Essays

The 1969 Lunar Landing: One Giant Leap for Art

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Neil Armstrong, “Aldrin Apollo 11 original,” photograph (image via Wikipedia)

On July 20, 1969, the world watched, and was transfixed, as American astronaut Neil Armstrong — rendered on television as a ghostly black-and-white figure — descended from the Lunar Module onto the surface of the moon. These images, including LIFE magazine’s photos of the lunar terrain taken by Armstrong, were rapidly disseminated through various media and consumer channels, trumpeting the feat as a scientific and technological triumph. Apollo 11’s success captured the nation’s collective imagination and influenced a generation of science fiction fantasies and mod, futuristic fashion trends.

NASA’s Space Art Program, which began in 1962 and continues to this day, deployed yet more space-saturated visual artifacts into orbit in an effort to document the organization’s activities and make space travel more visible and accessible to the public eye. Furthermore, the art produced was intended to cultivate nationalistic pride about the US and its conquest of the extraterrestrial heavens. During the Space Race, the work promoted space travel as an emblem of American progress; artists have since also created work specifically responding to other NASA milestones, including the 1986 Challenger explosion. Over the past five decades, the program has given 103 artists — including Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg — special access to NASA information and operations, resulting in more than 2,000 works ranging from paintings to poetry to musical compositions. Most of the artwork produced through the Space Art Program following the first lunar landing is representational in character, featuring explicit images of astronauts, satellites, spaceships, and the moon. The impact of the lunar landing, however, can be mapped onto less representational work; space travel dramatically heightened humans’ awareness of the dimensions, texture, and nature of time and space. In addition to influencing state-sponsored imagery, the Apollo 11 mission made a profound imprint on the work of land and conceptual artists of the 1960s and ’70s.

Conceptual artist On Kawara directly responded to the lunar landing in his date paintings, recently on view as part of his retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York. The paintings — rendered in various shades of red, blue, gray, and black — are inscribed with the date of their creation and accompanied by newspaper-lined boxes. Over the course of his lifetime, Kawara diligently created nearly 3,000 of these paintings. Though they appear rather uniform and formulaic, the paintings — through Kawara’s expressive application of paint, selection of color, and the newspaper headlines he clipped — hint at his subjective experience of time and history. The three largest paintings date to July 16, 20, and 21, which unmistakably correspond to the takeoff, moon landing, and first moonwalk of the Apollo 11 mission. Kawara’s preserved newspaper clippings from those dates feature the following headlines: “Man Lands on the Moon” and “Man Walks on Moon.” There is a clear relationship between the unique size of these three paintings and their accompanying newspaper clippings; the monumental dimensions of the paintings reflect an expansion of time and meaning and suggest that, for Kawara, the event was worthy of commemorating through paintings that required greater temporal and material investment.

On Kawara - Silence, February 6–May 3, 2015
Installation view of ‘On Kawara: Silence’ at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (photo by David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation)

Land art, which emerged in the mid 1960s at the height of NASA’s space program, rejected the commodified and stagnant gallery space, and instead turned to the Earth’s landscape as its primary artistic medium. Photographs of the Earth, as seen from outer space in iconic images like “The Blue Marble,” emphasized our planet as a discrete physical and artistic object. Site-specific “Earthworks” not only incorporated the earthly terrain but also engaged with the cosmos and heavens. Land artist Nancy Holt (unfortunately, often only mentioned as the wife and collaborator of Robert Smithson) considered other astronomical phenomena in addition to the moon. Holt’s most famous monumental earthwork “Sun Tunnels,” completed from 1973 to 1976 and located in Lucin, Utah, consists of four massive, hollow concrete pipes that align along the axes of the sun during the solstices. Punctures in the 18-foot long pipes orient visitors in relation to the moon and constellations. The pipes, astronomical observatories that people inhabit and move through, invert the sky and cast the stars and sun down to Earth, bringing the immense space of the skies into focus.

Nancy Holt, “Sun Tunnels” (1973-6), Concrete (Image via The Center for Land Use Interpretation/Licensed under Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Creative Commons License)
Nancy Holt, “Sun Tunnels” (1973–6), concrete (image via The Center for Land Use Interpretation)
"The Earth seen from Apollo 17" by NASA/Apollo 17 crew; taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans - http://www.nasa.gov/images/content/115334main_image_feature_329_ys_full.jpgAlt: http://grin.hq.nasa.gov/ABSTRACTS/GPN-2000-001138.html (direct link). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17.jpg#/media/File:The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17.jpg
Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans (identity of photographer is disputed), “The Blue Marble” (1972), (image via Wikipedia & NASA); the Earth seen from Apollo 17 by NASA/Apollo 17 crew

Other land artists — including Michelle Stuart and Robert Smithson — produced earthworks that capture the otherworldliness of the lunar surface and engage with the allegory of space exploration. Stuart describes her 1979 piece “Stone Alignments/Solstice Cairns,” located in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, as linked to the positions of the sun solstices and the moon. A natural circular crater lined with stones becomes a “moon crater” and a circular indentation solidly filled with stones transforms into a “moon aura.” Like Stuart, Smithson also saw his work as facilitating a type of temporal and spatial journey and tapping into a pre-historic and primordial history. His proposed (but unrealized) “Lake Edge Crescent” piece intended to reclaim a mine and transform it into a “crescent-marked earthwork resembling the moon’s barren surface.” Smithson’s most famous piece “Spiral Jetty, “completed in 1970, produces a disorienting, otherworldly landscape, making the familiar Earth seem eerily foreign. In response to the television coverage and iconic shot of the Apollo 11 astronauts disembarking and walking on the moon, Smithson wryly quipped, “I described the moon shot once as a very expensive non-site.” To him, the moonwalk and the obsessively orchestrated “moon shot” were among the greatest pieces of earthworks (or perhaps moonworks).

Indeed, a recent exhibit at Various Small Fires in Los Angeles, which showed art influenced by the lunar landing, pointed to how the colonization and popular depiction of the hitherto unknown terrain of the moon “forever shift[ed] perception of fundamental landscape concepts such as scale, distance, accessibility, and jurisdiction.” Artwork of the era responded accordingly, pushing the boundaries of art on Earth in order to grapple with the new possibility of voyaging thousands of miles toward and across the lunar terrain.

James Turrell, "Roden Crater" (1974 - Present) (Image by author for Hyperallergic)
James Turrell, “Roden Crater” (1974–present) (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
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Michelle Stuart, “Stone Alignments/Solstice Cairns” (1979), 3,200 boulders, varying sizes, overall: 1000 × 800 ft (image courtesy Michelle Stuart Studio)
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