Fatman with Edith,

Santa Fe, New Mexico – July 10, 2023

The Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA) is pleased to announce that in conjunction with its premiere of Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer in 35mm on July 21, CCA, CCA Cinema, and Chatter will present Photoworks from Meridel Rubenstein’s Critical Mass (1989-1993). This exhibition signals CCA’s renewed commitment to future visual arts programming at the Center for Contemporary Arts and collaborations with Chatter.

Critical Mass will be on display for the full three weeks that CCA is showing Oppenheimer in 35mm, from July 21 through August 16. 

Critical Mass is a major multi-media artwork that Meridel Rubenstein created between 1989 and 1993 with her collaborators, Ellen Zweig and Steina and Woody Vasulka – a poetic, thought-provoking, and deeply moving work that examines the many ways the Manhattan Project affected the scientists who created it, the nearby Los Alamos residents, the nearby San Ildefonso pueblo residents, and humanity itself – as everyone faced the horror unleashed by this hideous weapon. 

Critical Mass created a sensation in the art world when it first opened, and went on to tour throughout the United States. Although CCA is unable to exhibit this major work in its entirety, CCA is pleased that its summer exhibition will be the first time in decades that so much of Critical Mass will be on public view.

The public is invited to see Critical Mass in two locations on the CCA campus – in the large Munoz /Waxman Gallery where Chatter now performs its weekly concerts, and in the Cinema Gallery adjacent to CCA’s main cinema.

On Wednesday through Sunday, CCA will have the large Munoz/Waxman Gallery staffed by volunteers between film screening times, so visitors can easily experience both the Oppenheimer film in 35mm and Critical Mass. Gallery hours are posted here. Download the gallery schedule here.

The second part of Critical Mass will be on view in the Cinema Gallery right outside our large Cinema where Oppenheimer will be showing. This portion of the Critical Mass exhibition will be accessible from 10am until the Cinemas close at 10pm from Wednesday through Sunday. On Monday and Tuesdays, this gallery will be open to the public from 10am until 5pm.

Background on Critical Mass

In 1989, photographer Meridel Rubenstein and performance artist and poet Ellen Zweig received an NEA Inter-Arts grant to create the installation Critical Mass, with technical assistance by Steina and Woody Vasulka. The New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts gave institutional support for the exhibition that premiered in November 1993 in Santa Fe and then traveled for three years to sites that included MIT’s List Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography.

The term “Critical Mass” refers to the smallest amount of fissionable material that, when amassed, will sustain a self-supporting chain reaction. Critical Mass is a collaborative photo/text/video/performance installation that takes as its subject the worlds of scientists and Native Americans as they intersected at the home of Edith Warner during the making of the first atomic bomb in 1944 in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Edith Warner’s nurturing teahouse on St. Ildefonso Pueblo land drew Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, to her backyard to build the atomic bomb. Her home was where scientists and Native Americans first met.

Meridel Rubenstein created the Fatman images in Critical Mass in 1992 at the Bradbury Museum in Los Alamos, where the second of three plutonium bomb casings of the Fatman plutonium bomb resides. She projected slides onto the casing in a makeshift darkroom. The Fatman bomb was dropped on Nagasaki killing more than 110,000 people.

Seventy-nine years later, the forces of nuclear destruction vanquishing domestic safe haven and the power of the Feminine that these works evoke, are even greater. Since Albert Einstein created the Doomsday clock in 1947, we are now closest to Midnight at 90 seconds.

Credit: Meridel Rubenstein’s Edith’s House, 1993. 9 palladium prints in shaped steel frame stamped with text. Loan courtesy of Tia Collection, Santa Fe, NM

Background on Meridel Rubenstein

Meridel Rubenstein began her professional career in the early 1970s, evolving from working as a photographer of single photographic images to an environmental artist of extended photographic works, multi-media installations, and social practice that focuses on intersections of nature and culture in relationship to ecological and social imbalance.

She has maintained her studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico since 1975, and is represented by Turner Carrol Gallery in Santa Fe.


CCA is grateful to Meridel Rubenstein for allowing CCA mount this extraordinary show, to the TIA Collection for loaning two major works in the Critical Mass exhibition, and to Chatter and Tony Zancanella for allowing this extraordinary work to be presented the Munoz/Waxman Gallery.

The Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA) is located at 1050 Old Pecos Trail in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Note: CCA is closed every Monday and Tuesday.