“Moon Museum”: Celebrating Artistic Contributions to the Space Program

August 24th, 2019  |  Published in *, Summer 2019

The moon, Earth’s singular satellite, has fascinated the earthbound human mind for thousands of years.

The 50th anniversary of the successful 240,000 mile journey of American astronauts to the moon occurred in mid-July, 2019. Especially noted for the first steps on the lunar surface are native Ohioans Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Their historic journey in 1969 is noted from sea to sea with various events, lectures, and exhibits that celebrate the triumph of this national program, visualized by President John F. Kennedy.

The Dayton Art Institute features the “Moon Museum”, an exhibition of works generated directly for the Space program as well as pieces from the DAI collection that pivot on human fascination with the lunar subject over time and culture. A special feature of this exhibit is a number of nationally recognized cultural icons who were commissioned to acknowledge the impact of NASA’s successful space mission.

Lowell Blair Nesbitt (American, 1933 – 1994), “Moon Shot (One of a Suite of Eight)”, 1969, screenprint on black paper, printed by Thelen, edition 74/98. Gift of Reese and Marilyn Arnold Palley, 1991.136.3

 

Lowell Blair Nesbitt (American, 1933 – 1994), “Moon Shot (One of a Suite of Eight)”, 1969, screenprint on black paper, printed by Thelen, edition 74/98. Gift of Reese and Marilyn Arnold Palley, 1991.136.7

Lowell Blair Nesbett, 1933-1993, was the artist officially designated by NASA to generate commemorative artwork about the 1969 event for the national legacy.

Nesbett had the rare opportunity to work closely with scientists, engineers and astronauts as a member of the NASA Art Program during the Apollo 9 and 13 space flights.  He was invited to observe procedures and everyday working environment at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral in Florida.

“MOON SHOT, 1969” is a portfolio of 8 screen prints on black paper, edition of 98.

Displayed in this exhibition are several screened images resulting from his direct access to NASA photographs. Random lunar surface patterns dominate the entire colorless composition. One print depicts a single amoeboid element that is the easily abstracted impression of the first footprint of man on the moon. Another screen print is a view of the lunar surface from the space module command center. Deep space is represented as the negative shape in the art print. The virgin surface of unscreened black paper is symbolic in the sense that it is still un-imprinted with the the reach of man. The multiple tonal inks of white and values of grey used throughout this series project a weirdly alien reality made visible by chance from an unseen light source.

Nancy Graves (1939-1995), a prolific cross-disciplinary American artist, was known for her science-inspired natural and organic creations. Graves’ suite of 10 lithographs were commissioned by Carl Solway of Solway Gallery in Cincinnati and printed at Landfall Press, Chicago, under the direction of Jack Lemon in an edition of 100. Featured in this exhibit are 2 lithographs from the DAI collection entitled “Fra Mauro Region of the Moon” 1972 and “Montes Apenninus Region of the Moon” 1972. These color lithographs on Arches cover paper are based on the topographical lunar maps NASA produced in 1968 in preparation for the Apollo manned space missions to the moon. Portions of the individual lunar maps were transposed by Graves into an abstract of Seurat-influenced color-coded dots, circles and dashes. The casual viewer, having no orientation or translating key to the Morris code-like information other than field design, may find establishing a significant relationship to luna topography difficult; Graves’ prints were expressive rather than realistic.

“Moon Museum”
Collaborating Artists: Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, David Novros, Forrest Myers, Robert Rauschenberg, John Chamberlain; Publisher: Forrest Myers; Fabricator: Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, New Jersey.
Lithograph of tantalum nitride film on ceramic wafer, Edition of approx. 40. On loan from Jade Dellinger.

The title of this exhibition, however, refers to a particular piece of historical art and lunar lore, singularly displayed in the center of the gallery. Artist Forrest Myers with the aid of the Bell Telephone Laboratories, created a tiny ceramic tile in editions with drawings by six leading contemporary American artists, John Chamberlain, Myers himself, David Novros, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Through  the covert assistance of NASA’s employees, one tile was secretly attached to the landing module of Apollo 12. Presumably this tile remains on the surface of the moon today, secured to the detached landing gear. This exhibition features one of the editioned tiles which is about the size of a thumbnail and viewable with a provided magnifying glass. It is described as a lithograph of tantalum nitride film on a ceramic wafer.

The markings by the chosen 6 reflect to some extent the general academic elitism of some and the pessimistic cynicism of others in the group. While label copy describes the top left figure as a ‘W” casually influenced by graffiti, caustic skepticism may be the read on the scrawl by Andy Warhol, recognized as a common representation of male genitalia. The slightly upended linear scratch by Rauschenberg defies investment with symbolism or meaning. The bottom center entry by Claes Oldenburg has the appearance of an abbreviated cartoon creature with a tongue sticking out.

A departure of sorts is by David Novos, the youngest artist represented, (born 1941), historically noted for his hard edge geometric abstract paintings. Novros’ contribution can be described a equi-sided square of blue grey with the nondescript marble-ish pattern of floortile.

Other exhibited works extol the celestial body as myth, beauty and romance.

Consider Ansel Adams’ revered photograph: “Moonrise, Hernandez”. Taken in 1941, this famous image is evidence of this artist at the height of his field work powers. Unable to locate his light meter and realizing that the highpoint of the visual moment was quickly evolving, Adams calculated the shutter speed and exposure formula for ASA 64 film based on his knowledge of the scientific equivalence of the luminosity of the moon to candlelight. The artist captured the moon’s lyrical luminance as the ambient light dwelt on the cemetery crosses at the edge of Hernandez from the shoulder of HWY 84/US285, in the American South West.

The appearance of the moon as a poetic essence is celebrated in one scroll from a gorgeously rendered 19th century Japanese triptych by Shiokawa Bunrin 1808-1877.

Fluid composition and mastery of the brush combine to treat the characteristics of a natural season accented by the luminance of the low hanging summer moon lighting Arishiyma, a town on the outskirts of Kyoto. The triptych was created a century before Apollo 11 landed on the moon in the summer of 1969, demonstrating the shared lunar interest across culture and time.

Visit the Moon Museum Exhibit through September 8, 2019   Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio

–Marlene Steele

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