The Fine Art of Blowing Up Art: Evelyn Rosenberg’s Explosive Sculptures

The Fine Art of Blowing Up Art: Evelyn Rosenberg’s Explosive Sculptures

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Photo: Evelyn Rosenberg with her sculpture,“Ezekiel’s Vision” on the wall. (Photographs by Diane Joy Schmidt.)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.-- Sometimes it takes an artist to wake us from the mundane to see the miracle of existence constantly unfolding all around us. Many of New Mexico’s large metal sculptures in public spaces in were made by such a force of nature, artist Evelyn Rosenberg--who makes art using plastic explosives. She developed her technique in the desert at New Mexico Tech lab in Socorro, after meeting an Israeli explosives engineer. She describes the process in her book, Detonography, The Explosive Art of Evelyn Rosenberg (University of New Mexico Press, 2013).

Rosenberg’s method melds the force of a detonation with the principles of printmaking to bring forth, in a thunderous microsecond, works of surprisingly delicate beauty and strength. As she explained to Cokie Roberts on ABC’s Nightline, a while back, “The explosive is acting like a giant stamping press," blowing metal into and over the mold. She added, “Anything even as delicate as a feather will transfer its image onto the plate. That’s very magical.”

Reporter Diane Joy Schmidt recently interviewed Rosenberg on her distinguished
50-year career. Her husband, Gary Rosenberg, MD, directs the University of New Mexico’s Memory and Aging Center.

Diane Joy Schmidt: Was blowing things up a logical progression from what you were doing?

Evelyn Rosenberg: I was studying Comparative Religion at Hebrew University. I used to like to draw when I was a kid, so I started going to drawing classes, and then I said, “This is all so much better than sitting in the library!” So I decided I wanted to study art.

I went back to the U.S., got married, went to Columbia for a year, and then to the Rochester Institute of Technology, where I was doing printmaking. [Later] I went to the University of New Mexico to study printmaking, and I got a master’s in lithography.

DJS: Do you think that you would have been able to have the success you have had, if you were starting out today?

ER: When I started out, they didn't want to let me into the graduate program in lithography here. They told me, “You’d better take some economics and business courses because you'll never get a job as a printmaker. You'll probably have to work in a gallery.” You wouldn’t be able to say that today.

DJS: So did you go home and cry?

ER: No. I just said, “I want to do it. I’m stronger than some of those skinny boys there.” Those [lithography] stones--you pick them up on a lift, and then you push them--but everything I do is heavy--twice a week I do weightlifting.

DJS: Does your detonography work have something to do with being Jewish?

ER: I did a series of 18 prints of the story of Joseph and his brothers [in the early 1980s]. It was in a traveling show to all the Jewish museums in the country. So I did paintings with Jewish themes, because I was interested in mythology, comparative religion and biblical stories. But, the work that I'm doing now on commission [doesn’t]. It has mythological content, [although it] probably reflects Jewish [themes].

Gideon Sivan came to New Mexico in 1985. He was an engineer who worked at the explosives center in Haifa, where he designed special tank armor for the Israeli army that exploded on contact. He came here to the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center at New Mexico Tech on a sabbatical and he wanted to do something fun with a phenomenon known as the Munroe effect.

He had this idea you could make art using explosives, but he needed an artist to work with. Through what you’d call Jewish geography, he heard there was a similarity between the way the things he was doing with the explosives looked and my etching plates. He came over one night, and we started talking. He asked if I wanted to blow something up, I said, “Sure, sounds great!”

I started to work with him. After about three months he went back to Israel, but the head of the center was a very innovative guy from the Nitro-Nobel Institute in Sweden. He asked if I wanted to keep working on this. I taught for a couple of semesters while I was developing this process. Once I had the process developed, then I started to make pieces and I stopped teaching.

DJS: In addition to the explosion, is there a kind of alchemical process that happens?

ER: Yes. I think it's a very feminine technique because it's like having a child. You have these messy, destructive, painful, horrible things happening, and then you get these beautiful delicate objects. They don't look like they've been blown up. They’re refined. So it’s like life.

DJS: Looking at your series of self-portraits that are here, which came first?

ER: The earliest is “Gemini.” The lion with wings came next. That was done as part of a four-part series, now at the University of New Mexico campus in Roswell. Then “The Sorceress’s Dream” I

Schmidt Godess.png 

Photo: Detail of Evelyn Rosenberg’s sculpture, “The Goddess Hides Herself.”

did about three years ago. The last one is called “The Goddess Hides Herself.” It's the goddess posing as male gods, God the father, Buddha, until she can reveal herself in the universe.

I'm repeating these mythological themes over and over again, and the search for some kind of spiritual meaning outside of nontraditional religious forms. I consider myself very Jewish in the sense that both my kids had Jewish weddings. Even though they married non-Jews, they’re bringing up their children Jewish.

DJS: Rabbi Gershon Winkler once said if you look at the commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” that in the early Aramaic, it was, “Put no other face on my face,” a deeper way of saying, “Don't make a graven image of what I am.”

ER: He was very good, he was amazing, I still get his newsletters. []

DJS: Another thing about “The Sorceress’s Dream” -- you're not making yourself beautiful, there's an aging issue. Your power is different than in the lioness one. Don't you think there’s a change?

ER: I like the idea — I have not thought about it at all. That is true that the lioness is a much more sexual creature than this sorceress. “The Goddess Hides Herself” was a kind of comment on religion. The female principle has been suppressed by the male gods of the world, but the female principle is waiting to reemerge and to be the controlling factor in the world. If the world is to survive, I think, if the earth is going to survive, we’ve got to get rid of all those male suppressors of nature.

DSJ: So you are saying the explosives part is masculine, but the result is very feminine?

ER: No, no, it's not masculine; I don't see it as a masculine thing. I see it as the forces of nature, which can be terrible and devastating, but can also create a flower or a butterfly, or a piece of art.

DJS: Now that you been an artist as long as you have, some 50 years —

ER: What I do is physically demanding, so that who knows, maybe [eventually] I'll have to work with watercolors. But watercolors are the hardest thing of all because you can't make mistakes. I assume that I will always continue to be an artist and that if I have to, I will have more assistants. Louise Nevelson worked into her 80s on very large sculptural pieces. I worked with the last

Schmidt Hands.png 

Photo: Detail of Evelyn Rosenberg’s sculpture, “Gemini.”

assistant for 12 years, and he’s now starting to go out on his own; he's very good. I just got a new assistant six months ago. She just graduated from Central New Mexico Community College as a certified welder, and she's also good.

DJS: Do you think somebody in their 60s could decide to become an artist?

ER: You know Michaela Karni? She was a writer. Then she started painting, very late, just in the last five years or so. She wrote romance novels and some mysteries, and then she just started painting. Now she’s really good, she works all day at it, and she's very serious about her work. She's in her mid-70s. Titian got better in his 80s, he was doing great stuff. It's a skill. Maybe your inspiration is not as fresh, but your skill level increases.

Two of Rosenberg’s works, including the lioness with wings, titled as “Ezekiel’s Vision,” will be in a special exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum of Art, “Jews in Twentieth Century Albuquerque: Building Community Along the Rio Grande,” November 19 through April 2, 2017. View more at her website, including photos of Rosenberg’s large scale public works with a map of their locations, films of her and her explosive technique, further explanation of it, and a link to her book.

Diane Joy Schmidt wrote this article with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellowships, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by the Retirement Research Foundation. View articles by her at her website