ON a clear day at the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills, you can't quite see forever. You can, however, see the Hudson River two miles distant. Near at hand, on 87 acres that Nelson Rockefeller willed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation at his death in 1979, the public can see lavish gardens punctuated with outstanding modern sculpture.
A Calder stabile - its black metal forms like a herd of grazing giraffes - looms over a meadow. In front of a blazing sunset, Aristide Maillol's bronze nude, ``Night,'' bows her head as if dreaming. A bronze by Gaston Lachaise and abstract sculpture by Louise Nevelson grace the putting green.
Seen amid the soft forms of nature - rhododendron, boxwood, and forsythia - modern sculpture never looked so good. In a museum setting, the pared-down forms can seem hard and austere. Here, in a felicitous blend of art and landscape, the sculptures frame and interact with the view.
Perched atop a hill near North Tarrytown, N.Y., the Rockefeller estate derives its name from the view. It is called Kykuit (pronounced KYE-cut), from the Dutch word for ``lookout.'' In 1907, John D. Rockefeller Jr. constructed the country retreat for his father, who founded Standard Oil. At that time, the site was nearly barren of vegetation. Horse and wagon hauled tons of topsoil up the hill to create elaborate Italian gardens designed by William Welles Bosworth.
The many-tiered gardens, which descend from the manor in a series of stately terraces, are a chief glory of the estate. Bosworth fashioned a mini-Versailles, with formal geometric parterres in the rose garden, an allee of linden trees leading to a Temple of Venus, and bilaterally symmetrical promenades.
Pools, fountains, and man-made rills connect and enliven the levels. JDR Sr., of whose personal habits Ida Tarbell once said, ``Here was parsimony made a virtue,'' complained about the cost of canalizing his property. ``These little brooks,'' he said, ``run mighty high!''
When Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York (1958-73) and later vice president of the United States (1974-77), took over in 1963, he added more than 70 works of modern sculpture to provide focal points for vistas constructed by Bosworth.
An avid art collector, Nelson was fanatical about placing his sculpture at exactly the right angle to catch the light or draw the eye. He once ordered a helicopter to hover, lowering a Henry Moore bronze, until the gigantic sculpture was positioned to the last inch.
Nelson's obsession with beautification came naturally. His grandfather, JDR Sr., called in cranes to transplant a 50-foot spruce to improve the view. JDR Jr. bought vast stretches of land opposite Kykuit to prevent builders from offending the eye with unsightly quarries.
Despite this indulgence, the Rockefellers, who were staunch Baptists, adhered to the work ethic and avoided ostentation and frivolity. Unlike palaces built by the Astors and Vanderbilts, Kykuit has no ornate central staircase or ballroom.
Designed by Ogden Codman, the best-known decorator in turn-of-the-century America, the interiors are neoclassical in style. The most elaborate of the 40 rooms in the five-story mansion is the music room. An oval oculus opens up its ceiling in the manner of Sir Christopher Wren, architect of London's St. Paul's Cathedral. A stunning painting by Miro from Nelson's collection updates the room, reflecting how successive generations modified the decor.
The eclectic mix is evident at the entrance to the mansion. Its facade is ornately sculptured with a sandstone pediment containing idealized figures of Apollo and Demeter. On the portico, ancient yields to modern, with an attenuated statue by Giacometti and a soaringly simple Brancusi sculpture.
Visitors can tour rooms on the first floor, such as the library and rococo dining room. (Several members of the Rockefeller family, including Nelson's widow Happy, live elsewhere on the estate.) Antique English furniture, Meissen porcelain, and Chinese ceramics are scattered throughout, as are important art works like Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington, a Rodin sculpture, and a portrait of JDR Sr. by John Singer Sargent.
Nelson's basement art gallery is also open for inspection. More than 100 paintings and tapestries by Picasso, Braque, Motherwell, Ernst, Leger, and Warhol are hung in the four chambers. Surprising treats are works by lesser-known Abstract Expressionists such as Fritz Bultman and Ibram Lassaw. A Calder gouache has the punch of sumi-ink drawing.
The tour culminates in a visit to the stone barn, which indicates that even beasts of burden led pampered lives at Kykuit. Horse stalls have polished brass keyhole guards and brick floors in a herringbone pattern. Vintage carriages, like a wicker surry with - yes - fringe on top, and classic automobiles occupy gymnasium-sized chambers.
A Latin inscription over the cast-iron portal at Kykuit proclaims: ``To the heavens with a purse.'' The Rockefellers did not delude themselves that they could buy admission to celestial bliss. They did, however, consider philanthropy a religious duty. Their generosity has opened Kykuit to the public. It shows how a deep purse, informed taste, and a passion for beauty can approach
* Kykuit is open by reservation only: Visitors must prepay for a two-hour tour of the house and grounds. Admission is $18 for adults, $16 for seniors and students. Call Historic Hudson Valley at (914) 631-8200.