The nation lost an inspirational figure when Bob McCall died on Friday, February 26. As an artist, Bob invited people around the globe to share his optimistic dreams of a human future in space. A native of Columbus, Ohio and a graduate of the Columbus School of Fine Arts, McCall came out of the Army Air Forces at the end of WW II and established himself as a successful advertising illustrator with a number of magazine covers to his credit. But it was the notion of flying through air and space that truly inspired him. Beginning in the 1950s, he produced over forty works for the U.S. Air Force art collection. When James Webb, administrator of NASA, created an agency art program in the 1960s, Bob McCall was one of the first artists invited to participate. He became a favorite with Hollywood, as well, producing major paintings and posters for films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Tora, Tora, Tora.
McCall was perhaps best known for his murals. The Space Mural — A Cosmic View (1976), which he painted on a south lobby wall of the National Air and Space Museum, is perhaps the best known of all of his works. It was the first of several major murals that McCall produced for other museums and NASA facilities. In addition, his paintings appeared on a dozen U.S. postage stamps commemorating space feats. “There’s a great pleasure in designing something so many people are collecting,” he once remarked. “My art may fade into oblivion, but the stamps and murals will last.”
Lester Cooke, curator of painting at the National Gallery of Art, once noted that Bob McCall had “…the quality and scope of imagination to travel in space, and carry us along with him.” Without artists like McCall, he explained, events in space which ordinary citizens could not see or experience “…would remain in the realm of words, mathematical formulae and electronic signals.” There was no danger of that, as long as Bob McCall was around.
Tom Crouch is Senior Curator for Aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum.