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50 Years of NASA Art at National Air and Space Museum

August 20, 2011 |  6:30 am

Norman Rockwell, "Grissom and Young," 1965  When the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off for its final mission in July, it marked the end of an epoch at NASA. Many Americans were left wistful and nostalgic for more adventures of the final frontier. While NASA revamps for the future, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is offering a look back at the program through artists' eyes with "NASA/ART: 50 Years of Exploration."

 Initiated in 2008, the traveling exhibition, a collaboration with NASA and Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, includes Norman Rockwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Alexander Calder and William Wegman. More than 70 pieces are on view recording the triumphs and tragedies of space exploration over the last five decades.

"Space flight began in the imagination of artists long before government got into it," said James Dean, the founding director, now retired, of NASA's Art Program. He cites Buck Rogers and science-fiction author H.G. Wells as examples.

 The NASA Art Program was established in 1962, after the inception of the U.S. space program in 1958. "NASA knew what they were doing was important and would be taking more photos than any other federal agency," said Tom Crouch, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum.

Mitchell Jamieson, "First Steps," 1963NASA Administrator James Webb recognized that presenting artists' visions "would help Americans understand and appreciate the space program at a deeper level," said Crouch. Webb assigned the task to staffer Dean, trained as a painter. "We had photographers, but the excitement and electricity in the air was missing in the images," Dean said. "Photos capture the facts. Artists capture the emotion."

 With guidance from National Gallery of Art curator Lester Cooke, they commissioned several artists and arranged for them to attend the last Mercury mission, manned by astronaut Gordon Cooper in 1963. While Robert McCall, Peter Hurd and a few others gathered their paintbrushes and set up their canvases near the Cape Canaveral launchpad, Mitchell Jamieson, a former World War II Navy combat artist, volunteered to sit on the aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean awaiting the recovery.

His painting "First Steps" captured the moment Cooper emerged from his spacecraft like a visitor from another planet adorned in his silver-hued spacesuit. "It's a very striking image," said Bert Ulrich, NASA curator, of the 7-foot-tall painting that brings to mind a stained-glass church window.

To commemorate the 2003 Columbia disaster in which the seven-member crew perished, rubber sculptor Chakaia Booker created a black star crafted with pieces from a space shuttle tire.

Although the pay was minimal, more than 200 artists have participated in NASA Art Program. A few backed out at the last minute, including Willem de Kooning and Edward Hopper. "He was nervous and didn't think he could stand the tension of the Apollo launch," recalled Dean of De Kooning. "Hopper thought it was a good idea but best left to younger artists."

  Robert T. McCall, "Apollo 8 Coming Home," 1969 In 1965, Norman Rockwell attended a test routine for the first flight of the Gemini program with astronauts John Young and Gus Grissom. He requested a spacesuit be sent to his studio in Massachusetts to get the intricate details for his painting, which NASA begrudgingly did but only with a technician accompanying the top-secret suit. Rockwell included the technician, Joe Schmidt, in the painting, and the two formed a lifelong friendship.

In the '70s, during a lull between manned space missions and the shuttles, part of the nearly 3,000-piece collection was donated to the museum. Because of recent budget cuts, the art program is now dormant.

 The exhibition runs through Oct. 9 at the National Air and Space Museum, opening Nov. 4 at the Las Cruces Museum of Art in New Mexico.

 -- Liesl Bradner

Images, from top: "Grissom and Young," 1965. Norman Rockwell, oil on canvas. Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, Ill. 

"First Steps," 1963, Mitchell Jamieson. Acrylic, gauze, and paper on canvas.

"Apollo 8 Coming Home," 1969. Robert T. McCall, oil on canvas. All images from Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.