fbpx
Connect with us

DailyArtMagazine.com – Art History Stories

Eyewitness to Space: The NASA Art Program

Norman Rockwell, Behind Apollo 11, 1969, National Aeronautics and Space Administration collection. Eyewitness to Space.

History

Eyewitness to Space: The NASA Art Program

Did you know that NASA has quite a unique art collection and that they used to commission artists to document its missions and projects? Let us take you on a fascinating trip through the American space missions, illustrated by some pieces from NASA’s Art Program.

History of the NASA Art Program

„I hope future generations will realize that we have not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age but artists worthy to keep them company”

Hereward Lester Cooke, excerpt from the letter to artists, in Eyewitness to Space.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established by Congress and president Dwight Eisenhower in 1958, a year after the Soviet launch of Sputnik-1. The first steps in extraterrestrial exploration, Space Race anxiety, dreams of stepping on the moon… Space was the place, and simply the only thing anyone could talk about. Just four years later, in 1962, the NASA Art Program was established. How did it happen so early?

The idea of establishing an art program itself wasn’t that strange, giving the long American tradition of official military art. Artists were part of military programs since 1917, with their mission to document the historic moments in a more emotive way than the objective snapshot of a camera. And what could be a more historic moment than stepping outside the borders of our own planet?

One of the first paintings under the NASA Art Program was Bruce Stevenson’s Portrait of Alan Shepard, the first American to travel into space. This piece was actually the spark behind the whole project – seeing this powerful depiction, James Webb (the agency’s administrator) ordered portraits of the rest of the crew.

NASA Art Program: Bruce Stevenson, Portrait of Alan Shepard, 1962, National Aeronautics and Space Administration collection.
Bruce Stevenson, Portrait of Alan Shepard, 1962, National Aeronautics and Space Administration collection. NASA/ART: 50 years of exploration.

James Webb shared his idea with John Walker, the director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which agreed to support the project with his art historian insights. The program’s key points were to be written by NASA’s James Dean, an artist himself and a graduate of the Swain School of Design (currently part of the University of Massachusetts) and Hereward Lester Cooke, a curator from the National Gallery of Art.

NASA Art Program: Robert Rauschenberg at the grounds of Kennedy Space Center before Apollo 11's launch
Robert Rauschenberg at the grounds of Kennedy Space Center before Apollo 11’s launch, 1969, photographer unknown. Eyewitness to Space.

Together they decided to select a group of American painters, giving them complete access to NASA’s mission grounds, the possibility to gain insight through conversations with the crew members, and complete freedom of artistic choices. The selected artists would get “all-appropriate security access”, which meant they could easily observe and depict the missions also from behind the scenes. Quoting Charles Schmidt, one of the program’s selected artists:

“Nasa doesn’t tell you what to do or what to expect. They tell you where to go and what will be happening there, and why they think that particular activity is important. It’s up to you to supply the imagination and point of view”

Charles Schmidt, quoted in: Artistry of Space, Susan Lawson Bell.
NASA Art Program: Martin Hoffman, Sunrise suitup
Martin Hoffman, Sunrise suitup, 1988, National Aeronautics and Space Administration collection. Art Market Monitor.

First paintings and first missions

Even though the program’s key points stated full artistic freedom, the first group of painters was selected with careful precision. The choice is understandable – sticking with safe, liked, and well recognized American Realism guaranteed much needed financial support from Congress. Most of the chosen artists were already experienced with military commissions.

The first lucky group was comprised of Peter Hurd, Lamar Dodd, John McCoy, George Weymouth, Paul Calle, Robert Shore, and Mitchell Jamieson. The group was later semi-formally joined by Norman Rockwell, which couldn’t be officially enlisted due to his previous engagements with Look magazine. The artists were picked by Hereward Lester Cooke from the Washington Gallery of Art, and all of them received a three-page letter mentioning a rather small payment of 800 dollars and the rules of further engagement. The artists were to archive every sketch and every piece of paper, the chosen medium had to be permanent and at least one of the artworks created during the mission was to be donated to NASA’s Art Collection.

NASA Art Program: Paul Calle, Power, 1963
Paul Calle, Power, 1963, National Aeronautics and Space Administration collection. Calle Space Art.

Cooke’s letter is a piece of art by itself, and it perfectly shows the historical importance of everything that the artists were about to eyewitness.

 “(…) because the first steps in space exploration are going to make a hinge in the fate of mankind. Not since the lungfish slithered out of the Paleozoic slime have living creatures sought to change their environment, and not since Columbus have men dared to enter more dangerous and mysterious regions. Perhaps in space we will find greener pastures; perhaps we will find nothing but infinite hostility and we will return to realise that life on this planet is more precious than we ever imagined. Whatever the results, space exploration is changing history.”

Hereward Lester Cooke, excerpt from the letter to artists, in Eyewitness to Space.

Cooke also mentioned the predominance of art above technological media such as photography or movies – “as the camera sees everything, yet understands nothing.”

Mercury-Atlas 9

The first mission which the artists had a chance to document was the 1963 Mercury-Atlas 9, the last launch of the Mercury program. The main pilot was Gordon Cooper, with Alan Shepard as backup.

Mitchell Jamieson’s First Steps portray NASA astronaut Gordon Cooper at the moment he left his Faith-7 spacecraft in 1963. Gordon Cooper emerges from the spacecraft in a full suit, shaking legs, dizzy eyesight – he had just orbited the Earth 22 times.

NASA Art Program: Mitchell Jamieson, First Steps
Mitchell Jamieson, First Steps, 1963, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC, USA.

Mitchell Jamieson managed to grasp this amazing scene thanks to his strategic choice of placement – he watched everything from a landing spot on the Atlantic Ocean, while other artists gathered at the Cape Canaveral spaceport. The paintings and sketches depicting the MA-9 mission were later presented on a traveling exhibit, Eyewitness to Space.

NASA Art Program: Peter Hurd, Predawn
Peter Hurd, Predawn, 1963, National Aeronautics and Space Administration collection. Eyewitness to Space.

Gemini

The next works were inspired by the Gemini project, lasting from 1961 to 1966 and focusing on human spaceflight. During this time, Norman Rockwell officially joined the program – which resulted in his Grissom and Young piece.

NASA Art Program: Norman Rockwell, Grissom and Young, 1965, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC, USA.
Norman Rockwell, Grissom and Young, 1965, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC, USA.

Grissom and Young, currently part of Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, shows the suiting up of astronauts John Young and Gus Grissom. As we know from the archival records, Rockwell requested to borrow a spacesuit to prepare the sketches and finish the painting in his studio. NASA wasn’t keen on this idea, but they eventually allowed Rockwell to borrow the suit – only if a delegated technician was monitoring. The technician ultimately became a model as well, depicted in the painting as one of the assisting workers.

NASA Art Program: Paul Calle, Gemini 4 Astronauts Entering Capsule
Paul Calle, Gemini 4 Astronauts Entering Capsule, original drawing signed by Jim McDivitt, c.1965. Calle Space Art.

Apollo

„The astronomical artist will always be far ahead of the explorer. They can depict scenes that no human eye will ever see, because of their danger, or their remoteness in time and space.”

Arthur C.Clarke, in Eyewitness to Space.

One of the biggest events of the 20th century was the 1969 Moon landing. On July 20th 1969, two American astronauts (Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin) became the first humans to land and step on the Moon. This “moon phase” brought the most artistic depictions, and the program’s cooperation rules became more specified. The Moon landing was a part of the Apollo program, which ran between 1960-1972. Realist artworks were still dominating, but we can see more abstract compositions, such as Alexander Calder’s Crossroads.

NASA Art Program: Alexander Calder, Crossroads, 1967, private collection
Alexander Calder, Crossroads, 1967, private collection. National Air and Space Museum, Washington, USA.

Calder’s Crossroads was reproduced as a poster advertising the National Air and Space Museum‘s opening. The abstract guache lithograph depicts the aforementioned Apollo 11 lunar landing mission.

NASA Art Program: Paul Calle, Apollo 1
Paul Calle, Apollo 1, 1967, National Aeronautics and Space Administration collection. Eyewitness to Space.

Most of the artworks created during the Apollo mission phase focus on the historical moment of Neil Armstrong’s steps. This iconic moment was sort of predicted in Norman Rockwell’s Astronauts on the Moon from 1966.

NASA Art Program: Norman Rockwell, Astronauts on the Moon, 1966
Norman Rockwell, Astronauts on the Moon, 1966, National Aeronautics and Space Administration collection. Eyewitness to Space.

The stars of the collection are Andy Warhol’s Moonwalk screen prints. These are examples of pieces not directly commissioned by the agency, but bought later and included in the NASA Art Collection.

NASA Art Program: Andy Warhol, Moonwalk I
Andy Warhol, Moonwalk I, 1987, private collection. Philips.

The NASA Art Program Today

Today NASA’s Art Program isn’t as widely promoted as during the Space Race age – priorities simply changed or slowed down. NASA has kept on romancing the arts, gathering important space-exploration themed pieces for their collection, nowadays mainly operated through the Smithsonian National Space and Air Museum. This unusual art collection has an archive of over 800 works by 250 artists of different fields – including artists mentioned before but also photographer Annie Leibowitz or the musical Kronos Quartet.

Annie Leibowitz, Portrait of Eileen Collins (first female commander of a 1999 space shuttle mission), 1999
Annie Leibowitz, Portrait of Eileen Collins (first female commander of a 1999 space shuttle mission), 1999, National Aeronautics and Space Administration collection. Smithsonian Magazine.

The NASA Art Program was eventually replaced by Artist-in-Residence projects, focusing more on singular artists rather than groups. Just like before, carefully selected contemporary artists get access to research knowledge and know-how, creating new perspectives inspired by historical missions and scientific breakthroughs.

Chakaia Booker, Remembering Columbia, 2006, National Aeronautics and Space Administration collection
Chakaia Booker, Remembering Columbia, 2006, National Aeronautics and Space Administration collection. Smithsonian Magazine.

The last “official” residency belonged to an avant-garde performance artist, Laurie Anderson. Her piece was co-created with Hsin-Chien Huang and was a multimedia-driven, virtual reality experience project. The viewers were transported to a virtual moon (celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing in 2019), where they could view some unique constellations created by the artist. Polar bears, dinosaurs… and democracy, modern constellations of things that have disappeared or are quite fragile and are at risk of extinction.

Laurie Anderson, Hsin-Chien Huang, Moon Virtual Reality Project, scene test. Hsin-Chien Huang/Youtube.

Works referenced:


Read more about the connections between art and science:

I’m still mastering the art of writing bios, so in the meantime let me throw you five random facts about me:

I work in the DailyArt Magazine as the Assistant Editor and the Social Media Manager
I wrote my MA thesis about astronomical accuracy in Space Art
I have three adorable guinea pigs
I am a fan of weekend getaways
I have two spleens (why? nobody knows.)

Comments

More in History

  • 21st century

    The Mysterious Zodiac Project: Ai Weiwei Animal Heads Explained

    By

    The Zodiac Project is Ai Weiwei’s first major public sculpture. The famous Chinese artist recreated the famous twelve bronze animal heads that once adorned the Zodiac Fountain in Yuan Ming Yuan, the Old Summer Palace, in Beijing. Cast around 1750, they were designed by two European...

  • Jimmy Edgar, Reality Revision, 2017, crypto art. Foundation. Jimmy Edgar, Reality Revision, 2017, crypto art. Foundation.

    21st century

    Owning Digital Art – What Is the Environmental Cost?

    By

    While digital NFT art is booming, recently becoming one of the most broadly discussed topics in the art world, this success has also raised an issue of its environmental cost.  NFT (non-fungible tokens) art is seen by many as an evolution in art collecting in relation...

  • 21st century

    Commemorating George Floyd: Interview with Dan Reisner

    By

    Dan Reisner is a sculpture artist living and working in Tel Aviv. He has produced multiple outdoor sculptures for urban spaces, not only in Israel but also around the world. However, it was his bronze sculpture of George Floyd that went viral after his tragic death...

  • 21st century

    Zdzisław Beksiński’s Passion for Music

    By

    In the history of art, so much has been written and said about the close relationship between music and painting. Numerous painters have declared strong musical inspiration for their art, starting with Poussin and ending with Kandinsky, Whistler, or Chagall. Within that group, there is a...

  • 21st century

    What Is NFT and Why Is It Shaking Up the Art World?

    By

    NFT (Non-Fungible Token) has recently become one of the most popular words in the art world. It is a new way of investing in art or digital assets such as GIFs or tweets. 338 billion USD – this was the amount reported by the company NonFungible...

To Top