NASA Art Returns to Washington

Since 1963, hundreds of artists (and musicians, poets—even one fashion designer) have interpreted NASA’s aeronautic and space projects

"Grissom and Young," by Norman Rockwell. NASM; Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, IL.

Since 1963, hundreds of artists (and musicians, poets—even one fashion designer) have interpreted NASA’s aeronautic and space projects. The artists were given carte blanche to create what they wanted, in any medium, on any subject. In celebration of NASA’s 50th anniversary in 2008, more than 70 diverse artworks from the program began touring the country as part of an exhibition titled NASA / ART: 50 Years of Exploration. On Saturday the exhibition will open at the National Air and Space Museum, where it will remain on display through October 9.

Interested in the backstory to Norman Rockwell’s painting, above?  According to NASA’s history of the art program, Rockwell “desperately wanted a spacesuit so he could get all the details in his painting of Grissom and Young suiting up for the Gemini 3 mission. But NASA officials refused on the grounds that there was a lot of secret technology in the suits and they couldn’t release one. Dean worked as the go-between, and it was not looking good.

“‘I had Deke Slayton mad at me on one side and Norman Rockwell aggravated at me on the other.’ Dean recalled.

“The compromise was that a technician accompanied the suit up to Rockwell’s studio and sat with it every day as Rockwell worked. The technician’s reward was to be included in the piece as one of the people helping the astronauts.”

It takes two: NASM curator Tom Crouch (left) and NASA's Bert Ulrich, oversee the more than 3,000 artworks in NASA's art collection. Photograph courtesy Mark Avino/NASM.

At a recent preview of the exhibition, Tom Crouch, curator of art at the National Air and Space Museum, explained that the Museum maintains the majority of the collection (about 2,100 pieces), dating from 1963 to the early 1980s, while NASA holds the remainder (about 800 pieces).  In the collection, “you’ll see paintings that are heavily symbolic, and paintings that are representational,” said Crouch. Among the symbolic pieces are E.V. Day’s 2006 work Wheel of Optimism, which features a whimsical Martian landscape placed inside the prototype wheel of one of the Mars rovers. A more representational piece is photographer Annie Leibovitz’s 1999 portrait of Eileen Collins, the first female shuttle pilot (Discovery, 1995), and first female shuttle commander (Columbia, 1999).

Visitors can also see artworks by James Wyeth, William Wegman, Andy Warhol, and Robert T. McCall, as well as clothing designed by Stephen Sprouse featuring 3-D images based on Mars Pathfinder imagery. Or they can listen to music composed by Terry Riley and the Kronos Quartet.

Actress Nichelle Nichols (better known as Lt. Uhura from "Star Trek" with Clayton Pond's "Strange Encounter for the First Time." Photograph courtesy Mark Avino/NASM.

Also at the preview was actress Nichelle Nichols, best known as Lt. Uhura from the television show “Star Trek” (shown at left with Clayton Pond’s 1981 silkscreen Strange Encounter for the First Time). “I wish I had this in my home,” said Nichols. “The entire exhibit,” she continued, “displays the arrogance of man’s imagination. And arrogance can be a wonderful thing.”

See more selections from the show here.

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