On 20 July 1969, the astronauts of Apollo 11 made history by becoming the first people to land on the Moon, accomplishing the main mission of the United States space programme. Broadcast live on television to the entire world, the successful landing, especially the first human steps on Earth’s natural satellite taken by Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, is remembered as one of the supreme scientific achievements. At the same time, the event also had a symbolic message. An increasing number of people were now considering the possibility of making contact with extra-terrestrial cultures, and many artists gave serious thought to the aesthetic problems arising in connection with this.
The Moon landing coincided with the emergence of the Art and Technology Movement, which took its cue from the rapid developments taking place in microelectronics and telecommunications, with the international spread of kinetic, cybernetic and telematic art, and with the increasing popularity of Op Art, indelibly linked to the name of Victor Vasarely. Vasarely reached the peak of his career in 1969, and the exhibitions he held that year were on the largest scale, attracting the most visitors. His works appealed to the public because they expressed the new scientific worldview in a satisfying visual form. Vasarely’s imagination had been fired by the exploration of space since the mid-1950s. Many of the titles he gave his works were borrowed from the names of stars or constellations (Vega, Orion, Eridan, Neptun, Betelgeuse, Cassiopée, etc.), and one of his major compositions was named after Laika, the dog who was launched into orbit aboard a Soviet spacecraft. The title of his seminal series, CTA 102, was taken from the burst of electromagnetic radiation detected in the mid-1960s by both Russian and American scientists, which was interpreted by some as a message sent by sentient beings from a distant planet. The perceptual structures that exploit the tools of kineticism were utilised by Vasarely to create an imaginary world. His wish to conquer space was not fulfilled until 1982, when Jean-Loup Chrétien, the first French cosmonaut, arrived on board the space station Salyut 7 with 100 numbered screen prints by the artist, which were auctioned back on Earth for the benefit of UNESCO, with the proceeds helping to support the scientific education of students in the Third World.
The Vasarely Museum is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Moon landing with a special exhibition, which presents the connection between art and space through works produced at the height of the Cold War, which convey the euphoria of faith in technology. The selection honours the idea of creating “art for space”, which was formulated half a century ago. Through some iconic, albeit lesser known pieces, it documents the desire among artists to break free from the Earth and to display their works in another part of the universe, perhaps even on the Moon.
In addition to some rarely seen works by Vasarely on cosmic themes, the exhibition will also feature some contemporaneous experiments by other internationally renown artists, among others the performance carried out in 1960 by Vassilakis Takis, author of the “Magnetic Manifesto”, in which he symbolically launched the poet Sinclair Beiles into space, thus pre-empting the journey of the very first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin.
The main focus of the exhibition is on the Moon Museum. This fingernail-sized ceramic tile, generously loaned by a private collector, was created as a conceptual gag, intended to convey a message to aliens sent by contemporary American artists. It came about thanks to a collaboration between some of the most important artists living in New York at the time. One copy of this work, featuring a miniature drawing each by John Chamberlain, Forrest Myers, David Novros, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, was smuggled on board the landing craft of the Apollo 12 mission, and when it touched down on the Moon on 19 November 1969, the work was “left behind”. The second successful manned Moon landing therefore also resulted in the first work of art being sent into space.
The Moon Show, the first major public event on the subject, was held in the period between the two Moon landings in the exhibition hall at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The highlight was the public debut of materials from the solar system that had been collected on the Moon. While preparing for the exhibition, its curator, Wayne Andersen, accidentally opened the glass container of Moon soil in such a way that some of the cosmic dust stuck to his fingers. Back at NASA, the geologists had only been allowed to examine the samples under strict safety conditions, conducting their experiments without unsealing the containers. This meant that the first person physically to touch the “surface” of the Moon was actually an art historian and curator. The Moon Show from fifty years ago, reconstructed from recently rediscovered photographs, will be showcased at the Vasarely Museum and will feature a wealth of archive documentation, including interviews with the curator, Wayne Anderson, and the person who took the installation shots, Gus Kayafas.
Besides the artworks inspired by the Moon and space, the exhibition will also feature examples of the equipment used in space at the time, as well as archive photographs of the first two Moon landings.
On the top of some historic examples of the lunar subject within art history, there will be a special focus on the Hungarian reception of the event, artists who were specifically reflecting on the moonshot in their work in the end of the 1960s and others who are influenced by and engaged in the topic some 50 years later.
As Lead Sponsor of the exhibition, Citi Hungary contributed to the implementation of this project. We are grateful for their generous support!
Corporate Partners of the exhibition: LG and the Municipality of Óbuda.
Márton Orosz, exhibition curator