To the Moon with Rauschenberg
By Don Ingber, guest contributor
Anyone who was born before 1960 remembers the day we landed a man on the moon. Each of us has a clear memory of where we were at that very moment in the summer of 1969 when the future became the present, and when anything seemed possible. Like most people, I viewed the lunar landing on television. I was a teen in summer camp in upstate New York. I remember standing outside at night in the dark with many others, being mesmerized by a grainy, pixelated, black-and-white TV image balanced on the railing of a deck in the distance, listening to Neil Armstrong slowly say, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” and then straining my eyes to discern his boot the instant it touched the dusty lunar surface. But now, 50 years later, I have come to see this earth-shattering event in an entirely new way having been introduced to the Stoned Moon series of prints, and a never realized book of text and drawings by the same name, created by the postmodern artist Robert Rauschenberg. In these works, Rauschenberg extends his pioneering pursuit of combinations, but in this case, the Combines are two-dimensional drawings and lithographic prints containing an endless montage of images and photographic depictions inspired by man’s first flight to the moon and emblazoned with his own love of technology and collaboration. The pages of the Stoned Moon Book, some of the prints, and related drawings were recently exhibited at the Craig F. Starr Gallery in New York City, and one of the drawings was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography exhibition this past summer. The catalogue that accompanied the Starr Gallery’ exhibition is the first time that Stoned Moon Book’s pages have been published and also included are the prints, photographs of the Apollo program provided to Rauschenberg by NASA, and a fascinating first draft of an introduction for the unpublished book written by the Michael Crichton, author of the The Andromeda Strain, who was as much a lover of art as Rauschenberg was of science and engineering.
Rauschenberg followed the entire manned space program so closely that he was invited to attend the launch of Apollo 11, and he created his Stoned Moon series to share his experience with the whole world. Until now, however, this wonderful collection has not been widely known. In the unpublished introduction to the book, Crichton describes a surprising NASA memo from the time in which the agency explicitly states that the huge effort they were making “represents the frontiers not only of technical achievements, but also of the imagination.” As a result, NASA decided to ask artists to provide their own independent record of the events after reviewing documentation of the early years of the space program provided to them by the agency, and in Rauschenberg’s case, experiencing the Apollo launch first hand. Indeed, his portrayal of the astronauts and the lunar mission before, during, and after the successful flight is very different from that conveyed by NASA’s publicity machine or by Life magazine’s coverage, which I followed with great interest as a child with a growing passion for science and technology. Guided by the mainstream press, my focus was on the heroic astronauts and the awesome machinery of Apollo 11, which I proudly reconstructed out of a thousand tiny grey plastic parts and airplane glue at 1:144 Scale using an ‘Easy-to-Assemble’ Revell modeling kit in my den. Rauschenberg saw something else, something that I can only appreciate now after working as a researcher at the interface of biology, engineering, and technology development for more than 40 years.
Each of his transfer drawings and prints is a montage of images that convey an appreciation for the importance of history, collaboration, and process, without which there is no real progress. In science, every advance made by an individual builds on the work of many others, or as Isaac Newton put it, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” Rauschenberg recognizes the star power of the three astronauts and the illustrious engineering of Apollo 11 and the Lunar Landing Module, but he shows equal appreciation for the innumerable engineers, staff scientists, and technicians whose behind-the-scenes work made lunar flight a reality. Rauschenberg was indelibly imprinted by his experiences at Black Mountain College where he worked closely with visionary innovators from diverse disciplines, many of whom would later become leaders in their own fields. He also collaborated with scientists and engineers throughout his long artistic career. So he recognized that innovation is indeed a team sport.
Rauschenberg’s fascination with blurred boundaries is expressed without hesitation in the Stoned Moon series. Man and machine, grommet and air hose, connector and rivet, wrench and computer, blue print and roadmap, building and space suit, our planet, our flora and fauna, past, present and future... all are one to Rauschenberg. Largely in muted tones, he presents a visual stream of consciousness depiction of his personal impressions as he experienced one of the major world-changing events in human history. If there is one message, it’s “I was there!”
But he also places this event in context for all of us. In his print titled Horn, Apollo 11 sits quietly on its launch pad next to a white heron standing calmly in the nearby Everglades, both waiting without knowing how the world is about to change. In Banner, which is one of the brighter colored prints, a crate full of juicy oranges and an orange Florida state insignia float on a bright sea of broad blue scribbles, with the moon in the distance, also quietly waiting. Trust Zone displays the detailed design of an astronaut space suit, a map of Cape Canaveral, and the first flight at Kitty Hawk, all overlaid as one. An orchestra of technicians who made this all possible is included in Shell, and in Earth Crust, we focus on the life-sustaining artificial breathing tubes and metallic joints that connect to a space suit. The three heroic astronauts are also depicted in some of these prints with their heads enclosed in glassy round helmets, as is a blueprint diagram of the entire Apollo 11 spacecraft with all parts labeled, much like in the detailed instructions booklet included in my Revell modeling kit. In another, a NASA engineer in Mission Control back at Cape Canaveral, with his crew cut, dark black frame glasses, and name tag on his shirt pocket, points upward in awe, but he seems to be swallowed up or obscured by images of the technology with which he is so enamored.
Rauschenberg’s reportage in the form of montage designs convey many messages all at once. They document his personal memories, while describing in great detail the multi-faceted scientific process that enabled human flight to the moon. They are postcards sharing his trip to the Florida Everglades and, at the same time, describing a life-changing experience. They are also incredibly effective advertisements for a truly historic and world-turning event that are designed to attract the attention of the entire human race. His long-standing interest in social and environmental issues, and his global frame of reference show through, but here he goes beyond our planet and literally flies into outer space.
One of the most surprising features of this body of work is the discovery that Rauschenberg is as much a poet or ‘high priest of technology’ as Crichton calls him, as he is an artist. Many of the prints and transfers that comprise the Stoned Moon Book materials include a ticker tape-like script that haphazardly streaks across the images. The words, which are written with an old typewriter in either all small typeface or all capitals across narrow strips of paper overlaid on the prints, contain a dialogue between Rauschenberg and the curator Henry Hopkins, which Crichton explains was written and collated in a single day. Rauschenberg’s writing (the one in capitals) reads like a stream-of-consciousness incantation by a Beat generation poet, dressed in a black turtle neck and accompanied by a bongo drum beat here and there: “…JOY PAIN ECSTASY THEN BODILY TRANSCENDING ENERGY. APOLLO 11 WAS AIRBORNE…SHORT-SLEEVED NERVES WITH CORRECTOR FILLED POCKETS. HABITUATING AN AREA WHERE ALL IS PERFORMANCE…DEVELOPMENT CRACKING THE INCUBATOR WALLS OF CONTROL…NOTHING WILL ALREADY BE THE SAME…”, and never losing his sense of humor, “DESTINATION: MOTEL, FREE ORANGE JUICE.” But my favorite is “IDEAS CAN BE CRACKS IN THE STONE.” The stone was Rauschenberg’s launching pad to printing, and he knew well that cracks and faults could either lead to failure, or if handled deftly, with creativity, and with team work, to discovery. And this was his Stoned Moon.
Rauschenberg Stoned Moon series and book place this incredible event in the context of place, person, and time in a way I have never seen before, and for me, it was truly impactful. At the time, this technological success seemed to be a turning point for all of us: anything was possible, and technology could solve any problem. But there is a sense in his visual commentary that while we seemed to be blasting off into the future, nothing else had really changed. Perhaps this is why the Tomorrowland exhibition at Disneyland still looks pretty much the same as it did in 1969.