Italian. Warhol later made a small set of the shots and nine of them are now on display at the Queens Museum.
Lichtenstein depicted a comic-strip woman leaning out a window, while Indiana designed a blinking sign that read “EAT.” Rauschenberg created “Skyway,” a montage of American history in the 1960s featuring President Kennedy.
There were also plaster creations, a chrome-plated steel hanging and a wood, cloth and plastic work titled “The Cliffhanger.”
There was something for every art lover at the fair — from Michelangelo’s masterpiece to contemporary sculptures and Pop art. And the size and scope of many of them made them hard to miss.
This is the fifth in a series of stories commemorating the 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows.
If you attended the 1964-65 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows and are old enough to remember it, the Queens Chronicle wants to hear from you.
As part of its series on the 50th anniversary of the fair, the Chronicle is seeking reminiscences from Queens residents who were there.
What were your favorite memories of the fair? What astounded you? Did you go often? Do you still have any souvenirs from it?
We will also accept photographs of you and your family at the fair for possible publication. Email to LizR@qchron.com or by mail to Liz Rhoades, Queens Chronicle, PO Box 74-7769, Rego Park, NY 11374.
Please put your name and address lightly on the back of photos so they can be returned. Include a separate caption of who is in the picture.
We thank those readers who have already sent in photographs, memorabilia and memories and hope to hear from more about their fair reminiscences.