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Donald DeLue said that his sculptures were “intended to last for thousands of years.” Unfortunately, time has not been kind to his most famous sculpture, The Rocket Thrower. The sculpture is one of the 40 locations in this year’s Partners for Preservation, a community-based initiative by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. As New York City’s first-ever citywide grassroots preservation effort, the call-to-action program will enlist the aid of all New Yorkers, and anyone who loves New York, to vote online to allocate $3 million dollars to the preservation projects most important to them. The Rocket Thrower Conservation hopes to apply a new patina, re-gilde the constellation, repair cracks to the sculpture and its base, and apply a protective coating of wax to the sculpture so that it will shine once again.
The Rocket Thrower became the theme sculpture for the for the 1964-65 World’s Fair, according to Delue’s obituary in the New York Times, despite being absent from its original plans. In 1961, The New York World’s Fair Corporation established a Committee on Sculpture to select artists whose work ranged “from contemporary conservative to the more conservative avant-garde.” The committee, selected ten finalists who represented the best of American modernist sculptors. Robert Moses, who headed the committee, and Gilmore Clarke, the fair’s chief designer, both favored more traditional sculptors and were not happy with the committee’s selections. Instead, they chose Paul Manship, Marshall Fredericks, Theodore Roszak, and Jose de Rivera. Independently of this process, Donald DeLue petitioned Robert Moses to be allowed to create a sculpture for the fair. Moses agreed, and Delue was issued a contract in 1962 and given six months to create his masterpiece.
The Rocket Thrower is a “43-foot bronze figure hurling a rocket heavenward with his right hand, and reaching for a constellation of gilded stars with his left.” It was based on a sculpture DeLue designed for the Union Carbide Building (270 Park Avenue) entitled Man Conquering Space. The Rocket Thrower was envisioned as “the spiritual concept of man’s relationship to space and his venturesome spirit backed up by all the powers of his intelligence for the exploration of a new dimension.” DeLue realized his vision within the six months using the $105,000 provided and sent his plaster model to Italy where it was cast at the Fonda Artista. On April 22, 1964, shortly before the fair opened, the statue was installed in the Court of the Astronauts, between the Pool of Reflections and the Fountains of the Fair.
Despite the statue’s prominence, at the Fair and in its memorabilia, the New York Times thought little of it. John Canaday, their art reviewer wrote that Delue’s sculpture was “the most lamentable monster, making Walt Disney look like Leonardo Da Vinci.” In response, Robert Moses, told De Lue “this is the greatest compliment you could have”¦[Canaday] hates everything that is good . ..”
DeLue’s monuments can be found throughout the United States, and he even has another sculpture in Flushing Meadows Corona Park from the World’s Fair. However, the Rocket Thrower is by far his most important and influential work. Its references to the space-age transport spectators back to the 1960s and it is one of the most superb examples of modernist sculpture in New York City.