The moon has had a banner year. The 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, which brought humans to the lunar surface for the first time on July 20, 1969, inspired a summer-long slew of commemorative celebrations. That was hardly a surprise; every 10 years, we indulge in a similar orgy of Space Age nostalgia. But even in this era of anniversary overkill, the significance of the number 50 couldn’t be denied. After half a century, a proper stock-taking was in order. When Americans took stock of what we were doing and watching in the summer of ’69, and compared it to what we were doing and watching in the mostly appalling summer of 2019, nostalgia for the moon landing seemed not only justified, but necessary for our national sanity.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t darker sides to the space race and 1960s America. As utopian and unifying at it seems today, the project was about Cold War politics and geopolitical supremacy. It didn’t do anything for most Americans’ day-to-day lives, a fact painfully documented by Gil-Scott Heron in his 1970 song “Whitey On the Moon” (“I can’t pay no doctor bill, but whitey’s on the moon”). And by today’s safety-conscious standards, the whole adventure seems bizarrely, irresponsibly risky—what if the engine that blasted Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin back off the lunar surface had failed to fire? Yet even acknowledging all of that, the moon landing remains as breathtaking to contemplate in 2019 as it must have been to witness in 1969.
When President Kennedy challenged the United States to reach the moon by the end of the 1960s, he said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade…because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” From the distance of 50 years, at a time when we so often come face to face with the worst of our energies in the current U.S. president, Kennedy’s words may mean more to Americans now than when he spoke them. Viewed today, the space program of the ’60s looks like a summit of ambition, bravery and patriotism, one that makes our more recent tech advances seem narrowly selfish by comparison.
In recent months, The Metropolitan Museum of Art has contributed to the nation’s lunar nostalgia trip in high-brow historical style, with two memorable and accidentally complementary retrospective exhibits. The first was Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography, which ran at the The Met’s 5th Avenue building through the summer and closed on September 22. The second, To Fix the Image in Memory, a retrospective of the work of American artist Vija Celmins, opened two days later at the Met Breuer (after a stint at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and will run until January 12, 2020. The moon, and humanity’s quest to draw closer to it, was central to Apollo’s Muse, while the Celmins exhibit addresses earth’s satellite only briefly. But when I visited the two shows within a few weeks of each other this fall, they struck me as linked. In Apollo’s Muse, we watch science gradually reveal the objective truth about the moon over the course of three centuries. In To Fix the Image in Memory, we see an artist take that objective truth and add some subjectivity—a human touch—back into it.
Apollo’s Muse, curated by The Met’s Mia Fineman, opened with the invention of the telescope in 1608 — that’s when the moon became something more than a pock-marked blur in the sky — and ended 361 years later with a clip from the CBS broadcast of the Apollo 11 landing. “Menonthemoon!” Walter Cronkite shouted, rapid-fire, when The Eagle finally touched down. In between these two seminal events, Apollo’s Muse documented how humans — first as astronomers, then as astronauts — brought us, inch by inch, technological advance by technological advance, closer to the once-mysterious stone in the sky.
Among the exhibit’s first objects was a “lunar atlas” engraved by Johannes Hevelius of Poland in 1647. For the first time, with help from the telescope, the moon’s topography — its craters, mountains, and empty ocean-beds — could be seen and drawn. Galileo was among the first to observe the moon telescopically, and the first to assert that (a) it’s not a perfect sphere, and (b) its spots are the shadows of mountains. With those observations, Apollo’s Muse began one of its sub-themes: The mingling of science and myth.
The duel between the two played out across five rooms at The Met. From the 1600s to the early 1800s, telescopes became more powerful, and engravings of the moon more detailed. With the invention of photography in the 1830s, the camera took responsibility for zooming in on the lunar surface. As I walked past ever clearer and craggier images of that surface, I began to sense that the moon had played its own role in the evolution of photography. Hanging in the sky night after night, it would have been a natural Holy Grail for lens makers. The show closes with a room’s worth of beautiful black-and-white selections from the exhaustive Photographic Atlas of the Moon, which the Paris Observatory published from 1833 to 1907.
At the same time, even as humans drew closer to the moon, they couldn’t let go of the romantic or fantastical notions that it had always inspired when viewed from afar. Well into the 20th century, there was speculation about life residing there, perhaps in underground tunnels. Apollo’s Muse mixes in paintings, lithographs, videos, and other examples from popular culture of the moon’s enduring allure.
The most ambitious of these is “A Trip to the Moon,” a set of photos memorializing a 1910 amusement-park ride that simulated a voyage to the lunar surface, complete with actors playing the creatures — “moon maidens” among them — that we might meet there. If the advent of photography in the 19th century allowed us to see the moon for the first time, the advent of flight at the start of the 20th century allowed us to begin dreaming of traveling there.
And then, suddenly, as we turned the corner into the fourth room of Apollo’s Muse, we were there, listening to Armstrong report back to Houston from “Tranquillity Base.” It’s dizzying to realize that, over the course of just 70 years, humans went from taking an amusement-park ride to a paper-mache moon, to taking a 25,000-m.p.h rocket ride to the real thing.
Apollo’s Muse filled us in on the manically rushed yet meticulous preparations that NASA went through during the 1960s to meet Kennedy’s seemingly unmeetable goal. Every inch of the moon was photographed and mapped from up close, and a rival Soviet mission gave us a glimpse of its dark side for the first time. Included were photos of the first space walk, in 1966; Buzz Aldrin’s famous footprint, which is still intact on that airless surface; and the Hasselblad cameras that Armstrong and Aldrin used during their six-hour stay.
Finally, after showing us three centuries’ worth of images of the moon taken from earth, Apollo’s Muse gave us the reverse: “Earthrise,” the famous color photograph, taken by astronaut William Anders during the Apollo 8 mission on Christmas Eve 1968, of our planet ascending like a bright blue marble out of the darkness. A black-and-white version of the same scene had been photographed by a lunar orbiter in 1966, and when Anders first spotted the earth rising, he had to search the cabin for a roll of 70 mm color film to properly capture the moment. The site of the planet, seemingly so vulnerable in its liquid blue casing, helped inspire the environmental movement.
“If you can imagine yourself in a darkened room with only one clear visible object, a blue-green sphere about the size of a Christmas-tree ornament, then you can begin to grasp what the earth looks like from space,” Anders said. “Let me assure you that, rather than a massive giant, it should be thought of as the fragile Christmas-tree ball which we should handle with considerable care.”
“We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the earth.”
And that’s where Vija Celmins—her name is pronounced VEE-ya SELL-muns—comes in. Walking through her retrospective at the Met Breuer a few weeks after seeing Apollo’s Muse, I thought of William Anders’ words about how we had gone to the moon only to discover the earth. Celmins did something similar with her own meticulous, intensely observed, labor-intensive art in the late 60s.
At the time of the moon landing, Celmins was 30 years old and living in California. She had spent the previous decade honing what she called a “seeing and making” aesthetic—essentially, she painted what she saw. Celmins has said the urge to memorialize an object or image may have been the result of her itinerant “lost childhood,” in which she and her family were forced out of their native Latvia during World War II and eventually ended up in the United States. After graduating from UCLA’s art school in 1964, Celmins began painting the everyday objects in her studio—a space heater, a lamp, a hot plate, a fan, a TV—not as portraits, but just as they appeared to her from across the room, wires included. These paintings open To Fix an Image in Memory, on the Met Breuer’s top floor; there’s an oddly calming anti-grandeur to them.
From there, Celmins moved from painting objects to painting photographs in the same way: Exactly as they appeared. She has said that in redrawing them, she feels as if she’s breathing life back into an otherwise “dead’ image. The exhibit’s second room includes a series of black and white war scenes—menacing bomber planes, houses in flames—that she painted from magazine photos during the mid-60s, as the conflict in Vietnam intensified. Celmins, who was born in 1938, says the subject matter evoked memories of World War II for her, when her family was forced to live in German refugee camps after the Soviet Union invaded Latvia. Looking at these small, quietly frightening works made me think of the stories my own mother has told about the war. Born in Germany in 1940, she felt the same sense of menace when she heard the buzz of an approaching warplane, and the same shock when houses in her town suddenly burned to the ground.
Celmins had brought brutal memories to the surface of her work. In 1968, as violence threatened to engulf the United States, she seemed to move as far away from those memories as she could. Living near the ocean in Southern California, she took the sea as her subject and began the series of drawings that would occupy her for much of the next decade, and that are still her signature works. Celmins took photographic images of the ocean and redrew them in pencil.
As you would expect, there are a healthy selection of these drawings in To Fix an Image—too many, according to Celmins herself. At first glance, they look roughly the same: a single image of rolling waves drawn in pencil. But like Robert Ryman with his all-white paintings, Celmins finds a surprising amount of variety—of size, color, and mood—within that deliberately limited concept. She also manages to make these pieces appear three-dimensional and two-dimensional at the same time: Look at them from a distance and you think they’re photos of the ocean; move closer and, like optical illusions, they reveal themselves to be pencil lines on paper.
In 1969, Celmins left the ocean and took her trompe l’oeil concept to the moon. She began redrawing the photos of the lunar surface that had begun to stream back to earth from the NASA and Soviet missions. These are collected in the fourth room in To Fix an Image, and they do for the moon what Celmins did for the sea: Reduce it, frame it, flatten it, and make it both more strange and more human scale. The Apollo astronauts brought us to the moon’s surface, and revealed what was there; Celmins adds some distance back with her drawings.
In her attempt to translate an image of the moon into art, Celmins also takes us back to Johannes Hevelius and his engravings from 1647. In both cases, the artist’s painstaking work helps us re-see and re-appreciate the strange beauty of the moon’s surface. As Elisa Wouk Almino wrote about Celmins for Hyperallergic, “The images are powerfully personal and intimate, even if they are mysteriously deserted and distant.”
Whether or not Celmins ever heard William Anders’ words about going to the moon to discover the earth, she grasped what he meant in her own way. In the early 1970s, she traveled to the desert in the U.S. southwest, and found the same thing that she had found on the lunar surface: Lifelessness. Her drawings of the desert, which follow those of the moon in To Fix an Image, impose an artful order on those randomly cluttered landscapes.
After that return to earth, Celmins began to explore space again in the 1970s and 80s. The exhibit closes with a series of works that recreate the night sky. As with her sea drawings, these pieces look like photographs from a distance, but from up close their materials reveal themselves; Celmins lets you see the illusion, and then lets you see the reality that made it. That dichotomy, and the knowledge that these images are man (or woman) made, only makes the sight of the stars in the sky more sublime.
In To Fix an Image, Celmins begins by introducing us to the humble components of her studio, and leaves us with visions of the universe. By the end, I was thinking about Apollo’s Muse and Earthrise again.
William Anders said his Earthrise experience fatally undermined his religious beliefs. “The idea that things rotate around the pope, and up there is a big supercomputer wondering whether Billy was a good boy yesterday? It doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
With that, it seemed, the standoff between science and myth that ran throughout Apollo’s Muse was resolved, with science the victor. Not only had man gone to the moon and found no little green creatures or heavenly maidens, but one of the men who went there had lost his faith entirely. Anders’ photo showed us that, in space terms, earth was a small cog in an ever-spinning, infinitely large machine—the cosmic equivalent of a Christmas ornament.
For centuries, we had known that the moon rotated around the earth; from the new perspective that “Earthrise” gave us in that upside-down year of 1968, the earth could now be said to rotate around the moon, too. At the same time, Celmins, while ackowledging the photographic truth of what we found on the moon, managed to make it unreal again, to reclaim it for art and imagination. The moon, in her mind, was another place that could be drawn, another image that could fixed.
In the 50 years since the lunar landing, a new myth has grown up around the moon, one that both Apollo’s Muse and To Fix an Image in Memory feed. It’s a myth based around real people—Armstrong, Aldrin, and the 10 men who followed them to Tranquillity Base, some of whom still walk among us today. Now, in 2019, I look at the moon in the night sky, and rather than wonder whether there is extraterrestrial life on that white circle in the darkness, I think, in awe, “Someone — someone like me — has been there.”