A few weeks ago, we noticed a print called Trust Zone in a temporary exhibition of Chapman University art at Leatherby Libraries, where Doug works. The blue outline of a space suit caught our eye, and then we noticed the map of Kennedy Space Center, a place we had recently visited. The print was of a Robert Rauschenberg lithograph, so we contacted our art historian friend to see what she had to say about it.
Debora Rindge is an art historian specializing in American art in Las Cruces, New Mexico. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, College Park (where Anna earned her M.F.A., though they didn’t know each other at the time). After a career in academia, Debora founded the fine art consulting firm, Mirari.
One of the best-known artists in a remarkable NASA program created in 1962 to celebrate American art and space exploration was Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), who is considered one of the founders of American Pop Art. In July of 1969 he, Jamie Wyeth, and other artists were invited to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, for the launch of Apollo 11, the first to allow humans (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin) to walk on the moon. Rauschenberg recalled the frosting of the Saturn rocket as it took on liquid nitrogen: “It turned into the most beautiful icicle. The incredibly bright lights, the moon coming up, seeing the rocket turn into pure ice, its stripes and U.S.A. markings disappearing…The whole project seemed one of the only things at that time that was not concerned with war and destruction. What really impressed me in that space shot was the attitude of the people involved, the trust, the teamwork.” (The quote is from Calvin Tomkins’s book Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg.) Rauschenberg was delighted with the free access NASA granted to photographic archives, charts, maps, and other data and to technicians and astronauts.
Immediately after the launch, Rauschenberg was inspired to create the Stoned Moon series of 34 lithographs. The series title puns the medium itself. Lithography is a printmaking process involving a fine-grained stone that is inked, then run through a press and printed on paper in a limited edition. Each color requires a separate stone. This series includes both hand lithography, where the mark of the artist is evident in brushstrokes, and photolithography, where selected images are transferred mechanically to the stone.
Rauschenberg traveled to Los Angeles to work in collaboration with the important print workshop, Gemini G.E.L., a team effort not unlike what he observed at the space launch. The result included some of the largest hand-printed lithographs made at the time, an astounding technical achievement that also echoed the scale of NASA’s Apollo 11 launch.
Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Texas. He discovered his interest in drawing while serving in the Marines, then studied art at the Kansas City Art Institute, the Academie Julian in Paris, and Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He worked in a variety of media, inventing the term combine for his pieces that combined painting with assemblages of found objects, and created early interdisciplinary performance work with composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. In the 1960s he began to make visionary silkscreen prints with images appropriated from media, referencing bits of ordinary life in collage-like compositions. His appropriation of random photographic material mimics the transparency and occasionally grainy quality of a flickering television screen. If you close your eyes at the end of the day and imagine all the visual information you’d absorbed, it might look something like a Rauschenberg print.
The Stoned Moon series features a rich range of imagery. Sky Garden, the largest in the series at nearly 7.5 feet high, is the most literal record of the launch, taking the viewer from rocket construction to take-off in one breathtaking multi-layered view.
A more abstract rendition of figure (a space suit) and ground (the Kennedy Space Center landscape) is presented in the diagrammatic Trust Zone, an image that seems at first technically impenetrable, until the large space suit rises to the surface from the web of technical documentation.
For more on the NASA Art Program, click HERE. And if you’ll be in Washington, D.C., be sure to visit the exhibit, “NASA | ART: 50 Years of Exploration,” on view from May 28 to October 9, 2011, at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.