In 1915, Proxima Centauri (the nearest star to Earth—excluding the Sun) was discovered; in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered everyone's favorite dwarf planet, Pluto; in 1951 the United States sent four monkeys to space; in 1958 NASA was founded; and in 1969, we landed on the moon. So, how did all of this mind-blowing, world-expanding information affect the Modern Art movement happening at the time?
Phaidon's just-released book The Universe: Exploring the Astronomical World presents an extensive image-based survey of the cosmos as depicted by artists, astronomers, and visionaries dating as far back as 16,500 B.C., when the earliest representations of constellations appeared in cave paintings in Lascaux, France and Cueva del Castillo, Spain. The book is notable for its use of juxtaposition; rather than being organized chronologically or thematically, The Universe presents disparate works side-by-side, highlighting fluctuations in humanity's understanding of space across vast lengths of time.
Throughout history, artists have contemplated and reflected on the human condition. And what greater human condition is there than our position on this singular planet amidst an ever-expanding celestial unknown? We've highlighted ten modern artists featured in The Universe who've grappled with the subject; evaluating humanity's intimate relationship with the cosmos in thought-provoking visual and sculptural renderings.
A Universe, 1934
This sculpture by the renowned American artist Alexander Calder (1898–1976) was one of his first to move. A motor in the base causes the two small red and white globes to glide at different speeds along the undulating wires in a pattern that takes forty minutes to complete. A Universe is Calder’s take on the cosmos, its abstract spheres, circles, lines and ellipses conjuring an impression of planetary motion through the Solar System. A black iron pipe provides a central axis that eventually curves as a helix, around which thinner lines arc to recall the rings of Saturn. Calder was a pioneer of ‘drawing’ in three dimensions, using wire as a means of rendering line as volume in space, in addition to his famed experiments with the element of movement in his artworks. Calder’s fascination with the cosmos was encouraged by contemporary advances in astronomy, particularly the discovery of the dwarf planet Pluto in 1930. While Calder was fascinated by the everchanging, ever-expanding Universe, the world of science was equally fascinated by his interpretation of it. Albert Einstein was reportedly spellbound by A Universe when it was first exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, standing and watching the two spheres moving for the whole forty-minute cycle.
Moonwalk celebrates the historic Moon landing of July 1969, when Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong and ‘Buzz’ Aldrin became the first human beings to step on another world. Armstrong had portrayed Aldrin standing on the barren lunar terrain, his own silhouette reflected on the visor of his crewmate’s helmet, a shot that made headlines around the world and remains one of the defining images of the era. Warhol (1928–87) places Aldrin next to the American Flag for added effect. His colourful print conjures a sense of lost euphoria and glamour tinged with nostalgia. The Apollo space programme had abruptly ended in 1972, and for all the momentousness of the first landing, by 1987 the Moon was no longer the ‘next frontier’ it had promised to be. Warhol is one of only seven artists whose work is present on the Moon. Paul Van Hoeydonck’s Fallen Astronaut was delivered by the crew of Apollo 15 in 1971 (see p.43) and Warhol’s stylized signature – which resembles a rocket – figures with drawings by Robert Rauschenberg, David Novros, John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenburg and Forrest Myers on the Moon Museum; this tiny ceramic chip was allegedly smuggled by a NASA engineer on to the landing module of Apollo 12’s lunar lander, Intrepid, in 1969, which was left on the lunar surface.
Several Circles, 1926
While composed as a purely abstract arrangement of various-sized circles, this canvas by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) is full of suggestions of the cosmos. Within an atmosphere of black space that swirls with undulating patters of deepest blue-grey, his round forms float like planets and overlap, some with tiny black nuclei that stare out at the viewer. Carefully executed with delicate strokes of smooth brushwork, the circles shift in colour as they overlie one another: mint green becomes forest green as a light circle of ochre drifts over it also turning bubble-gum pink into a pale, dusty tone; cherry red fades into lemon yellow; lilac purple moves as lapis-lazuli blue. Kandinsky was associated with the expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in Munich but returned in 1914 to his native Russia, where his works began to reflect the geometry and flat colour planes of the Suprematist and Constructivist art movements. Inspired by an expressive rather than a rational approach, Kandinsky later joined the Bauhaus group in the German city of Weimar, under the influence of which he produced this work. Kandinsky uses colour, mass and pattern to convey a calm dynamic amid the uniformity of his circles, a shape that he felt opened up a fourth dimension – one of spirituality.
Planet Set, Tête Etoilée, Giuditta Pasta (Dédicace), 1950
Twin maps of the northern and southern celestial hemispheres from a popular science book provide the background for this enigmatic box, which the American artist Joseph Cornell dedicated to Giuditta Pasta, the nineteenth-century opera star whose voice was said to evoke the beauty of the night sky. Cornell (1903–72), who is best known for the miniature, boxed dioramas that he assembled from found materials, had a longstanding interest in astronomy. He closely followed new scientific developments, as well as studying the history of astronomy, although the way Cornell used these elements was often more poetic. At the top of Planet Set, Tête Etoilée, Giuditta Pasta (dédicace), the white balls balance on rods and roll along prescribed pathways, resembling planets in their orbits. The glasses at the bottom of the box might correspond to the six planets visible to nakedeye observers from Earth – or the blue marble may be a reference to Earth itself. But the juxtaposition of objects within Cornell’s boxes remains idiosyncratic, and the title serves as a reminder of this. Stars of the screen and stage also fascinated the artist. Cornell brought his enthusiasms together by dedicating this box to a glamorous, largely forgotten star of the stage.
Starlight Night, 1963
With this grid of irregular white shapes left amid a wash of watercolour that fades from a near-black to a pinkyviolet, the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) not only captured the vastness of the night sky but also suggested the human instinct to try to impose order and pattern on what we see when we look at the heavens. O’Keeffe painted Starlight Night in 1917 and reproduced it on her Christmas cards in 1963, nearly fifty years after painting it. The painting – which features a strong, flat, deep blue horizon defined by the last vestiges of twilight, the pale blue of the night sky darkening up to the zenith, pierced by glittering stars – has echoes of the work of the Post-Impressionists, particularly Vincent van Gogh. O’Keeffe’s artistic vision was increasingly inspired by the natural world – most famously by the landscapes of New Mexico, which she visited often and to where she moved from New York to live permanently in 1949. In a letter to fellow artist Russell Vernon Hunter she offered the advice that she herself was putting into practice: ‘Try to paint your world as though you are the first man looking at it – The wind … and the cold – The dust – and the vast starlit night.’
Systems in Isotropic Space Map Projections: The Doughnut, 1979
The Universe is a place full of limitless possibilities for reimagining, as can be seen in this watercolour-and-pencil drawing of Earth by the Hungarian-born conceptual artist Agnes Denes (born 1938), who is based in New York. It is one of a series of similar isometric drawings she made from the late 1960s on as she experimented with ways to translate three-dimensional objects on to a flat sheet of paper, depicting Earth as a pyramid, a cube or a conch shell. Here she accurately renders Earth in a doughnut shape that creates a new, unexpected image of the planet. The North and South Poles meet in the hole of the doughnut, pulling the continents in with them. For Denes, whose predilection for fast food also extends to images of hot dogs, The Doughnut unravels the familiar lines of longitude and latitude that define how we look at Earth, allowing continents to drift into a new relationship and tampering with gravity. Denes began her career as a painter, but later adopted a wider variety of media that reflect an enduring interest in science and the way in which humankind perceives the Universe. She applies a deep understanding of time and space to her artistic work, ensuring that its presentation retains an aesthetic purity.
Constellation: Toward the Rainbow, 1941
Some figures in this drawing are plausibly identifiable as constellations: the fish just above the centre of the painting echoes Pisces, while a horned head at lower left suggests Taurus. Other shapes – a bird, a dancer and man with his arms raised – do not seem to have any basis in the night sky. Nevertheless, the various geometric shapes and irregular forms, linked with free-flowing lines, are punctuated by simple four-line stars that place Toward the Rainbow firmly in the night sky. It resembles a mobile of black-and-red celestial shapes lying flat on a luminous background. The whimsical quality of the work is at odds with the dark times in which it was created. It was the fifteenth in a series of twenty-three Constellations painted by Joan Miró between January 1940 and September 1941. When he began the series, he was living in Normandy and World War II had recently begun. By the time he completed it, the German occupation of France had forced him to flee to Palma de Mallorca in neutral Spain. Miró, later said that his work took a new direction in 1939 and began to focus on different sources of inspiration: the night, music and the stars. In that way, the Constellations represented Miró’s escape from the bounds of gravity and the brutality of the war into a unique map of an imaginary celestial realm.
Untitled (Sun State), 1974
Chalk drawings scrawled densely over a blackboard in a frenzy of calculation or revelation have become something of a symbol of genuis at work. The German artist Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) drew what he called this astrological chart during a public lecture in Chicago in 1974 named ‘Art into Society, Society into Art’. Beuys set out to illustrate an ideal state in which the natural and social orders are balanced. The ‘Sun State’ of the title blazes at the base of the composition, creating energy that radiates in looping white lines that alchemy turns into a system of culture with three branches: religion, art and science. At the centre of the image, an androgynous human figure represents the Earth, accompanied by a delicate stag that symbolizes humans’ animalistic and spiritualist nature. Further loops of chalk conect written references to myth, the economy, socialism and astrology, and balancing life force with the forces of death. Ultimately, Beuys intended this to be a representation of an ideal democratic state and system of culture, which together could fuel human creativity. Interested in blurring the lines between art and life, as well as fact and fiction, Beuys was associated with the 1960s Fluxus movement, which moved fluidly between literature, music and visual art.
These pen-and-ink constellations were inspired by gazing at the night sky. The sky charts depicted in what Spanish artist Pablo Picasso called his Constellation Drawings – sixteen pages from a 1924 notebook dotted with delicate, intricate shapes – are delineated like variations on a musical score. While ostensibly abstract – small black circles of ink connected with thin pen lines – we see glimmers of figurative moments amid the curving forms and irregular patterns of the four groupings: at top right we can loosely discern an otherworldly square-headed being, with straightened arms and legs; at bottom right, the curvature of a planet is suggested, interrupted by intersecting geometric shapes such as triangles and rectangles. Other images in the series are indicative of a giant black Sun emitting rays of light; a guitar complete with neck, soundhole and frets; and strange insects or flying machines, comprising concentric-circle thoraxes and angular antennae. One of the outstanding artists of the twentieth century, Picasso was associated with avant-garde movements including Cubism and Surrealism. His approach to style was developmental, if not eclectic, and these drawings sparkle like hidden stars, unknown compared to more famous paintings such as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Guernica (1937).
Space (Tribute 21), 1994
As the last in a series of twenty-one offset lithographs, Space (Tribute 21) depicts an astronaut floating in the zero gravity of space, beneath which the curvature of the Earth can be discerned, with its wispy clouds and blue seas. Commissioned by Felissimo – a Tokyo-based corporation that sought to progress social conditions – and printed at Universal Limited Art Editions (New York), each individual print celebrated a different humanitarian achievement to promote prosperity and peace at the end of the twentieth century. Using sustainable methods, the group used non-toxic printing dyes and water to transfer the images to paper, abstaining from the use of solvents in this process. Space (Tribute 21) comprises two sections, with its upper part depicting a vision of orange, blue and white planetary rings with a grainy, mottled texture where the ink has not fully adhered. Associated early on with the Pop Art movement, US artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008) is celebrated for his Combines, which use found objects such as quilts and stuffed animals to foreground the connection between art and life. Space (Tribute 21) was not his first reference to the cosmos; after witnessing the 1969 launch of Apollo 11, Rauschenberg produced his Stoned Moon series, a grop of lithographs based on NASA archival materials.