By Anna Reser
The end of January marks the anniversaries of three tragedies in human spaceflight. On January 27, 1967, Apollo 1 astronauts Roger Chaffee, Ed White, and Gus Grissom were killed during a test of their spacecraft which ended in a horrific fire. This anniversary is followed by the loss of space shuttles Challenger, on January 28, 1986 and Columbia on February 1, 2003. A gesture of commemoration of the Apollo 1 fire appears in a print by Robert Rauschenberg and speaks also to the processes of history and memory. A faint impression of a photograph of the crew appears in Brake, a lithographic print from the series Stoned Moon. Rauschenberg uses the surface of the print to collect images and impressions and offers some insight into the strange flattening of the history that he observes in the era of mass media.
In 1969, half a billion people watched on television as astronauts walked on the surface of the moon for the first time, collecting samples, taking photographs, and conducting experiments. On Earth, Robert Rauschenberg was preparing to start work on a series of lithographs, having spent time as a guest of NASA touring the facilities, collecting engineering drawings and photographs, and making extensive notes. During an intense residency, Stoned Moon was printed at Gemini Graphic Editions Limited in Los Angeles.
The series depicts not the events of the Apollo 11 lunar mission, but rather the visual culture of the space program and mass media. Pictures about images were Rauschenberg's signature. In 1972 Leo Steinberg published “The Flatbed Picture Plane” in which the critic cited Rauschenberg’s prints in particular as an example of a profound shift in American art. Rauschenberg’s work was about creating a surface that acted a screen between perception and reality, a space for collecting and arranging images. This was the new picture plane of “post-Modernist” painting—the culture of mass media.
Steinberg called this new formulation of the picture plane the “flatbed” after Rauschenberg’s prolific printmaking practice. Stoned Moon expresses the logic of the flatbed in a series of prints composed from maps, charts, technical drawings and photographs that the artist collected while at NASA. Transferred to the lithographic surface and rendered in flat monochrome, photographs become mere impressions of half-remembered events. Maps and charts are blended into the ragged edges of brush strokes and scratch marks.
Appearing almost as if by accident, splashed onto a minor print in the series, is a photograph of the Apollo 1 crew. The image is made unremarkable by the qualities of the flatbed, the surface that accepts everything and collects the raw materials of history and memory but does not order them. In the smaller, often one or two-color prints like Brake, the commemorative—a picture of the Apollo 1 crew— is treated exactly the same as the decidedly mundane—palm fronds, a crate of oranges.
Included in the series as a small memorial to the fallen crew, the image of Apollo 1 is subsumed by the logic of the flatbed as a mere scrap of memory media. Stoned Moon demonstrates a keen observation of mass media in mid-century America, a point driven home by the way the tragedy of Apollo 1, still fresh in the minds of Americans and certainly its space agency in 1969, recedes into the flatbed and blends with the other traces of the space program that Rauschenberg collected. This model of history and memory in the age of mass media helps to explain the way Apollo 1 has faded in American remembrance, in a way that time and distance cannot fully explain.
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