domingo, 14 de abril de 2013

On the Threshold of Space: Norman Rockwell's Longest Step by Anne Collins Goodyear

 Fig. 1

Norman Rockwell. The Longest Step (Astronauts Grissom and Young Suiting Up). 1965. Oil on canvas, 35 x 55 in. National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

In the early 1960s, as the United States competed with the Soviet Union to be the first country to land on the Moon, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) established a pro­gram by which it would invest in artwork as a means of establishing a cultural record of space exploration. Norman Rockwell, whose iconic images of American life had come to shape the way the nation viewed itself, was one of the artists chosen to participate in the program. He turned his attention to space exploration at the moment when it shifted from being the stuff of fantasy to a tangi­ble political and human contest, and responded with characteristic sensitivity to this transition. As is particularly evident in Rockwell's painting The Longest Step (fig. 1), NASA found in this beloved artist a perfect vehicle to present a heroic, yet human, view of the bur­geoning space program. (1)

 The NASA Artists' Cooperation Program was initiated with the encouragement of NASA's second administrator, James Webb. In March 1962, having been presented with a portrait of Alan Shepard by artist Bruce Stevenson (fig. 2), Webb recommended that NASA "consider in a deliberate way just what [it] should do in the field of the fine arts to commemorate the past historic events, such as [Alan] Shepard's and [John] Glenn's flight, as well as future historic events that we know will come to pass." (2) After appropriate consultation with the Fine Arts Commission and the director of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.-a gesture intended to forestall criticism of the program both inside and outside of NASA-the art program was entrusted to the joint leadership of Hereward Lester Cooke, curator of painting at the National Gallery, and James Dean, director of NASA's Educational Media Division. The purpose of the art program was to grant American artists free access to NASA's facilities and events so that they could interpret the significance of America's forays into space. Cooke summarized the program's underlying philosophy in his letter of invitation to artists: "NASA is commissioning your imagination, and we want records of fleeting impressions and poetic by-products of thought as much as precise documents of optical experience." (3) Significantly, as Cooke explained to them, the space agency rejected exclusively using photography, itself a product of science and technology, as a visual record of early attempts at space exploration. Art, especially when it reflected the artist's hand, provided a vital means to express the human signifi­cance of the space program. (4)

Due to concern over the potential political implications of spend­ing federal money on the arts, the initial steps the NASA art program took were conservative ones. Although in principle artists were free to select any subject matter that interested them and to depict it in any style they pleased, the first artists selected by NASA were realists. In a January 1964 editorial, Cooke reassured readers of the Cape Kennedy Spaceport News of his intention to avoid commissioning abstract art, explaining, "We feel the material here is abstract enough." (5)

Among the first artists to participate in the NASA art program was Robert McCall, who had gained recognition for the paintings of World War II he made for Life magazine. (6) McCall's meticulous observation and craftsmanship glorify humankind's technological achievements and anticipate the moment that human beings might make space a common habitat. In McCall's images, space age technology assumes a human dimension. As Cooke observed, "[McCall] has the quality and scope of imagination to travel in space, and carry us, the specta­tors, along with him in full confidence that we are in the hands of a competent guide. Many of his pictures portray events which man could never see or photograph and which, without his talents, would remain in the realm of words, mathematical formulae and taped elec­tronic signals." (7) It was precisely this aspect of McCall's work that led film director Stanley Kubrick to commission him in 1967 to create the four oil paintings that would serve as the basis for publicity posters for his science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (see plate 70).

Fig. 2

Bruce Stevenson. Alan B. Shepard, Jr. 1962. National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Like McCall, Rockwell represented an ideal choice for Cooke and Dean. As a well-known American artist whose prestige would bolster the art program, Rockwell could be counted upon to create images that would engage their audience. In a memo to Dean, Cooke gushed: "Mr. Rockwell is perhaps the best known illustrator in America, and has expressed great interest in the assignment. I think NASA would do well to make every effort to obtain his services.... His drawings or paintings could be given very wide circulation and would reflect great credit on the NASA program." (8) Although Cooke may not have known it, Rockwell's images of American life had already been asso­ciated with the space program by a journalist who praised Glenn and his family as a "Norman Rockwell original." (9) Given Rockwell's Impact on American culture and the wholesome image NASA went out of its way to convey, his association with the space program was a natural development. (10)

Rockwell's career as an illustrator for popular magazines, how­ever, posed one unexpected hurdle for the organizers of NASA's art program: Look magazine, with whom Rockwell had recently signed a contract, wanted to publish the paintings that resulted from Rockwell's association with the NASA art program. (11) NASA's proposal to com­mission Rockwell using the same contract as other artists - providing an $800 honorarium and the opportunity to witness space history In exchange for the donation of resulting sketches and finished works to NASA - had to be revised. (12) Officially, Rockwell would be considered a member of the press, working on a story about NASA, and Look would retain the right to be the first to publish the images Rockwell produced. (13) One contemporary photograph of Rockwell on site at Cape
Canaveral shows the artist wearing his press badge


Fig. 3

Norman Rockwell atop the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Kennedy, Florida, ca. 1969

In addition to appeasing Look magazine, this arrangement ben­efited the interests of the space agency. Rockwell's paintings would be guaranteed instant circulation to a wide popular audience, ful­filling the art program's mission to help educate the American pub­lic about the "aims and accomplishments" of the space program. (14) Indeed, the publication of Rockwell's space paintings in a popular magazine was very much in keeping with the history of "space art." During the 1950s, the work of space artist Chesley Bonestell had reached a large segment of the American public through its publica­tion by Collier's magazine in a series of Issues devoted to the prospect of space flight (see the essay by Frederick Ordway in this volume). (15) As the political scientist Howard McCurdy has argued, images such as Bonestell's went a long way to making "[the prospect of] space flight seem real." (16) A decade later, Rockwell's popular illustrations would be called upon not to help convince the public that space travel was possible, but rather to convince Americans that it was a worthwhile investment.

Following his visits to the Manned Space Center (MSC, now the Johnson Space Center) in Houston in the summer of 1964, Rockwell completed The Longest Step, his first space-related painting, in the spring of 1965. The painting was created to celebrate the first manned Gemini mission, Gemini 3, flown by astronauts John Young and Virgil (Gus) I. Grissom. Project Gemini represented the intermediary step between the Mercury and Apollo programs, providing NASA the opportunity to gain experience with maneuvers that would be required for the Moon-bound Apollo mission, such as ExtravehicularActivity (EVA) and orbital rendezvous. Published in full color in the April 20, 1965, issue of Look, Rockwell's Longest Step appeared as a two-page spread, sandwiched between Ben Kocivar's short essay about the painting and a diagrammatic reproduction of it (fig. 4), which numbered and identified every piece of equipment pictured, down to a pencil included in a small pocket on the left sleeve of Grissom's space suit. Just as Rockwell, Look, and NASA had agreed, The Longest Step served as the basis of an educational publication about the space program - complete with Rockwell's enduring rep­resentation of it. Perhaps most important, Rockwell's image accen­tuated the dedicated teamwork that lay behind the space program, featuring, in addition to the description of the space age hardware, brief biographies of each of the four men pictured. The suit techni­cians, Joe W. Schmitt and Alan Rochford, received the same attention as the two astronauts.

Fig. 4

Diagram of Norman Rockwell's The Longest Step featured in Look magazine. April 20, 1965

As was typical of Rockwell's practice of the time, the artist relied upon multiple photographs to construct his composition. Yet, as Rockwell stressed in his autobiography, the photographs were com­piled strictly as aids to record vital information he would need for the painting, such as poses and costumes: "I don't copy photographs.... They are guides, nothing more. The essential ingredient in every one of my finished paintings is me - my feelings, ideas, skills." (17) The photographs, shot by Rockwell's photographer Brad Herzog during a special session with the astronauts at MSC, show the artist taking on his customary role as director, encouraging the astronauts to assume the pose that seemed most appropriate. A collection of dozens of photographs, some annotated to indicate appropriate colors, demonstrates Rockwell's careful attention to detail, down to the very instruments casually arrayed by the feet of the assisting technicians. (18)


Fig. 5

Snapshot of Norman Rockwell directing astronauts John Young and Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom. 1964

One snapshot in particular, complete with Rockwell's pointing hand, captures the essence of the image Rockwell would paint. In this image Rockwell placed the astronauts standing and facing one another, apparently engaged in a moment of speechless commu­nication. Their poses nearly mirror each other, a visual pun on the name of the project, “Gemini," which refers to the twin stars of Castor and Pollux in the Gemini constellation. (19) Young seems to look at Grissom with a mixture of expectation and anticipation. Grissom's pose is slightly more relaxed, and the veteran smiles calmly back at his protégé. Rockwell retained these expressions and postures in his painting and made at least two critical adjustments to accentuate the wordless exchange. First, he painted in wire connectors in the console behind the astronauts, visually connecting their heads. In this way Rockwell playfully suggested that Grissom was mentally encouraging the rookie. (20) Rockwell further conveyed Grissom's friendly mentor- ship by placing a helmet on Grissom's head, thereby implying that the helmet in his hand, as seen in the source photo, is for his partner.

Unlike the photograph, Rockwell's painting does not depict a dress rehearsal (so to speak), but instead the main event. (21) In the left corner of the painting, Rockwell added the countdown clock he had observed on another wall of the room, and indicated that just over two hours remained before launch. (22) He also included yellow booties on Grissom's feet as well as a pair behind Schmitt, who assists Young, suggesting that the astronauts were preparing to be walked outside to their waiting spaceship.Rockwell's control, however, included not only posing the astro­nauts, but also choosing the moment at which to represent them. His decision to show the astronauts putting on their space suits has par­ticular significance when seen in the larger context of his career. As an illustrator accustomed to working with models, Rockwell had a particular sensitivity to the transformative potential of costume. His paintings often picture children trying on new clothes as they strain to grow up and assume a particular identity, or occasionally show a misfit wearing completely inappropriate attire. (23) In his autobiography, describing his youthful attempts to be part of "high society," Rockwell remarked that "clothes were vital." (24) By picturing Grissom and Young putting on their gear, Rockwell epitomized the moment of transformation of these men into astronauts. This liminal moment, by extension, metaphorically records the transition of the American space program from the realm of the imagination to that of reality.

Significantly, in 1964 the space program placed special emphasis on the suits that Rockwell chose as part of his subject. As the astro­nauts entered the new phase of the Gemini program, they would no longer rely entirely upon their space capsule for protection against the elements. Instead, the suits themselves would provide this protec­tion as the Gemini astronauts ventured from their capsules into the vacuum beyond. The importance of the suit was alluded to in Kocivar's discussion of Rockwell's painting: "During one of [the Gemini mis­sions], our astronauts will do what the Russians have already done: get out of their capsule and move about in space. Their protection for that leap is the space suit and its almost unbelievable ability to support life where it has never gone before." (25)


Fig. 6.

Domenico Veneziano. Madonna and Child with Saints, St. Lucy altarpiece, main panel. Mid 1440s. Tempera on panel, 6 ft. 10 In. x 7 ft. 1 in. Galleria degll Uffizi, Florence

Grissom and Young would not venture out of their capsule as the astronauts in following Gemini missions would do, but the Gemini 3 flight inaugurated this new era and the use of the new suits. Indeed, when Rockwell visited the astro­nauts' dress rehearsal, the space suit's design was itself in the midst of a transformation. Photographs show Young wearing what appears to be a white G3C pressure suit, while Grissom seems to be pictured in the silver G2C training suit. (26) In fact, Rockwell's desire to represent accurately the new Gemini G3C suit led to an unprecedented con­cession from the space agency: in response to his repeated requests, NASA permitted the top-secret suit to be brought to Rockwell's Stockbridge, Massachusetts, studio under the protection of Schmitt, the elder of the two suit technicians portrayed in the painting. (27)

Fig. 7

Raphael. School of Athens, ca. 1510-12. Fresco. Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican, Rome

In a letter of thanks to Rockwell for a charcoal sketch of the composition, Herzog told the artist, "I can see my photograph in each case but at the same time the whole portrait has been subjected to a marvelous and wonderful translation so that your signature is really superfluous." (28) Some of the "transformations" that Herzog alluded to have already been discussed, but there are other, still more significant changes that Rockwell made to his final painted image. Perhaps most significant is the formal arrangement of the painting: its pyramidal composition recalls the classical composition of Italian Renaissance altarpieces, such as Domenico Veneziano's Madonna and Child with Saints.

The positions of Young and Grissom recall those of saints paying homage to the Madonna and Christ; the kneeling figures of Schmitt and Rochford seem to pro­vide a link between these exalted astronauts and those of us who must admire their feats from afar. At the apex is the computer, whose strong vertical seam combines with the horizontal panels of switches, linked by wire connectors, to suggest a cruciform shape. (29) In his final version of the painting, Rockwell nearly doubled the area occupied by the computer by adding two consoles - each of which enabled him to include a halolike juxtaposition of a large dial behind each astronaut's head. Although Rockwell - in typical fash­ion - had received a photograph of such a computer configuration, a preliminary sketch of the painting showing only two computer panels suggests that this expansion was a later conceptual develop­ment. Indeed, the gentle protrusion of an arch from beneath the outer two consoles in the finished work suggests that the decision to increase the area of the computer was undertaken during the final stages of the picture's completion.

The composition's similarity to Renaissance altarpieces offers a gentle pun: the astronauts (and the Soviet cosmonauts) represented the first people in history to escape Earth's atmosphere, literally achieving a new communion with the heavens. The technology cele­brated in the center of the composition made this all possible. At the same time, the implications underlying this celebration are some­what ambiguous: had technology indeed replaced the spirit as an object of worship in contemporary society? Four years after the paint­ing appeared in Look, Richard Nixon would refer to the events of the Moon landing as "the greatest week in the history of the world since Creation." (30)

Rockwell's painting also resonates with another Renaissance masterpiece, Raphael's School of Athens (fig. 7). In the background, a blue arch unifies the composition. Rockwell's source photographs reveal no obvious inspiration for the arced line in his painting aside from formal considerations; its integral role in the composition appeared in an early oil sketch. Just as Raphael's use of architecture organizes the activity of the School of Athens, so Rockwell's arch contains the activity of the astronauts and their assistants. Here Grissom and Young serve as counterparts to Raphael's Plato and Aristotle, and the suit technicians function as their devoted followers. Rockwell must also have noticed that the blue arch suggested the curve of Earth itself, which the astronauts would, of course, be able to observe from space.

By associating his painting of Grissom and Young with well-known Renaissance masterpieces, Rockwell integrated the space program into a historical tradition. Viewed through Rockwell's representation of it, the space program does not appear as a break in human history, but rather as a glorious continuation of human aspirations toward sublime accomplishments. Despite the "flashing arena of electronic consoles and out-of-this world instruments" that Rockwell observed in Houston, Kocivar observed: "One thing has not changed. Rockwell sensed the romance was still there, in the individual courage of the spacemen, and painted the first Gemini team as 'idealists in the old romantic sense, dedicated and devoted to their mission.' " (31) The title of the painting itself ties the space program back to the early days of flight, as Kocivar explained: "In the barnstorming days of flight, vet­eran parachutists used a classic quip on beginners: 'Watch that first step. It's a long one.' The longest step of our time is Project Gemini." (32)

The Longest Step would inaugurate a series of four major paint­ings by Rockwell devoted to the American space program. (33) Yet, in many ways, the first one would be his most successful, since it per­mitted the artist to work within a mode that felt particularly com­fortable. Whereas his later space-related paintings, particularly Man on the Moon (United States Space Ship on  the Moon) (fig. 8), would frustrate Rockwell with their demands for technical accuracy, The Longest Step enabled him to focus on the human significance of space exploration: the transformation of regular men into astronauts, a terrestrial species into cosmic voyagers.

Fig. 8

Norman Rockwell. Man on the Moon (United States Space Ship on the Moon). 1967. Oil on canvas, 70% x 46 in. National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

I would like to thank Richard Shiff, Linda Henderson, Dom Pisano, Tom Crouch, and James D. Dean for their encouragement during this project. I would also like to thank Pamela Mendelsohn, curatorial assistant at the Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Mass., for her gracious assistance with my archival research.

I have used the following abbreviations in my notes: NASA: National Aeronautics and Space Administration; NASM: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; NGA: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; NRA: Normal Rockwell Archives, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Mass.; SI: Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

1. Norman Rockwell's painting is now owned by NASM, where it is known by the title Astronauts Grissom and Young Suiting Up.

2. James Webb, memorandum to Hiden Cox, Mar. 16, 1962, Art Dept. Files, Aeronautics Division, NASM, SI.

3. Flereward Lester Cooke, letter of invitation to artists, quoted in Hereward Lester Cooke and James D. Dean, Eyewitness to Space (New York, 1971), p. 11.

4. For a more detailed description of the founda­tion of the NASA art program and a discussion of how art was used to humanize the space pro­gram, see Anne F. Collins, "Art, NASA, and the Moon Quest," in Belena Chapp, ed., One Small Step: Exploring America's Adventures in Space, 1959-1999, exh. cat. (Newark, 1999), pp. 11-26; and Collins, "Art, Technology, and the American Space Program, 1962-1972," Intertexts 3: 2 (Fall 1999), pp. 124-46.

5. Hereward Lester Cooke quoted in "Counting Down with the Editor," Spaceport News 3 (Jan. 30,1964), p. 8. Cape Canaveral, which houses the Kennedy Space Center, was known as Cape Kennedy from 1963 to 1973 (Helen T. Wells, Susan H. Whiteley, and Carrie E. Karegeannes, Origins of NASA Names, The NASA History Series [Washington, D.C., 1976], p. 149).

6. The first group of artists commissioned by NASA witnessed the Mercury 9 launch of Gordon Cooper in May 1963. These artists were Robert McCall, Mitchell Jamieson (who covered Cooper's Pacific recovery), Peter Hurd, John McCoy II, George Weymouth, Lamar Dodd, Paul Calle, and Robert Shore.

7. Hereward Lester Cooke, foreword, Phoenix Art Museum, Robert McCall: Space Artist, exh. cat. (Phoenix, 1972), unpag.

8. Hereward Lester Cooke, memorandum to James D. Dean, Mar. 18, 1964, Hereward Lester Cooke Papers, Gallery Archives, NGA.

9. Gay Talese, "Glenn Family Calm Amid Cheers and Confetti," New York Times (Feb. 24, 1962), p. 13. Cited by James L. Kauffman, Selling Outer Space: Kennedy, the Media, and Funding for Project Apollo, 1961-1963 (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1994), p. 61.

10. On NASA's attempt to convey a positive image of itself, see Kauffman, Selling Outer Space, esp. ch. 4, "Life: NASA's Mouthpiece in the Popular Media"; see also Howard McCurdy, Space and the American Imagination (Washington, D.C., 1997), esp. ch. 4, "Apollo: The Aura of Confidence."

11. Letter from Allen F. Hurlbut to James D. Dean, July 17, 1964, box 16, "Astronauts File," NRA. Rockwell resigned from the Saturday Evening Post in June 1963 and soon thereafter went to work for Look (Karal Ann Marling, Norman Rockwell [New York, 1997], p. 137).

12. On the original terms of the contract and their revision, see the following exchange of letters: Carl M. Grey, letter to Norman Rockwell, June 9, 1964; Rockwell to Grey, n.d.; James D. Dean, letter to Rockwell, July 27, 1964. All correspon­dence, "Astronauts File," box 16, NRA.

13. Telephone interview with James D. Dean, Mar. 1, 1999.

14. On the educational aim of the NASA art program, see James Webb, quoted by Shelby Thompson, "First Drawings Received from NASA's Artists' Cooperation Program," draft news release (June 20,1963) (news release made public June 25,1963), Art Dept. Files, Aeronautics Division, NASM, SI.

15. On the significance of Collier's space series, see McCurdy, Space and the American Imagina­tion, pp. 37-41, and David E. Nye, American Technological Sublime (Cambridge, Mass, 1994), pp. 225-26.

16. McCurdy, Space and the American Imagination, pp. 29-51.

17. Norman Rockwell, as told to Tom Rockwell, My Adventures as an Illustrator (New York, 1994), p. 292.

18. See box 63 (photographs), NRA.

19. Lloyd Malian, Suiting Up for Space (New York, 1971), p. 218.

20. Telephone interview with James D. Dean, Mar. 1, 1999.

21. Although Rockwell had witnessed the astro­nauts dressing at the Manned Space Center in Houston, they would in fact have dressed at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral the morning of the launch. Rockwell's depiction of the ready room is based on what he saw in Houston.

22. Photographs taken during Rockwell's session with the astronauts indicate that the count­down clock was located on another wall. Sketches in his files demonstrate that Rockwell was particularly intrigued by the clock and by how to represent it. (See box 63 [photographs] and box 16, "Astronauts File," NRA.)

23. One study of Rockwell's attention to clothing has been carried out by Eric J. Segal, who offers an insightful account of how Rockwell's use of clothing in early illustrations of boys and young men signifies appropriate gender roles. See Eric J. Segal, "Norman Rockwell and the Fashioning of American Masculinity," Art Bulletin 78 (Dec. 1996), pp. 633-46.

24. Rockwell, My Adventures as an Illustrator, p. 232.

25. Ben Kocivar, "The Longest Step, Painted for Look by Norman Rockwell," Look (Apr. 20, 1965), p. 109.

26. Lillian D. Kozloski, U.S. Space Gear: Outfitting the Astronaut (Washington, D.C., 1994), pp. 58-59, figs. 4.6, 4.7. According to Kozloski, the G3C suits were first "delivered to MSC in August 1964." Rockwell must have witnessed one of the first dress-rehearsals with the new suit. Ultimately Young and Grissom would both wear the G3C space suits.

27. Telephone interview with James D. Dean, Mar. 1, 1999.

28. Brad Herzog, letter to Norman Rockwell, Sept.

2, 1964, "Astronauts File," box 16, NRA.

29. Observation of Dana Bell based on an unidentified essay, personal communication, Mar. 31, 1999.

30. Quoted from New York Times (July 25, 1969), by Nye, American Technological Sublime, p. 250.

31. Kocivar, "The Longest Step ...," p. 109.


33. In addition to The Longest Step, Rockwell painted the following space-related paintings for Look: Man on the Moon (Portrait of an Astronaut), 1967; Man on the Moon (United States Space Ship on the Moon), 1967; Apollo and Beyond (Apollo 11 Space Team), 1969; The Final Impossibility: Man’s Tracks on the Moon, 1969.

In: 2001: Building for Space Travel. Edit by John Zukowsky, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Flight (Seattle, Wash.), pp. 102-107.

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