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Book Review:  NASA/ART

Reviewed by: Deborah Martin (Associate Editor, Ad Astra)
From Ad Astra, Winter 2008
Title: NASA/ART: 50 Years of Exploration
Authors: James D. Dean and Bertram Ulrich
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 176
Publisher: Abrams
Date: October, 2008
Retail Price: $40.00
ISBN: 0810972875

On March 16, 1962, NASA Administrator James Webb sent a memo to his staff, suggesting that they consider “just what NASA should do in the field of fine arts to commemorate past historic events such as Shepard’s and Glenn’s flights, as well as future historic events that we know will come to pass.” The result of that memo was the historic NASA Art Program, and a new book, NASA/ART 50 Years of Exploration (Abrams, 2008), by James Dean and Bertram Ulrich, that showcases some of the works. At the time, James Dean was a NASA employee, and he was given oversight of the project. He worked closely with the U.S. Commission of Fine Art and the National Gallery of Art to select artists to invite to the program. The honorarium for artists was $800. Today, it is $2,500. Some of the paintings are iconic — Norman Rockwell’s “Behind Apollo 11,” for example. And some are less well known, but equally inspirational.

The premise behind the art program was that although every step of the American space program would be documented in photographs, charts, tables, and data, the more intuitive aspects of these historic events might be lost to time. According to John Walker, the director of the National Gallery of Art, artists would create a very different record than photographers or scientists. They could “not only … record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but … edit, select, and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race.”

As you turn the pages of this book, the names jump out. Robert Rauschenberg, James Wyeth, George Weymouth, Paul Calle, Alexander Calder, and Andy Warhol are just a few of the important artists who participated in this historic program, and who are represented here. The NASA art collection spans almost 50 years, and is composed of nearly 3,000 works. In addition to paintings, drawings, and sculpture, the collection also includes fashion, music, and ballet. Patti LaBelle recorded a song written by Trena Clarke as a tribute to the Space Shuttle Columbia — it was nominated for a Grammy in 2003.

Astronaut Michael Collins (Gemini X and Apollo 11) sums it up best in the forward of this beautiful book. “NASA had the good sense to allow some artists to roam freely and record whatever they chose, and they have done a magnificent job of expressing the panorama of a launch — the excitement and violence of it, the smell of kerosene, and the fear in the air.”

© 2009 Deborah Martin

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