It's probably fitting that the final exhibition at Caltech's Baxter Art Gallery, "25 Years of Space Photography," teeters on a tightrope between art and science. The gallery has always seemed a shaky aesthetic outpost in the land of technology, simply because of its unusual location, but it has embodied the hope of broadening art's audience and the promise of cross fertilization between disciplines thought to be antithetical.
Baxter has been the site of dozens of memorable exhibitions, but the central reason the gallery has been so treasured by the art crowd is that it was a symbolic toehold. The toehold crumbled last June when the gallery closure was announced and attributed to fiscal considerations. When the show ends Sept. 2 (and moves on to the IBM Gallery of Science and Art in New York), the gallery will revert to more conventional uses.
Not, however, before the constituencies of contemporary art and science complete their final rendezvous, with "25 Years of Space Photography." The exhibition consists of images made during Jet Propulsion Laboratory's unmanned spacecraft missions for NASA. The craft were called Surveyor, Mariner, Voyager and other names that still cause people of a certain age to go misty-eyed with wonder.
And the pictures these craft sent back to Earth are often wondrous. There are gorgeously colored, dramatically composed photographs of Saturn and its rings and of Jupiter's Great Red Spot (an anti-cyclonic vortex, two to three times the diameter of Earth, which swirls and sets off a wake of wavelike cloud patterns). Comparatively dry, black-and-white images include strikingly sharp photomosaics of the forbidding Martian landscape and a pock-marked hemisphere of Mercury.
Except for pictures taken from Lunar Orbiter, none of the photos was made with a conventional camera or film. They were taken with a sort of television camera equipped with color filters. Pictorial information (on the brightness of light at each point measured) was sent back to Earth via computer, one pixel at a time until the several hundred thousand points needed to compose a single picture were recorded. Back on Earth, another computer directed a laser beam to re-create each dot on film.
The process is so complex and the results are so interesting that no one seems to be overly concerned with whether the pictures are art or science. But the question continues to surface, probably sparked as much by the inquiring spirit of the exhibition as by territorial prejudice. One of the key issues is that the color of the images often is "false"--enhanced or arbitrarily assigned to make the pictures more readable and, yes, more attractive. Electronic wizards become artists who also decide how many images to combine in photomosaics.
"The electronic processing which was done to enhance interpretability was performed by experts who also had an eye for beauty," writes Lew Allen, director of JPL, in the foreword of the exhibition catalogue. "I believe these are works of art. They inform, inspire, and evoke thoughts of worlds unseen."
We go to an art gallery expecting to see art, but at Baxter we are caught short by pictures--often very pretty ones--that were taken for non-aesthetic reasons. Looking at them is not like looking at art, except perhaps the densest sort of Conceptualism. In the space photographs, we essentially look for little bits of information and not a gestalt, an aura or a feeling that arises from a confluence of form and content created through the sensibility of an individual.
Yet, there they are, pictures of mysterious planets we'll never see, reminding us of abstract paintings and--of all things--earthworks. Here again, the spirit of inquiry and the will toward revelation shared by artists and scientists strike undeniable parallels.
The space pictures at Caltech are neither art nor science. They are both, depending on the beholder. For the technician using them for research, they are science; for the aesthete discovering in them a modern search for the sublime or a new territory to whet the imagination, they are artworks.
Inside the gallery, the photographs didn't look like art to me. The transformation of factual evidence didn't make it art, and the numbers, codes and graphs printed on some of the pictures were as baffling as artists' iconography can be to a novice. When I walked outside, however, I looked up into the sky before I realized what I was doing. Art's capacity to make us see things anew was working.