Art Interpreting Science: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Mission

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

Saturday, July 20th marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission’s lunar landing, when Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon. This was the culmination of an eight-day mission that launched July 16th and returned to Earth on July 24th, thus we’ve celebrated all week by looking back on that “giant leap for mankind.” Although a milestone achievement in itself, this was truly just the beginning of our history of space exploration. Did you know, for example, that the year 2000 was the last time that all living humans were on Earth at the same time? Since then, the International Space Station is continuously manned by astronauts. Space exploration is rife with facts like these that are not always easy to wrap your mind around. Most of us (sorry to dash any dreams) will probably never journey to outer space and experience its wonders firsthand, so how can we make sense of such complicated, abstract concepts? Art can help!

At the core, both art and aerospace exploration search for a meaning to life”

James Dean, Founding Director, NASA Art Program, 1962-1974

In 1962, just four years after the establishment of the agency as a whole, NASA launched its Art Program in an incredibly forward-thinking move. Administrator James Webb recognized that although every detail of every second of each launch was captured by more than 200 cameras, something was still missing from their documentation. He realized that “important events can be interpreted by artists to give a unique insight into significant aspects of our history-making advances into space. An artistic record of this nation’s program of space exploration will have great value for future generations and may make a significant contribution to the history of American art.”

Webb tasked NASA staffer and artist James Dean (not that James Dean) with implementing the new program in cooperation with Hereward Lester Cook, National Gallery curator. In his invitation letter to artists, Cook wrote that “as Daumier pointed out about a century ago, the camera sees everything and understands nothing. It is the emotional impact, interpretation, and hidden significance of these events which lie within the scope of the artist’s vision.” Artists received unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to nearly all parts of NASA missions, from meetings to suit-up to landing. They were also paid a small stipend for each work created and donated to the agency, with which they enjoyed the creative freedom to make pretty much whatever they wanted, so long as it was inspired by the space program. More than 200 artists including Norman Rockwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, and Vija Celmins participated in the project, which continues though on a smaller scale.

Lowell Nesbitt, American, 1933-1993. Moon Shot Series. Lithograph, 1969. Gift of Marilyn Arnold and Reese Palley. Photo by Alyssa Dumire.

FWMoA’s collection includes work made for the NASA program by Lowell Nesbitt, who is better known for his flower paintings. As the official artist for the Apollo 9 and 13 missions, Nesbitt created multiple series of work. The Museum owns a set of his Moon Shot lithographs, capturing six different views of the lunar surface. You may have seen one in this spring’s Stone Truths: Lithographs from the Collection. Some focus on the untouched, rocky landscape, while others, like those above and below, show man’s small impact on it in the form of a boot print or the lunar landing module. Viewed up close, each Moon Shot appears abstract. Nesbitt printed on black paper with varying shades of gray, and the layers of built-up marks and texture look almost random until you step back to realize it’s the moon and some of that gray is really shimmery silver. We in the education department are drawn to anything sparkly or shiny, and these are no exception, but the silver ink used is not just pretty; it echoes the way the moon reflects the sun’s light. The velvety deep black of the paper is allowed to show through to depict the vast emptiness of space and the dark, mysterious shadows marking the craters. Is this what Armstrong and Aldrin experienced on that first moonwalk? I think it depicts a small part of what it must have felt like.

Lowell Nesbitt, American, 1933-1993. Moon Shot Series. Lithograph, 1969. Gift of Marilyn Arnold and Reese Palley. Photo by Alyssa Dumire.
Nancy Graves, American, 1940-1995. Geological Map of the Sinus Iridium Quadrangle of the Moon. Color lithograph, 1972. Museum purchase with funds donated by the Weatherhead Foundation. Photo by Alyssa Dumire.

Artists not employed by NASA made work about the moon too! Nancy Graves, a multidisciplinary artist perhaps best known for her sculpture, created a series of prints and paintings based on NASA’s maps of the lunar surface, produced in preparation for their trips to the moon. Geologic Map of the Sinus Iridum Quadrangle of the Moon is one of my favorite works in our collection. It’s composed almost entirely of small splotches of brilliant color—pinks, greens, yellows, and blues—overlaid with a series of dashes and lines. One can kind of tell what the work depicts without any prior knowledge or reading the title, but it feels to me like a map both of and from another world. In her abstraction of the lunar topography, Graves has created a different visual language from that used on our functional Earthly maps. Given a map of the moon, I think I could make at least some sense of it, but that says nothing of the foreignness of actually being on the lunar surface that Graves’ work portrays.

Nancy Graves, American, 1940-1995. Geological Map of the Sinus Iridium Quadrangle of the Moon. Color lithograph, 1972. Museum purchase with funds donated by the Weatherhead Foundation. Photo by Alyssa Dumire.

I was born about twenty years too late to have lived through the events of Apollo 11, but works such as these help us of a later generation imagine the profound excitement, mystery, and wonder fifty years later. What will we look back at on Apollo 11’s 100th anniversary? Whether NASA-sanctioned or created independently, art will continue to be an important record of the impact of major events on our collective imagination.

You may have already experienced some artwork made in celebration of Apollo 11’s anniversary! This Google doodle links to a beautiful animation narrated by the third Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins. https://www.google.com/doodles/50th-anniversary-of-the-moon-landing.

Want to learn more? Check out these resources on the NASA Art Program!

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