By Joe Ferguson
By the time I entered grade school, NASA had been to the moon and Skylab was orbiting the planet. One of my most prized possessions was my second-hand copy of National Geographic’s Earth’s Moon Map. I used to lie on my back in my bed with a box under my feet and knees looking at that map because the position seemed similar to pictures I’d seen of astronauts preparing for a moon launch.
From Earth’s Moon Map to Charles Schultz’s Astro Beagle, every image I saw of the space program in those days was supportive. I was too young to question all the forces involved in what was happening. As I got older, however, I was confronted with different views. In college I was told to examine the source of everything I read, and I became acquainted with the politics of scientific research. The influential 20th century artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) tried to reconcile conflicting views on scientific progress in his Stoned Moon project. In July of 1969, he was asked by the NASA Art Program to commemorate the first manned spaceflight to the moon.
Rauschenberg was given unrestricted access to the Florida facilities and adjacent landscape. He met astronauts and other personnel and was allowed to view official NASA photographs and technical documents. The experience had a profound impact on him and resulted in a significant amount of work that is now on display in the Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford University campus.
Loose in Some Real Tropics: Robert Rauschenberg’s “Stoned Moon” Projects, 1969–70 is on view through March 15th. The exhibition contains dozens of collages, prints, photographs, and archival materials including Rauschenberg's private notebooks. The profound scale of Stoned Moon reveals the ambition with which Rauschenberg pursued the project.
Of the prints, Sky Garden quickly stands out. It is more than seven feet high, and was the largest hand-pulled lithograph ever created when it was printed in 1969. The print required two lithographic stones, four aluminum plates, and a silkscreen. Sky Garden is alternately colorful and subdued, combining technical drawings and photographic images of the Apollo rocket, NASA personnel, and the surrounding countryside. It reveals the artist’s awareness of the impact of technological progress on the environment.
Also on display are a group of 20 collages and drawings that Rauschenberg intended to be published in a Stoned Moon book. The pieces consist of photographs, bits of drawing, and stripped-in text. The book was never published, however, and this is the first time they have been assembled for a museum exhibition.
In the center of the exhibit is a large display case containing some of Rauschenberg’s original notebooks. The handwritten passages are raw and display a poetic lyricism that prefigures his visual works. Rauschenberg’s work is inclusive, but lacks a heavy editorial hand. He created collages of paradoxical images that blend together in a type of visual poetry that denies quick assumptions and easy judgments.
I may never be able to look at the space program again with the naiveté of a grade-school boy, but I remain amazed by what we can accomplish when we combine brilliant minds with institutional resources. I have read that Rauschenberg had grown disillusioned by the course of the Vietnam War and the growing social unrest in the United States, but that he left the NASA project with a renewed sense of optimism. The exhibition Loose in Some Real Tropics provides a glimpse of how he tried to reconcile his internal struggles, a glimpse I found provocative and inspirational.
The exhibition is part of Stanford’s Imagining the Universe: Cosmology in Art and Science Initiative. There will be a free lecture by guest curator James Merle Thomas on Thursday, March 5 at 5:30 pm.