The Space Curiosity of Robert Rauschenberg

As one of the foremost artists of the 1960s, a decade punctuated by milestones in the history of human spaceflight, Robert Rauschenberg bore witness to mankind’s venture into the cosmos. While for many of his contemporaries the image of the astronaut and spacecraft represented a technological triumph or fear of the unknown, for Rauschenberg they stood above all as symbols of hope for a peaceful future. In later life the artist recalled his “belief in the spiritual and physical improvement of life and mind through space curiosity.” [Statement on Hot Shot, 1983] These utopian aspirations would contrast with his frequent reflections on the banality and excesses of human existence.

During one of the most turbulent periods in US history—when the tension of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear attack was matched on the home front by the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and anti-war protests—American successes in the Space Race provided rare moments of celebration. As early as 1963 the image of the astronaut appeared as an antidote to collective trauma in Retroactive I. Begun prior to the death of JFK, this silkscreen painting was reworked following news of the assassination in November. As part of an elegy to the deceased president, the depiction of a parachuting astronaut expressed the artist’s undiminished optimism for a propitious future that JFK in life had embodied.

Rauschenberg’s enthusiasm for spaceflight increased following a commission from the NASA Art Program. In July 1969 he travelled to Cape Canaveral to witness the launch of Apollo 11, the first manned mission to land on the moon. In his series of lithographs entitled Stoned Moon Rauschenberg showed his continued passion for space curiosity at the end of a traumatic decade.

In prints such as in Sky Rite and White Walk Rauschenberg expressed sheer wonderment at his nation’s astronautical achievements. But reflecting on the implications more deeply, he repeatedly juxtaposed space imagery with scenes of the terrestrial environment to comment on man’s place both in the world and out of it. This comparison was reinforced by the ecological names of many of the prints, such as Sky Garden, Horn, Shell and Marsh. The image of the bird in works such as Hybrid was an obvious touchpoint as man took flight. Flora too was abundant, from the palm trees of Local Means to the oranges in Banner. Rauschenberg’s series alternated between simple combinations of nature and technology (Tracks) and more elaborate fusions of man on the moon with man on the earth (Tilt). Even abstracted prints such as Loop and Waves suggested organic references that blended extraterrestrial and earthly expectations.

In 1970 Rauschenberg reflected back on the previous decade in Signs. Among an iconography of war and the slain martyrs of the era, the prominence assigned to Buzz Aldrin’s lunar walk demonstrated the artist’s ongoing optimism. And over two decades later, the celebratory Space (Tribute 21) proved the persistence of Rauschenberg’s faith in space exploration as the path to peace in a new millennium.