Thursday, January 22, 2009

Robert McCall Space Art

It is with great sadness that I note that Mr. McCall past away in Scottsdale, AZ. on February 26, 2010 at the age of 90. This site is dedicated to his memory. _______________________________________________
In 2009, I was able to make one final purchase directly from Robert McCall, just prior to the donation of his entire collection to the University of Arizona for permanent display.

The above original work titled "First Men on the Moon" was painted as a smaller study for an eight by twelve foot mural.

The work that I was able to procure is a two by three foot original painting that was the study for the mural. McCall used a grid scale to determine the location and dimension of the subjects used in the mural. The scale grid marks show on the canvas of the study. While the study is very true to the mural, there are some differences. The study shows the lunar module (LM) is facing the artist, while it is turned sideways in the mural. Aldrin appears further away from Armstrong in the study. Finally, in the study, McCall used more of his technique of placing the Earth in the background of the composition while immersed in a cross pattern of stars and galactic dust.

In tracing the history of the painting, I found a San Antonio
College News Release that provided some information on the mural itself. The article states, "On July 20, 1969, Colonel Charles E. Cheever and bank employees gathered around a TV in the bank lobby to watch and celebrate the momentous touchdown with champagne. He commissioned the painting from Robert McCall, who in 1970 completed the life-sized painting that has hung in the Broadway Bank lobby ever since."

Recently in 2008, the Cheevers family donated the mural to
the San Antonio College, where it now hangs in the Francis Scobee Planetarium.

Mr. McCall granted my request to pose with this original work of art.

This is a major addition to the space art collection. It is, in all likelihood, the last acquisition that I will make directly from Robert McCall.

The Original McCall Article

If Chesley Bonestell is the Dean of Space Art, then Robert McCall is the superstar of the genre. McCall's work on very large murals at the National Air and Space Museum, it's annex, the Udvar-Hazy Center and the Johnson Space Center are seen by hundreds of thousands each year and his movie poster art work on Tora! Tora! Tora! and 2001 as well as other movies have been seen by millions.

Beginning in 1963 under the orders of James Webb, NASA commenced a program to have artists help document the work being done in the race to the Moon. McCall was one of the artists brought on board to record Man's journey into Outer Space. Since that time Robert McCall has documented some of the most famous images of a special time in history.

In March of 2001, I was lucky enough to have the chance to visit with Robert McCall at his studio. I photographed him as he was posing next to pieces of his art work that he had prepared for movies like 2001. During our time together as I interviewed him about his art and his time at NASA. Mr. McCall is a truly fascinating man as well as an excellent subject for an interview about the Apollo era.

I brought along some space related covers for McCall in the hope that he would do a small pen drawing on each of them. He did so much more.

My personal favorite of the works included here is this portrait of Robert Goddard. This is a first day cover issued in 1964 commemorating the professor and his work on liquid fueled rockets. As shown above McCall depicted the man between two famous eras of rocketry, the testing of a liquid fueled rocket in Roswell, NM in the 1930's and the Saturn V. Both rockets are launching in the daylight of one of McCall's trademark brilliant Suns.

The other reason that this piece is a personal favorite has to do with coincidence. Goddard moved to the southwestern desert near Roswell, NM to test rockets that had outgrown his farm in Massachusetts. At the same time, Edgar Mitchell, who would walk on the Moon during the Apollo 14 mission, grew up in Roswell and would walk past Goddard's home on his way to school. I showed the cover to Edgar and he inscribed the line "I lived down the road" and signed it. Coincidence that the inventor of the liquid fueled rocket and a moonwalker lived near each other? I think not!

McCall is also a prolific designer of stamps for the USPS.

Recently, I was able to add the above preliminary sketch of one of McCall's more famous stamp designs, "A Decade of Achievement." This stamp was issued by the US Post Office in August of 1971 to represent the 10th year since Kennedy issued his proclamation of sending a man to the Moon.

McCall sent this sketch along with another design for a twin stamp to be printed in time for the anniversary of NASA's 1961 directive to send a man to the Moon. One might call this rendering the birth certificate of a stamp. McCall also wrote several lines of instruction for use of the designs for the stamp. Bob also used the sketch paper as a artist pallet for the colors used in the painting.

The initial "twin" stamp design shown in the sketch above differed from the final design. McCall included the other programs that lead to the Apollo Moon landings in the above design sketch.

Project Mercury and the Gemini Program are represented by their spacecraft orbiting Earth on one side of the twin stamp. The Apollo Project was reflected on the second side of the stamp by the lunar module and lunar rover on the Moon's surface and the command service module orbiting overhead. McCall points out in his notes on the sketch that he had the latest NASA information on the rover's design.

As the above "twin" stamp block printed by USPS shows, the final design omitted the other projects for the inclusion of the Earth and the McCall trademark sun with four point sunbeams. The question in my mind is "Why did McCall leave out the two very important programs that lead to the final accomplishment of landing a man on the Moon?"

In my opinion, I find the initial sketch more representative of the achievements that NASA accomplished in that marvelous decade.

The above painting is a recent gem acquired for the collection. The painting titled "Only the Beginning" was completed in the early 1970's.

In talking with Robert McCall about the painting, McCall "was inspired by the wanting to make a simple statement of our remarkable achievement of landing on the Moon, recognizing that this is Only the Beginning."

When asked if the painting was for publication, Robert McCall said, "The painting was purely for fun. There was no client, no reason other than I simply wished to express the feeling that I had. It was so remarkable to me that we had accomplished this great achievement."

"Only the Beginning" is one of those works that define my knowledge of the artist's technique. It is a prime example of his unique use of composition with the Moon in the foreground and the Earth centered in the background. The addition of the lunar module landing on the lunar surface, while the command/service module streaks overhead completes the Apollo theme in this painting.

Although not painted for publication, the painting did appear as a two page spread in a book of McCall art titled, "Vision of the Future" written by the famous science fiction author, Ben Bova.

McCall was kind enough to remarque, inscribe and sign the reverse of painting for me also.

I was extremely lucky to purchase a McCall painting from Gene Cernan's collection via Novaspace. The painting has special significance. The painting, which is 26 inches in diameter of acrylic on Masonite, a representation of the Apollo 17 mission patch that was designed by Robert McCall and used during the mission. McCall gave this painting to Cernan at the time of the mission and it remained in Gene's collection until it's sale.

The work represents a painting of a mission patch by the insignia's designer for a lunar landing mission and given to the commander of the mission.

The painting had suffered some damage over the years. The painting had been hung by screws and incurred some scaring to the paint as seen in the above photograph taken upon it's arrival. By looking closely at the photo, drill holes can be seen across the middle of painting and linear black marks can be seen on the edges of the piece.

I brought the work to a museum art restorer to assess the damage and to determine a plan of conservation for the painting.

The first step was to attempt clean the painting to remove the various discoloring marks on the surface of the "canvas" (difficult task due to the use of acrylics). The initial work would be followed by filling the holes. Then the restorer worked to match the paint used in the original work. The restoration was finished by touching up the damaged areas. A conscious decision was made to leave the damage on the edges untouched due to the difficulties in repairing them and the fact that the frame would cover that area.

The above photograph shows the finished work prior to framing.

After the restoration was complete, McCall's signature on the work became much clearer as it emerged from under the contamination on the surface of the painting due to it's years of exposure to the elements. The painting now hangs proudly on display.

Recently through the help of Catherine McCall, Robert's daughter, and her gallery McCall Studios ( I was able to purchase the painting shown above that is titled, "Launch of a Saturn V." The original painting is 23" x 30" and was completed in 1973. McCall worked with acrylic on paper to create the massive effects of the liftoff of world's largest launch vehicle. To me, personally, this painting sums up the race to the Moon.

The painting depicts the night launch of Apollo 17. Since he designed the mission patch for the flight, McCall and his wife, Louise attended the launch as guests of the crew. He recalled that "it was a night launch and a spectacle to behold."

Slightly off topic concerning the Apollo era, but still germane to Robert McCall's body of work, are his designs for floating cities. After watching flat bottomed clouds float across the sky, McCall came upon his designs for floating cities. Although not within today's technology, McCall hopes that one day cities will float above the Earth and thus protect the precious open land left on the planet. The above work is a minor pen and ink sketch of just such a city.

The pastel original pictured above is a more finished study of a floating city much like the one depicted in the finished painting entitled "Desert Nocturne."

Back in 2001, as we wrapped up our visit, I asked Mr. McCall about his book and he produced one and drew the above felt tip pen sketch on the inside of the cover. At that, my visit ended and I was on my way home.