How to make a bomb-shaped sculpture

The future is here. The future is not something tomorrow. The future must start today. Otherwise we have no future at all
– Piotr Kowalski, 1965[1]

In 1965, off the coast of California, residents of the coastal city of Corona Del Mar observed a helicopter hovering offshore. A gigantic, flat sheet of stainless steel, several inches thick and as tall as a building was suspended by high-tensile wires from the bottom of the helicopter. Suddenly, as if it were a gigantic teabag, the helicopter began to lower this immense metal sheet into the Pacific Ocean. A muffled explosion then rippled through the water, sending a shrill vibration up the wire. Emerging from the deep, the metal sheet was now curiously curved and pitted. The helicopter then pulled higher into the air carrying its miraculously transformed cargo.  

Piotr Kowalski, “Now” Explosion forming, 1965. colour lithograph.
2002.1.1254.1. Gift of Kenneth Tyler 2002. © Gemini Ltd / Kenneth E. Tyler

“Now” explosion forming, a lithograph produced in 1965 by Polish-born French artist Piotr Kowalski,is an intricate and detailed work that is reluctant to give up its secrets. This lithograph draws your eye across an array of diagrams: Five columns, many with a repeated trapezoid motif, are to be read from top to bottom, from left to right, each accompanied with overlaid grids, measurements, and directional arrows. It appears, at first, to be an abstract work of art, but once its story is interrogated, it becomes clear that it is a process diagram. It is a step-by-step chart detailing the creation of a sculpture known simply as Now using a process known as ‘explosion forming’, where metals are shaped using controlled dynamite detonations. Lured to Los Angeles by one of the most ambitious art programs ever to be conceived, Piotr Kowalski was one of the first artists to work with Kenneth Tyler in his first independent workshop, Gemini Limited. Kowalski’s experiments off the coast of Corona Del Mar stood at the intersection of science and art and are the basis for this intriguing print.

The story begins in Israel in 1964, in an artist studio founded by the pioneering Dada artist Marcel Janco. Kenn Glenn, a professor of sculpture at the California State College, Long Beach, was taking a sabbatical and trying to extend his network of contacts in Europe and the Middle East, while also making small work in this studio in the village of Ein Hod. He had recently met the renowned sculptor Kosso Eloul, who introduced Glenn to the novel ideas of the International Sculpture Symposium movement[2]. This movement, developed by German sculptor Karl Prantl in 1959, was a model for international collaboration and had a very simple philosophy: if you bring the sculpting community together, they will exchange ideas, materials and methods of working and these exchanges will result in a series of new and innovative works. Intrigued by this notion, Glenn returned to Los Angeles resolute that he could hold the first American iteration of this Symposium model. But unlike previous symposiums, where collaboration was only between artists, Glenn wanted to expand the collaborative exercise to include local industry too, as a way of moving beyond traditional sculpting processes[3]. One prime candidate for such collaboration was the rapidly growing aerospace industries of the West Coast, particularly North American Aviation, a company who saw an opportunity to use such a collaboration to explore new industrial applications.

The Symposium quickly ran into problems, as Glenn’s ambitions were not matched with a budget that could facilitate its aims. Invited artists, such as English Pop artist Edourdo Palozzi, quickly began to withdraw from the symposium as they were met with poor accommodation and little ability to move about the city. Others, such as Italian sculptor Gio Pomodoro, were promised materials to complete their work which never materialised. Pomodoro abandoned his work, leaving behind a single artefact of his stay: A large sign addressed to all the students who had worked alongside him, apologising for his disappearance.

The North American Aviation Corporation produced documentary Peter Kowalski: Sculptor.

Piotr Kowalski, however, could not be deterred. He had been lured by the prospect of exploring the temperamental technique known as ‘explosion forming’. This method for shaping metals without the use of moulds or dies was used in military applications to quickly produce curved metal shapes, through controlled explosions against surfaces. ‘I feel that the metal becomes elastic’, Kowalski explained, when asked what the appeal of explosion forming was.

Kowlaski’s practice was preoccupied with methods for making solid materials appear elastic, with previous works including the distortion of cast concrete forms while they were still in a liquid state. Kowalski spoke of the driving factors in his sculpture as a scientist would an experiment: “You set up the forces – pressure, stress, time – and let them behave with their own laws.”[4] For Kowalski, art was more than just a space of aesthetic experimentation, it was an opportunity to explore urgent questions in contemporary life using engineering methods. Originally trained as an architect, Kowalski had practiced with leading architects such as Marcel Breuer and Ieoh Ming Pei, before deciding to pursue visual art instead[5]. Explosion forming had obvious architectural appeal to him: It allowed him to imagine feats such as ‘the roof of an auditorium or a theatre being made out of stainless steel, hundreds of feet long’[6]. Could this method, usually used for creating weapons casing and projectiles, instead be used to rapidly produce shelters or housing? New technologies consumed his practice, with his output focused on using materials such as neon gas, kinetic devices and lighting.

North American Aviation, the company that Kowalski was to work with, had recently had success producing rocket boosters for NASA during Project Mercury and was beginning work on the Apollo I command and service module. Just as the American space program was driven in part by Cold War anxieties, so too was research into explosion forming techniques with at least 80 research programs being funded by the US Government in the 1960s[7]. A report from the Midwest Research Institute in 1967 nervously highlights that “at least five or six articles on explosive forming in Russia appear each month… [suggesting] that the Soviets have mounted a substantial program to develop explosive metal-working technology, probably in support of their missile and space requirements”[8]. For North American Aviation, the work with Kowalski was more than just support for an artist’s project, this was an opportunity to gather new data on explosion forming experiments at exactly the moment they were working towards new spacecraft components[9].

Kowalski and North American Aviation worked closely together in the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, in Orange County, California. A decommissioned radar turret made of stainless steel was repurposed for Kowalski’s sculpture experiment. Working with a team, Kowalski began strapping thin plastic tubes filled with explosives, known as detonation cord, to the surface of the steel and meticulously recording in a journal each placement of the explosive. Once the strapping was complete, the entire section of sculpture was lowered into a tank of water and detonated. What emerged was a curved sheet of steel, with distinct ridges that lent the work a structural integrity. The experiments continued and to accommodate the increasing scale of the work Kowalski moved the explosions from the water tank to the open ocean. Once completed, the sculpture was installed on the California State University Long Beach campus. Kowalski decided to title the completed sculpture simply Now, referring to the split second in which it took shape.

A polaroid photograph from the Kenneth Tyler archive showing Kowalski’s “Now” Explosion forming lithograph.
Unknown photographer and date.

While undertaking their projects for the Symposium, artists were also encouraged to work with local print houses. The artist Robert Murray, who was working on a large steel sculpture titled Duet, recalls that he began working with Ken Tyler at Tamarind lithography, saying “mine was the last print Ken Tyler did before leaving Tamarind… which is why Piotr may have gone [to Gemini Limited]”[10]. It seems fitting that Piotr Kowalski would be one of the first artists to work with Kenneth Tyler at Gemini Limited print workshop. Tyler, whose engineering background would look to facilitate tailored solutions to printmaking problems, shared the forward-thinking philosophy of Kowalski at this time. The work that Kowalski would produce was a lithograph titled “Now” explosion forming. This diagrammatic work was drawn directly from his logbook, and constitutes a detailed record of his sculpture’s production, as well as a mesmerising print on its own terms. Kowalski saw the logbook as “as much a part of the sculpture as the finished piece”[11].

Kenneth Tyler recalls that Kowalski was ‘a very mercurial person’[12], and that the success of his sculpture had meant that Maurice Tuchman, the inaugural curator of twentieth century art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) was interested in including Piotr Kowalski in the innovative Art and Technology exhibition of 1971, which closely resembled the format of Kenn Glenn’s Symposium. Tuchman asked Tyler to help convince Kowalski to participate, but in an entry for the exhibition’s catalogue Tuchman wrote: “we invited Piotr Kowalski to submit a proposal for A & T. Kowalski indicated he would, but surprisingly, he did not”[13]. Tyler recalls that “even with the artist saying that he would propose a project, he never did and that was the last time I communicated with Piotr. After spending several years in the Los Angeles area, participating in sculpture exhibitions and being around the University of Irvine science facility, he returned to Paris”[14]. What he left behind was a sculpture that represented a single moment in time, and a print that allows us to recreate its conditions.

– by David Greenhalgh, Curatorial Assistant/Archivist, Kenneth Tyler Collection, National Gallery of Australia



[1] North American Aviation. (1965). Peter Kowalski: Sculptor . 1 minute, 14 seconds

[2] Trimble, B. & Coltharp, M. (2018). Far-sited: California International Sculpture Symposium 1965-2015. CSULB. p. 19-20

[3] Ibid. p. 13

[4] Ibid. p. 78

[5] MAMCO Geneva. (29 May, 2019). Piotr Kowalski [exhibition website]. para. 1. Retrieved from https://www.mamco.ch/en/1613/Piotr-Kowalski

[6] North American Aviation. (1965). Peter Kowalski: Sculptor . 14 minutes, 37 seconds

[7] Ghizdavu, V. & Marin, N. (2010). Explosive forming – economical technology for aerospace structures. INCAS Bulletin 2(4). p. 107

[8] Noland, M. (1967). High-velocity Metalworking: A survey. Midwest Research Institute. p. 74

[9] Trimble, B. & Coltharp, M. (2018). Far-sited: California International Sculpture Symposium 1965-2015. CSULB. p. 80

[10] Ibid. p. 127

[11] North American Aviation. (1965). Peter Kowalski: Sculptor . 12 minutes, 50 seconds

[12] Correspondence with the author, December 2020

[13] Tuchman, M. (1971). A report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: 1967-1971. Los Angeles County Art Museum Press.

[14] Correspondence with the author, December 2020

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