Sometimes we get caught up in the details — responsibilities and interpersonal pressures hurtling at us faster than the speed of light, or what in the world to cook for dinner tonight. But look up at the sky, at the moon and the stars, and all that earthly matter melts away. There are much bigger questions out there in the universe that dwarf our solipsistic concerns.
At the New Jersey State Museum, right in our backyard, we can observe the skies in the museum’s newly upgraded planetarium, the largest in New Jersey, with its precision projection of more than 6,000 stars. The planetarium has a state-of-the-art full dome video where visitors can feel the sensation of soaring through the solar system and beyond.
For the first time since the museum’s founding in 1895, the fine arts and astronomy come together as the focus of a single exhibition, “I Am the Cosmos,” on view through Sunday, May 29. Full disclosure: My son is an astronomy doctoral student, and I hoped art could be my window into understanding his universe. And it is, thanks to “I Am the Cosmos.”
“This exhibition allows our visitors to see how artists interpret these new images of the universe, which have been made possible by the Hubble space telescope,” says Eric Pryor, museum director emeritus.
Circles, spheres, spirals, and mandalas — such orbital forms have held intrigue for artists for centuries, from Sanskrit sacred art to Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty.” Adolph Gottleib and Arthur Dove painted heavenly orbs, and Paul Klee painted the squiggly shapes of a galaxy.
Beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a new art genre emerged, incorporating astral, spiral, and spherical forms in space. Recent discoveries in astronomy, as well as photographs from the Hubble telescope, have resonated with these artists.
“I started seeing this kind of deep space cosmos aesthetic,” says independent curator and scholar Sara Lynn Henry, speaking by phone from Sanibel Island in Florida, where she was visiting with a friend. “I have a commitment to the natural world and its energies, and discovered these artists who are doing deep space and radiance that is different from the early 20th-century art with stars and moon and various heavenly bodies. It’s become a revolutionary aesthetic.”
Henry, an art history and humanities professor emerita at Drew University, is an expert in 19th and 20th-century art, psychology and art, and East-West aesthetic dialogue, and has published extensively on Paul Klee. She quotes exhibit artist Dorothea Rockburne as calling astral art as much a revolution now as Cubism was in its day.
“She’s right,” says Henry. “The revolution of space, light, time, and radiance has another source. The digital world has thrust us into these spaces. These artists connect astronomy and cosmology rather than technology. It’s who we are now. Klee was doing this work in a different way.”
Henry grew up in Mountain Lakes and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her mother had studied art, danced, and painted and took her daughter to museums in New York. Her father was a financial manager for General Electric.
Henry earned her bachelor’s degree in art history at Dennison University in Ohio in 1964, then went on to earn a master’s degree at NYU and a Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley. While directing the contemporary art program at Drew, Henry visited artists in their studios and became interested in the cosmos aesthetic she was observing.
Klee had a “spherical sense of gravity,” she says. That is, there was no horizon line, with a sky above and gravity below. Rather, Klee offered a center with spirals and exploding suns and organic bodies.
In the exhibition catalog that is available on the museum’s website, Henry explains the concept of the universe expanding, the Big Bang, and the origins of quarks, photons, electrons, and neutrinos. “It is now estimated that there are up to 400 billion stars in our own galaxy and over 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe,” writes Henry. “We as humans are merely a ‘mote in the eye of the universe.’ Some consider that our universe may be just one of many expanding bubble universes. Maybe our cosmos is not all there is!”
My son tells me that scientists operating NASA’s Kepler planet-hunting satellite have identified 1,235 possible planets orbiting other stars. This could triple the number of known planets. And 68 of those were Earth-like in size, orbiting suns. Fifty-four of these planets have cool enough temperatures that could have liquid water, which means they could be habitable for some form of life.
The artists in “I Am the Cosmos” help put this in perspective for us motes in the eye of the universe. They come from as near as Bound Brook and as far as Seoul, South Korea.
“Astrophysicists say that we are all made of old stars [originating] from the time of the Big Bang,” says artist Dorothea Rockburne, quoted in the catalog. “When I look at my hands I know I am made of old stars, and that I am part of a vast universe.”
One of the most awe-inspiring sights in the sky, for me, is when the sun or the moon breaks through dissolving clouds, creating craggy lines of light that appear to come from another realm. Rockburne shows us this in a work made from paper pulp and copper. Through billows of blue and white swirls, copper veins reflect the light.
Rockburne, who has exhibited widely and received prestigious awards including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, says astronomy combines shapes, math, metaphysics, and feelings that the cosmos will continue to exist long after the lives of humankind.
From artist John Torreano, we learn that dark matter is a form that neither reflects nor emits light. “Its existence has been inferred from its gravitational effect on visible matter, such as on galaxies. Dark matter can clump up to form halos into which atomic matter can fall to make stars and galaxies. The stuff of the universe is fully 22 percent dark matter, while the visible matter that we commonly know — Earth, planets, stars — is only four percent.”
In “Orion’s Edge,” Torreano uses gems and other small objects to show this nebula (a cloud of gas and dust) in our own Milky Way Galaxy. It’s one of the brightest of nebula visible even to the naked eye in the southern hemisphere.
Torreano, who has directed the MFA program in Studio Art at NYU and has published many books including “Drawing by Seeing,” has been painting space for more than four decades.
He began, as an abstract painter, by seeking a way to distribute dots that was both complex and interesting. “Where in nature is the best source of dots? The night sky and stars, right?” he says in an E-mail interview. “So my interest in the night sky started from a need to solve a problem in my painting. Thus began my exploration of space. At first it was purely visual, a way to make patterns of dots that were not cliches. But then I began to read about the concepts of space, time, location, the vast distances, and so on.”
His painting “A Star Is Born,” based on a Hubble image of a star-forming region in the Small Magellanic Cloud, looks like a new dawn breaking through a dark sky. He describes it as looking at a womb for stars. “To me the mystery of birth, be it of a child, a galaxy, or even a new idea has spiritual content,” he writes. “To me the human tendency to ‘seek’ represents the very act of life and living. The act of making art is a spiritual process as it is an attempt to resolve a mystery, the mystery of the idea one is trying to physically actualize in the work of art. If you are a religious person you might call the process of seeking an attempt to find God.”
Speaking of God, or nature’s creation, artists who attempt to re-create nature have a certain amount of hubris. Who can compete with nature’s beauty? Yet Robert Longo, using nothing more than charcoal and paper, brings us the night sky — pure black speckled by tiny white lights. You can almost hear the crickets when you stare into his universe.
There’s outer space, and then there’s inner space. Marlene Tseng Yu shows both in “Whirlpool.” It can either be a view of space from Earth, or a view of Earth from space.
Kwang-Young Chun, of Seoul, covers small wedge-shaped pieces of Styrofoam with Korean herbal medicine wrappers printed on mulberry paper, using darks and lights to build a surface of projections and craters, suggesting cosmic forces at work.
No child who has lain awake in bed hasn’t wondered about what’s out there besides us. Or just what is out there. How far does space go? Does it end somewhere, and if so, is there a wall? So what’s behind the wall? How can it go on infinitely, or is there something else?
In Alice Aycock’s “Things Pass by in the Night: Murmuration I from the On the Starry Night Series,” tiny green and white critters — suggesting the unimaginable life in space — seem to tumble out from another world in the sky.
“I Am the Cosmos” also includes astronomical artifacts: a 19th century armillary, used before the telescope to determine celestial positions; a 20th-century tellurion, which shows the seasons, eclipses and other astronomical phenomena; and Bailey’s astral lantern, a 19th-century device to show the changing night sky.
Actual digital prints from the Hubble, displayed alongside the artwork, almost look more surreal than some of the artists’ interpretations.
All the artwork here is enormous. How can it not be, to tell the story of a subject that is enormous, encompassing not only art and science but philosophy.
“I Am the Cosmos,” New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. On view through Sunday, May 29. Museum hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free. 609-292-6464 or www.newjerseystatemuseum.org.