In 1969, Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Chamberlain Sent Their Art to the Moon
“Apollo 12” Lunar Module pilot Al Bean steps onto the Moon. Public Domain via Creative Commons.
It may come as a surprise to even the most art-attuned earthlings that the art world actually extends beyond the limits of our home planet. Unknown to many dealers, curators, and other art-loving terrestrials, there is a micro museum on the moon. Conceived of by artist Forrest Myers in 1969, the Moon Museum was established on the lunar surface after works by six contemporary artists arrived with the Apollo 12 mission, the second moon landing. Drawings by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, David Novros, Claes Oldenburg, John Chamberlain, and Myers were inscribed onto a ¾-by-½-inch ceramic chip, which then hitched a ride to the moon, covertly affixed to the leg of the Intrepid lunar lander.
How on Earth was Myers able to smuggle a work of art to outer space? After five of his fellow artist friends signed on to the project, Myers began by reaching out to NASA, hoping they would be as excited about the prospect of bringing art to the moon as he was. “They told me a lot of people wanted to send mementos to the moon, and that if I had some big names behind me, I might have a chance,” he said in a New York Times article recounting the story, published on November 22, 1969, two days after the Apollo 12 crew began its return trip to Earth. “I then called a guy in NASA’s public relations division in Houston, who seemed optimistic. So we proceeded on the assumption that we could work through regular channels.”
Though NASA never technically rejected the Moon Museum, they didn’t exactly approve it either. Myers was unable to get the agency to officially commit to his project, so instead he devised a Plan B. After contacting the non-profit organization Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), which strove to connect engineers and artists for projects involving new technologies, he made contact with scientist Fred Waldhauer of Bell Laboratories, himself a founding member of E.A.T. Using techniques typically employed to create telephone circuits, scientists at Bell etched the six artists’ drawings onto an iridium-plated ceramic chip the size of a postage stamp. Waldhauer then convinced an engineer at Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation who was working on the lunar lander to attach the chip to its leg, hiding it within the layers of gold insulation blankets wrapped around the spacecraft.
Left: Photo by DannyBoy7783, via Creative Commons. Right: Photo by Forrest “Frosty” Myers, via Creative Commons.
“If it is true that they’ve succeeded... by some clandestine means,” NASA’s assistant administrator for public affairs, Julian Scheer, said in 1969, “I hope that the work represents the best in contemporary American art.”Indeed, each artist’s contribution to the Moon Museum is representative of his own signature style. On the top register, Warhol’s tongue-in-cheek depiction of his initials in the guise of a penis is positioned next to a crude line by Rauschenberg and Novros’s black square marked by angular lines. Below, a Mickey Mouse drawing by Oldenburg is flanked by Myers’s serpentine abstraction and Chamberlain’s circuit-like diagram. Existing in fewer than 20 editions, including one now owned by the Museum of Modern Art, the Moon Museum is also one of the 1960s’ rarest multiples.
The reality is, the presence of the Moon Museum in outer space has yet to be confirmed by subsequent lunar missions. It may even sound like something ripped from the pages of a pulp science fiction novel, or from the annals of conspiracy theories, rather than art-historical fact. But if we are to believe the telegram Myers received two days before the Apollo 12 launch, “‘YOUR ON’ A.O.K. ALL SYSTEMS GO,” signed “JOHN F,” our planet’s nearest satellite may also be the most distant museum in our universe.