From an outsider’s perspective, Lamar Dodd must have seemed like an unlikely choice for a commission to create paintings on the subject of space. Dodd was in the first group recruited for the NASA Art Program, which tasked artists with translating the cultural and scientific monumentality of the space missions to a national audience. Lamar Dodd, however, was a regionalist artist; that is, his art aimed to capture the mood of specific landscapes and their people, not historic events. Dodd painted the cotton fields of his home state of Georgia, the burgeoning skyscrapers in New York City, the steel mills of Birmingham, and the rush of the tide off Monhegan Island in Maine. Dodd spent most of his time living and painting in the south, as the head of the art department at the University of Georgia in Athens.
The NASA Art Program required a broad, popular approach for depictions of space flight. Dodd, as a regionalist painter with an eye for the particular, who preferred to paint a fragment of a scene rather than the whole scope, hardly seems ideal.
However, the art of the NASA program also had to do what press photographs alone could not: include a human perspective. In this case, Lamar Dodd was the perfect candidate. He had a knack for bringing a touch of humanity to unexpected subjects. Dodd was also an educator, an exceptionally talented painter, and deeply curious about the space missions’ potential. As such, when Howard Lester Cooke, curator of painting at the National Gallery of Art and supervisor to the Art Program, drafted a list of the eight artists he wanted to sign on to the program, Dodd had an essential place among them.
Dodd first went to Cape Canaveral in 1963. He travelled with seven other NASA-commissioned artists, all of whom received insider access to view the Mercury launch of astronaut Gordon Cooper. Dodd spent five days watching, sketching, and planning the works he would create. He then returned home, let the events and his records of them brew in his imagination, and began to paint. While most of the other paintings created by the NASA artists leaned into realistic depictions of what they witnessed, Dodd’s works were intuitive and abstract. These works balanced his regionalist’s eye for place with the NASA Art Program’s message of common connection between viewers across America, occupying the narrow border between specific and comprehensive.
Dodd’s paintings inspired by the Mercury launch communicate his impressions of the space technology. In numerous sketches, he depicts the rocket gantry as a mass of tangled lines against the dark night. While completing these sketches, Dodd talked the site’s launch technicians into letting him take a look around the lunar module. The resulting painting, Max Q, 1963, is a whirlwind of graphic lines and spots of color that represent the mechanical panels and buttons Dodd saw in his initial blurry spin around the room. Dodd’s insider access extended to the White Room, the site where the astronauts entered the spacecraft, and in the subsequent painting White Room, 1963, he depicts the room as a shock of arctic whiteness with a lonely figure tending to the machines. These spaces are just as foreign to the public as the surface of the Moon, but by referencing Dodd’s own experience of them – his overwhelmed glance inside of the module, the way he perceived the gantry at night – Dodd helps render these specific places accessible to viewers who may not understand space technology. To achieve this effect, he bridged another divide, not between specificity and universality, but between realism and abstraction.
By 1963, abstraction was the vogue of the art world. For several decades prior, artists had been asking the same existential question: why does art have to depict a thing? Rather than painting people, places, or objects, abstract artists instead explored the fundamentals of what painting was. They dissected the components of painting into isolated parts: the canvas, colors, shapes, and movement of the brush. These material qualities became the subject matter of their art. Think Jackson Pollock’s splatters of paint, the color blocks of Mark Rothko, or the enormous brushstroke paintings made by Joan Mitchell.
While most of the NASA artists were not immune to abstraction, few embraced the technique as thoroughly as Lamar Dodd. This is perhaps because Dodd’s personal philosophy was in accordance with that of the famous abstract expressionists of the day, whose works sought to communicate pure expressions of emotional or objective thoughts through the very medium of paint. The idea of fundamental truths appealed to the religious Dodd. Yet unlike the abstractionists, who abandoned any reference to an object, Dodd still believed all paintings should be rooted in a fragment of life. He thought that an artist should be inspired by the truth in nature, then interpret that truth through their subjective imagination to meet it somewhere in the middle on their canvas. For that reason, Dodd was able to experiment with abstraction without losing any element of personal experience.
Dodd returned again to Cape Canaveral (now Cape Kennedy) to witness the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969. He soaked in the images of the lunar surface, luminous stars, and the dark of space, and returned home to paint an astonishing 25 works before the year was over. These simple yet dramatic paintings veered even further into abstraction. He painted several blazing stars, including Crucified Sun, 1972, layered in corrugated gold leaf with waves of color shedding outwards, which look as if they are combusting before the viewer’s eyes. Another image, Destination, shows the lunar module rising – or falling – towards the Moon’s surface, painted an opaque black. His religious influence is visible in one of the many triptychs he created, Moment of Decision, 1969, which positions the fire of a rocket launch in place of any traditional Christian imagery.
In these works, Dodd depicted celestial bodies rather than the mechanical technology that fascinated him years earlier. In 1963, the rocket was new; in 1969, the surface of the Moon was. Dodd embraced texture to immerse the viewer in the feel of these new spaces. His painted surfaces are creased, dull, lustrous, and smooth. The depth of texture, as well as his sharp delineations of space and color, gives the viewer a lifeline of visual familiarity to grip onto amidst the technologically and conceptually complicated scenes.
While Dodd’s emotional role in these images may not be readily apparent, each of these paintings was personal. They were directly connected to the places he visited, the photographs and video transmissions he saw, and the people he met. Dodd’s work thus filtered universal experiences through his own particular insight. His art was fundamentally social, designed to communicate what space was and the emotions felt upon seeing it. In this way, his work was a triumphant fulfillment of the NASA Art Program’s objectives. His paintings made the unbelievable not only believable, but obvious, lucid, and sublimely beautiful.
With the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 quickly approaching, now is a great time to explore the artistic representations of the Apollo program, and the range of artistic styles and techniques used, in the Museum collection. The NASA Art Program played an important role in representing the excitement and public interest in Project Apollo. As we look back at key moments from the historic missions, we do so not only through photographs and oral histories, but through the eyes of artists as well.