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NASA/Art: 50 Years Of Exploration

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Editorial Review

Art review: 'NASA/Art: 50 Years of Exploration'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Thursday, June 2, 2011

It was 1962 when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration first decided to invite artists -- yes, artists -- to interpret the work of the space agency. At the time, James Dean, the program's founding director, remembers thinking, "What do we know about art, right?"

You may be wondering that, too. This is a government agency staffed by people with pocket protectors. What do they traffic in? Only stuff such as human weightlessness, speeds that could rip your skin off, and the power to lift a house-size ship filled with astronauts off the face of the Earth and send them hurtling through space.

Come to think of it, maybe the marriage of art and NASA is not such a crazy idea after all.

"NASA/Art: 50 Years of Exploration" -- a traveling exhibition of more than 70 works created by artists working under the auspices of the NASA Art Program -- opened last weekend at the National Air and Space Museum, supplemented by works from the museum's permanent collection.

Featured artists include Alexander Calder, Annie Leibovitz, Robert Rauschenberg, Norman Rockwell, Andy Warhol and William Wegman. Look for a 2001 triptych of Wegman's photographs featuring two of the artist's favorite models -- his pet Weimaraners -- posing inside a costume-grade flight suit and a "space station" constructed out of Styrofoam.

Most of the works aren't quite so silly, though the show does include a 3-D Martian-themed gown by designer Stephen Sprouse that requires special glasses, and a cute cartoon view of a Martian man (and his Martian dog) by pop musician Moby.

One of the first images you'll encounter is a heroic, almost life-size 1963 portrait of Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper stepping onto the deck of his recovery ship after 22 orbits around Earth. It's by Mitchell Jamieson, who has several works in the show, including another, very different kind of portrait. Jamieson's 1969 "First Look" is a close-up, through the glassy reflection of an astronaut's visor, of a face. Looking for all the world like Keir Dullea in the 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey," the astronaut's expression betrays both wonder and fear. It's as if Jamieson -- and by extension all of us -- is looking at the vastness of the universe through this one man's eyes.

The expression is almost "Munchian," according to Bert Ulrich, who runs the art program today. That willingness to embrace -- or to at least acknowledge -- the dark side of space exploration lends "NASA/Art" a welcome complexity. Two works refer explicitly to the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster (see "The Story Behind the Work").

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of images are a little bit in awe of their subjects. That's true whether it's a portrait of Eileen Collins, the first female space shuttle commander (photographed by Leibovitz in 1999) or an X-43 jet, which broke the world speed record for jet-powered aircraft in 2004. It's painted like a white gash in an impossibly blue sky by Barbara Ernst Prey.

That's okay. A little awe might be in order. Space exploration is hard, dangerous and meticulous work. Participants in the NASA Art Program have been constantly reminded of that, whether sketching on a rocking recovery ship, or dressed, like a surgeon, in gown, face mask and booties as their astronaut subjects suit up in the sterile "white room" (where chalk or charcoal are forbidden, due to the dust).

The word "awesome" is bandied about a lot these days. But its original sense, which means to convey an emotion that is equal parts amazement and dread, is appropriate here. Both emotions are in evidence in "NASA/Art: 50 Years of Exploration."

The story behind 'Remembering Columbia'

Two works in "NASA/Art: 50 Years of Exploration" mark the loss of the Columbia space shuttle and its crew, though neither is exactly a commemoration of the 2003 accident.

Zigi Ben-Haim's "Among the Stars and Angels" is the harder of the two to read, with symbolism both enigmatic and not so enigmatic. (It features a version of the round NASA logo -- jokingly known in house as the "meatball" -- broken into pieces.)

Chakaia Booker's "Remembering Columbia" is arguably the simplest and most powerful work in the show. Hung high above visitors' heads, it's easy to miss. But don't. Resembling a black bow, the 2006 sculptural work was made from a knot of the artist's signature rubber tires (including a piece of tire from another space shuttle). The exhibition wall text compares it to a dark star. But it also evokes roadside debris, a visceral reminder of a blow-out on a high-speed highway.

-- Michael O'Sullivan