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NASA Commissioned Artwork
About NASA's ArtBack to NASA Gallery

The Universe: Image and Imagination

Since 1962, NASA has commissioned over 200 artists to document the history of the space program. In return for a modest honorarium, artists have been given special access to NASA's programs and missions. They have worked with scientists, engineers and astronauts to leam about subjects ranging from planetary rovers to new state-of-the-art aircraft. As a result, NASA's art collection now totals some 800 works, which are display at NASA and loaned out for exhibition purposes. In addition, over 2,000 earlier works commissioned by NASA are archived at the National Air and Space Museum.

The universe has been a rich subject for NASA commissioned artists to explore. Awe inspiring imagery from NASA's Viking, Voyager, Hubble Space Telescope, Pathfinder, and Mars Global Surveyor missions have inspired creative imaginations. The purpose of this exhibit is to celebrate the raw imagery derived from these missions and the human creativity in interpreting these images. In some cases, the original images are works of art on their own. One can behold the beauty of the Moonrise taken by the final Columbia crew or the dusty sunset on Mars taken by Pathfinder's Sojoumer Rover. The gemlike star fields of deep space glisten from the Hubble Space Telescope's lens. Saturn's rings light up the blackness of space like a neon sign in an image from the Cassini probe.

Why then should NASA commission artists to interpret a universe, which space probes, telescopes and astronauts can capture quite artfully in their own right? For an answer, it is best to compare raw images to their artistic interpretations. In doing so, one sees how artists' perspectives can add insight. Compare, for example, the image of Mars taken from the Viking Mission to Russell Crotty's interpretation of Mars in Mars Part 1. In the Viking image, the globe of Mars floats serenely. In Crotty's interpretation, the globe of Mars is enveloped in a stream of consciousness monologue, which provides the artist's thoughts on viewing Mars.

In comparing a brilliant image of deep space from the Hubble Space Telescope to the cool realism of Vija Celmins' View of the Universe from 5-12 Billion Light Years from Home, there is an added sense of serene emptiness in Celmins' work. Another artistic reference to me same Hubble image, Out of the Unlit Earth by Mindy Weisel is vastly different to Celmins' work. Weisel's piece is a colorful abstract expressionist battle scene: a stained glass window gone haywire. Colors representing human knowledge escape from black shadows representing past ignorance. The result is an animated fight between ignorance and knowledge with knowledge in the lead drawing the viewer's attention to the bright colors on display.

In the sculpture Mars Rising by Chakaia Booker, the artist intensifies the meaning of Mars' rocky landscape by bringing the imagery literally home. The artist admitted when viewing photos from the Pathfinder mission, "I guess that initially looking at the slides and photographs and other materials (of Mars), it was odd to look at something so familiar. It looked like your backyard." The sculpture is made of rubber tire, piping and even bone. They are a tactile analogy to a gritty urban landscape. The rubber-tired border represents the tire tread of the rover on Mars and is an allusion to its path around the surface of the planet.

A sculptural piece, which transforms raw imagery into something spiritual, is the light box of Doug and Mike Stam entitled Burned Retina. The image of the sun from the SOHO mission is embalmed in vellum and plastic and lit faintly from within with fluorescent bulbs. The overall effect is a hallowed one. The artists frame the stark image of the fiery sun with orbits, planets and moons. The piece is a glowing and precious universe in its own right. An open tome underneath the sun represents human knowledge adding an element of human understanding of the universe.

These works are important not for adding to our scientific knowledge but for their interpretation of a universe through a creative process reflecting a certain time and place. Ever since Magdalenians painted constellations in caves 17,000 years ago, humans have recorded the heavens through their creative imaginations. Similarly, the works in this exhibit display human documentation of a historical period, the space age. The first NASA Administrator, James Webb felt that artists "provided a unique perspective" in documenting the history of the space agency and, thus, the program was formed. The artworks in this display offer new interpretations of our universe and provide a historical
legacy for new generations to behold.

Bert Ulrich
Curator, NASA Art Program
Special thanks to Bill Brickner of SVAM and Constance Moore of the NASA

website design by bob von elgg : bigfish smallpond design


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