Unearthly Art: Astronaut Alan Bean paints moon from unique perspective
SEYMOUR — There may be many artists, but only one can lay claim to having stepped on the surface of a heavenly body.
Astronaut Alan Bean couldn’t be prouder of his career as an astronaut on the 1969 Apollo 12 moon mission, but that was then. Now, he’s an artist whose historic past achievements in space have made him a singular sensation in what he does best — painting.
The result of his concentrated effort in that dimension, have just been released in a spectacular Smithsonian Institution book in celebration of the mission’s 40th anniversary this month: “Alan Bean: Painting Apollo, First Artist on Another World.” He’ll be signing and showing works from it, Saturday at 4 p.m. at The Greenwich Workshop Galley, 151 Main St., which has represented him in selling limited edition prints of his works for nearly a decade. An exhibit of select works will be on display Friday through Nov. 20.
Bean, 77, speaking by phone from the studio in his Houston home, admits that, if it hadn’t been for the urging of fellow astronauts in the early 1980s, he might still be painting flowers and landscapes.
“I never thought one single time about painting the moon. When I got back, I continued to paint landscapes and flowers. That was what art was. My astronaut friends said, ‘Why aren’t you painting the moon? You’re the first artist to go there.’
“Finally, I ran out of flowers one weekend and I got out a picture of Pete Conrad and painted it. After a few hours, I thought, ‘I should be doing this. I know everything about that suit, every valve, every fold.’ Don’t forget, I love art and was always looking at Monet or Van Gogh, and they weren’t painting spacesuits.”
Although he had taken art courses over the years, studying at such places as the Museum of Fine Arts at Houston, and painted since his test pilot days in the 1960s, Bean was a closet artist while with NASA, where he flew the November 1969 Apollo mission, and became the fourth man to walk on the moon; the 59-day Skylab mission; and trained backup for the Apollo-Soyuz.
But he retired from NASA in 1981 to paint full time.
When asked if he made sketches while on his Apollo mission, Bean says, “I never gave art a single thought on the moon. I’m a single-minded guy. I don’t believe in multitasking. I believe in concentrating on what you have to do.
“I prioritize and quit thinking about other stuff. I never gave art a thought. If I had, I would have taken acrylics, some watercolors and a few pieces of paper and looked out the window,” he says.
Bean has found what every artist hopes for: a specialness that makes his or work desirable. Who else can sprinkle their works with moondust or texturize them using equipment that was used on space missions?
Bean uses acrylic, not oil, “because oil’s a technology that’s not of this time. I’m painting about the best technology of this century, the space program. I’m going to use the best technology of paints.”
Bean’s Apollo paintings have the feeling of moonscapes. They’re thick with texture, panoramic, skillfully painted, imaginative in a way that shows he has learned well from his study of Monet.
At first, he painted on masonite, but he use sturdy 12-ply aircraft plywood special-ordered from Scandinavia, which stands up to the thick layers of acrylic he applies with palette and brush, after first texturing the surface with a signature process.
“One day I had an epiphany. I said to myself, ‘Why am I making texture like earth artists?’ I’ve got tools from the moon.”
He’d left his moonboots on the moon, but had others, he retrieved his hammer from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, and he had a core bit tube, the device which extracted surface samples.
After preparing the plywood with modeling paste, Bean starts his texturizing.
“Every mark is made with a moonboot, hammer or core-tube bit. And I have to say, it took me a while to do this. Now — my ego’s out of control here — I’ve got the best texture I’ve ever seen in art. Better than Monet, Van Gogh or Rembrandt.”
He thought it would be nice to have a little moondust in there, too, but he never pocketed a rock or snatched any surface dust — or so he thought.
Bean was looking at the framed cloth mission patches from his spacesuit and backpack, but they looked dingy.
“I’m thinking, ‘boy those from Apollo are dirty. Maybe I better wash them.’ Then I realized I do have moondust. That dirt is from the Ocean of Storms. … ”
He got the idea to cut minute pieces of the patches and insert them into the paintings. Of the 163 paintings he’s done, he estimates about 80 have that “moondust.”
When he first started painting his moonscapes, Bean says he didn’t have the skills to push himself beyond realism and use his artist’s eye.
“My heart was an astronaut’s,” he says. “In the early paintings, the moon was gray with a tiny bit of violet. I didn’t realize it was up to me to take the moon and make it as colorful as I wanted it to be. I didn’t know that was my job as an artist,” Bean says.
Like Darwin and Lewis and Clark, whose odysseys were captured by exploration artists, Bean is the visual documentarian of the exploration of the ultimate undiscovered frontier.
As art critic Donald Kuspit, a fan of Bean’s work, notes in an essay in the book, “The two conflicting cultures of science and art are ostensibly opposite, but Bean’s paintings suggest that they need each other, they catalyze each other. Art must comply with known reality to be expressively convincing, and science and technology without art are dehumanizing and uncreative.”
He made history in another world, and he’s hoping that his work in documenting that world will find a special place in the art world as well.
“… in the long run, I hope it will fill a niche in the flow of art history and people will say, ‘yeah, this is good and something to celebrate,’ because it was a great adventure and a really good thing that America did. … My paintings celebrate this great American and human achievement. It’s a great accidental effect that we got from going to the moon.”
Chris Usher, director of The Greenwich Workshop Gallery, says that Bean’s appearance is much anticipated.
“There is a whole group of space buffs who know everything going on,” he says. “We have two couples flying in from Virginia to see him … Alan’s an awesome guy.”
Bean sums up his own legacy: “The reason I left NASA was because I had a unique opportunity. People have looked at other things like space and the moon and imagined them, but I’m the first artist to ever go there and paint what I saw.”