The art of rocket science

Space Age art had an important patron: the Federal government.

Toroidal Colonies, pop. 10,000. Cutaway view, exposing the interior, c 1970 by Rick Guidice, courtesy NASA 
We have no shortage of plutocrats today, but Gates, Zuckerberg, et al seem disinterested in public art. Modern American art patronage is largely a group activity. There’s been no greater player than our Federal government, in all its many guises.
The NASA Art Program was responsible for much of our mid-century thinking about Outer Space and its potential. It was launched in 1962, just four years after President Eisenhower established NASA itself. It started prosaically but grew to be an important propaganda arm for the agency. With a huge budget and little practical application to the average voter, NASA needed dreams to justify its existence.
First Steps, 1963, Mitchell Jamieson, Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
In 1962, artist Bruce Stevenson brought a portrait of space pioneer Alan Shepard to NASA headquarters. Administrator James E. Webb promptly commissioned him to do a group portrait, one that would capture “the team effort and the togetherness that has characterized the first group of astronauts to be trained by this nation.”
Webb was a visionary when it came to art. He proposed, for example, “a nighttime scene showing the great amount of activity involved in the preparation of and countdown for launching,” as well as paintings of life in space. But as an administrator he wanted this program developed systematically. “The important thing is to develop a policy on how we intend to treat this matter now and in the next several years and then to get down to the specifics of how we intend to implement this policy…”
From the Earth to the Moon, 1969, Norman Rockwell, courtesy Look Magazine
The NASA art program would not just record events, it would capture the visceral side of missions, “in a way in which history could look back and fully appreciate all that the agency had achieved.”
In 1963, eight artists were chosen to depict the final Mercury flight. They were paid $800 ($6,567.21 today). The chosen artists ranged from traditional to avant garde.
Meteor and Mars Series 2, c. 1970s, Ren Wicks, courtesy Artnet
“When a launch takes place at Cape Canaveral, Fla., more than 200 cameras record every split second of the activity. Every nut, bolt, miniaturized electronic device is photographed from every angle. The artist can add very little to this in the way of factual record… It is the emotional impact, interpretation and hidden significance of these events which lie within the scope of the artist’s vision. An artist may depict exactly what he thinks he sees, but the image has still gone through the catalyst of his imagination and has been transformed in the process,” National Gallery curator Hereward Lester Cooke wrote in his invitation to these artists.
NASA’s stable included Annie Leibovitz, Robert Rauschenberg and Norman Rockwell, among others. It commissioned original music as well. In 2002, NASA commissioned  Way Up There, which memorialized lives lost in the Challenger disaster. A version by Patti LaBelle was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Toroidal Colonies, pop. 10,000. Interior view, c 1970 by Don Davies, courtesy NASA
Rick Guidice painted for NASA for 15 years. His paintings helped develop a public fantasy of what space colonization might look like. He and some of the other great NASA artists went on to illustrate The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, by Princeton Physicist and Professor Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill, which has become a space colonization classic.
From the Seeds of Change… a Discovery, 1984, Robert A. M. Stephens, courtesy NASA
Then came Sen. William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Awardand its chilling effect on the more fantastical elements of government spending. NASA earned one, not for its art program but for its search for extra-terrestrial life. The age of exuberance in government spending was over. Government agencies may have continued spending as madly as before, but they did it more furtively.

It’s about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, at Rye Art Center, or at Genesee Valley this summer.