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Rocket Thrower Restoration Launched

The restoration of the “Rocket Thrower” was officially launched on August 22 with a survey of the monument by Steve Tatti’s expert conservation team. The conservation of the statue, the 36th restoration under the MAS Adopt-A-Monument Program, also marks the 25th anniversary of the program. Donald De Lue’s Olympian-sized sculpture, a highlight of Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, will now be enjoyed in its original state by generations to come.

Read more about the “Rocket Thrower,” its history, and MAS’s conservation, in The New York Times and in the below abbreviated remarks, presented in May at MAS by Michele Bogart, professor of Art History at Stony Brook University and author of the forthcoming Revitalizing Urban Culture: New York City’s Public Sculpture, 1950-1990.

Donald De Lue’s exuberant “Rocket Thrower” (1964) is a notable part of New York City’s material heritage. As a tangible remnant of the 1964 New York Worlds Fair, whose theme was “Man’s Entry into Space,” the statue is a memento of another, more optimistic era, the dawn of the Space Age.

The history of the “Rocket Thrower” is bound up with that of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, with its slogan of peace through understanding. Planning began in 1959. Robert Moses was being eased out of his longstanding fiefdom as NYC Parks Commissioner in exchange for being appointed the Fair Corporation’s president. Moses instructed Fair Director Gilmore C. Clarke to assemble a blue-ribbon sculptor selection committee. The committee could be relied upon to pick artists who wouldn’t rock the boat, especially since the projects were destined to become permanent features in the future Flushing Meadows Park.

The plum commission went to the Boston-trained figurative sculptor Donald De Lue (1897-1988) who had a public art track record having designed architectural sculpture under the WPA. And he had already engaged with the themes of progress and the conquest of space in his art.

Punctuating a key axis extending out from the Unisphere at a site called the “Court of the Astronauts,” the 43-foot high “Rocket Thrower” was the largest and most expensive ($105,000) of the Fair’s official sculpture commissions, and clearly the Fair’s artistic centerpiece, from Robert Moses’s point of view. The gargantuan lunging figure thrusts a rocket into a 1950s barbed-wire-style, star-filled sky. De Lue’s style paid homage to a variety of sources including Archaic Greek sculpture, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, and 20th Century masters like Ivan Meštrović.

Hordes of Fair visitors saw “Rocket Thrower” daily–many undoubtedly with pleasure. New York Times art critic John Canaday was one the few who reacted to the statue in print. An advocate for modernism, Canaday described “Rocket Thrower” as a “most lamentable monster, making Walt Disney look like Leonardo da Vinci.” Canaday’s uncharitable words had influence. Prejudices deterred efforts to conserve the “Rocket Thrower” and over time, the sculpture’s surfaces suffered. Thoughtful people understand that “Rocket Thrower” is representative of another era in our city’s history, a noteworthy historical artifact that deserves our attention.

MAS early on understood the importance of properly maintaining the city’s public art collection–as did officials of the Koch administration. Twenty-five years ago the MAS, the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation and the Art Commission of the City of New York (now Design Commission) created the Adopt-A-Monument Program, championing New York City’s neglected public monuments as crucial artifacts of City History and magnets for revitalized community engagement.

Thanks to the MAS’s securing private funds for this conservation, New Yorkers can look forward to the regeneration of this important embodiment of world’s fairs past and of changing times in art and in the city.