Celebrating the race to space

Cantor Arts Center presents rarely seen prints by Pop Art icon Robert Rauschenberg

On December 5, 2014, the Orion space craft traveled 3,600 miles above Earth testing systems in preparation for sending astronauts into deep space. It was reported on television news and on the second page of newspapers but was hardly the story of the day.

Go to Mars? Why not? After all, we have been to the Moon and back. We have become so inured to the rapid scientific and technological developments of the space program that it seems we are not easily impressed. But Stanford's Cantor Arts Center has a cure for that apathy.

The museum's latest exhibition draws together collages, prints and archival materials that pay tribute to the historic Apollo 11 mission of 1969, when man first set foot on the moon. "Loose in Some Real Tropics: Robert Rauschenberg's 'Stoned Moon Series'" will be on view from December 20 through March 16. The display is a visual reminder of a time when space travel was cause for unabashed awe and wonder. It also serves as a record of how one artist memorialized that era forever.

Robert Rauschenberg began his career as an important avant-garde artist in 1950s and '60s New York. He rejected the prevailing Abstract Expressionist predilection for angst-driven paintings on canvas in favor of a cooler, detached observation of life. Rauschenberg is credited with the invention of the "combine," a collage-like amalgamation of disparate yet symbolic found objects. His choice of media and technique seemed to obey no boundaries, and to betray no fears.

As quoted in Mary Lynn Kotz's book, "Rauschenberg: Art and Life," the artist once explained to an interviewer, "I had nothing to start with, so I could try anything I wanted to."

One thing Rauschenberg did have was a life-long interest in flight and a special admiration for astronauts. So when he was invited by NASA to be part of its art program and to document the launch of Apollo 11 in July of 1969, he leaped at the opportunity. He was given unrestricted access to behind-the-scenes preparations and was in the grandstand at Cape Canaveral during the historic lift-off. A photograph of the smiling artist, with the massive rocket enclosed in its armature behind him, reveals the obvious delight and enthusiasm he must have felt that day.

"The whole project seemed one of the only things at that time that was not concerned with war and destruction," Rauschenberg said.

Looking back, it is easy to see his reference points -- the Vietnam War, inner-city riots, the growing awareness of environmental disasters -- and how the launch of a rocket into space (fulfilling John Kennedy's prediction about sending a man to the moon) must have felt like a rare positive, unifying force.

Inspired by the Apollo mission, Rauschenberg decided to produce a major body of work about the space program. The Stoned Moon Project (1969-70) was originally intended to be a book of 20 collages and drawings. The book never came to fruition, and the artwork, rarely seen before now, became part of the holdings of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. In addition to images, the project also included the artist's unpublished notes, giving insight into his choices of subject matter and media.

Guest Curator James Merle Thomas explained in an email interview that the exhibition was inspired by his own dissertation research into art in the Cold War era.

"I was interested in more closely examining the Stoned Moon Projects as a kind of transitional moment in the artist's career," Thomas wrote. "During the same months that he was producing Stoned Moon, Rauschenberg began making art that was much more politically explicit and critical."

The artist's desire to commemorate the Apollo flight in a new and technically-advanced manner led him to Gemini G.E.L. Studios in Los Angeles. Long known as a place where artists could experiment and push the boundaries of traditional print-making, Gemini was the perfect fit for the project. Working at a hectic pace, Rauschenberg created 33 prints: at that time the largest lithographs produced on a hand-operated press. Of these, 13 appear in the exhibition, on loan from a private collector.

Measuring over seven feet in height, requiring the use of two lithography stones laminated together, the Stoned Moon series utilized photographs obtained from NASA and images of Florida flora and fauna. The prints are a big, bright, bold celebration of technology -- both space travel and printmaking -- and creativity.

In "Banner," the artist has gathered symbols of the space race (the top stage of a rocket, three smiling, brave astronauts) with images of Florida (a crate of oranges, the state seal). Bright blue swaths of ink surround the images, perhaps reflective of the sky, space and the "blue yonder" that men were about to explore. In "Sky Garden," Rauschenberg juxtaposes the outline of a rocket, symbol of man's technical prowess, with sea birds and palm trees. A matrix detailing all the parts of the rocket is overlaid with now-familiar terminology (command module, heat shields) clearly delineated.

In most of the prints, there is a stark contrast between nature and technology. Rauschenberg lived for many years in Florida and was committed to the environmental movement. His poster, "Earth Day" (1970), which combined images of man-made destruction (pollution, deforestation) and endangered species (a bald eagle and a gorilla), is considered an iconic representation of its time. The artist felt, however, that the space movement was a "responsive, responsible collaboration between man and technology." Critics loved the Stoned Moon series; arts writer Lawrence Alloway noted that Rauschenberg "produced the first persuasive public art of the early space age."

The exhibition is part of the Cantor's new focus on interdisciplinary programming, which will encompass collaborations with the departments of Physics, Music, and the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. The year-long effort, called "Imagining the Universe," will include lectures by NASA astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison and artists Alyson Shotz and Matthew Ritchie (dates to be announced).

Rauschenberg once wrote of his desire to "integrate the creative mind with the new super technology." He died in 2008 and would, no doubt, be amazed at the innovations and inventions that have found their start right here in Silicon Valley. As he proved in his Stoned Moon Projects, the talents of artist and scientist are not mutually exclusive; at best, they can enhance and affirm each other.

What: Loose in Some Real Tropics: Robert Rauschenberg's "Stoned Moon" Projects, 1969-70

Where: Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford

When: Dec 20-March 16, Wednesday-Monday 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m.-8 p.m. See website for holiday hours and closures.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-4177

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