Interview with Kenneth Snelson
by John Coplans
Q. It has been generally assumed that your sculpture is based upon Buckminster Fuller’s principles. I understand that the reverse is true – that the original idea involved in the structure of your sculpture was invented solely by yourself. Is this true?
A. Yes. But I am not a technologist. Most of my work has been to find out how to do these sculptures in order to get them to stay together. There hasn’t been anyone who has been able to show me a book, give me a lecture, or teach me anything on this method. I have been in contact with many areas of technology to ask how I could do what I am doing. No one has previously solved this kind of problem. What I have been trying to do is to find the ultimately unobtrusive and simple way of expressing form in this fashion. Only in the last four months have I reached the most utterly simple idea. if you look at my recent work you may well ask why the hell I didn’t do that twenty years ago.
Q. When did you first become interested in these forms?
A. I was a student of Buckminster Fuller in 1948 at Black Mountain College. I started there as a painting student but got interested in Bucky’s tension and compression ideas, and decided at the end of the summer to be something other than a painter. There was no such thing as this tensegrity idea at the time. Bucky was doing some of his earlier geodesic dome forms, but he was talking of tension and compression and that was very exciting. After two months of working with him I started to think of something like a swinging pendulum sculpture. The sculpture consisted of a succession of forms: the lower one supporting the upper one and suspended by a girth of thread. It is slung and the sculpture moves like a spinal column; the form is very flexible. I did two or three sculptures like this and then it occurred to me that to remove the mobility would be a curious thing. I would then have these units separated from one another and retained rigidly in space if I tied the strings in a different manner. The only difference is that both compression members are completely free of one another. It has no top, bottom or sides, and could be placed into orbit.
I had gone back to my home in Oregon and decided to make a proper model to take back to Black Mountain for the next summer to show Buckminster Fuller. I continued to work on the idea with a very neat model, but more geometrical because I knew Buckminster Fuller would not approve of my being so capricious. Fuller is very moralistic about geometry; he thinks that one shouldn’t involve it with art. Anyway, I showed this to Bucky at Black Mountain the next summer and it was completely novel to him. This was 1949. It isn’t that I have to protest, but it is annoying when people come up to me and say, “Oh, Bucky’s thing, I am awfully glad that somebody is doing something with it.” I started it and am still doing it!
Q. You have made the substantial contribution all the way through the development of this type of structure?
Q. Has anyone taken it to a more sophisticated stage than you?
A. No. But Bucky has taken it in directions that are very much his own, that is to say, he absorbed my idea into his geodesic domes, the spherical ones, and I have never had any involvement with that aspect. In 1955 or1956 he invented the word tensegrity. That’s a problem because what he did in his book was to go back to 1927 to demonstrate that what he did at that earlier date also deals with the tensegrity idea. I hear people at the Park Place Gallery saying everybody is working with tensegrity now. Tensegrity never was anything – it is a word and it relates to a hierarchy of principles which deals with free floating compression members which are very intricate and a beautiful part of nature. What interested me was to find out the possible ways that they can be used to express space. I feel that within this idea is something to do with the real nature of what space is made of.
Q. What do you mean when you talk about space?
A. Well, I went to school at those Bauhaus derivative places and I studied with Leger and I was around the Abstract Expressionist painters in New York. I knew De Kooning; he was at Black Mountain when I was there and everybody talked about space. Sculptors talk about space, painters talk about space – every artist has~ some kind of a definition of space. It’s mostly related in a very close way to the historical use of space in painting, like making things change on a flat surface, but what I have begun to find out is that when you bring things together – any separate pieces of matter – there are very restrictive limitations. For instance, one limitation was violated by the very first thing I did and it took me a very long time to find this out. I had everything running through a neutral axis which just doesn’t happen in nature. There are only two kinds of forces really, push and pull – compression and tension – and anything else is a modification of those forces, such as bending. You put one side in compression and the other side is in tension.
Q. What about gravity?
A. Well, gravity is another force, but it is tension in terms of the way it pulls on you or me. It can be dealt with as a tension force. And the same thing is true of magnetic fields or electrical fields. A field causes things to be pushed away from or toward the force.
Q. I presume that sculpture has never dealt in any sophisticated way with the possibilities of using these forces for structural purposes?
A. Well, it has been structured on the notion that there is such a thing as a pristine cube that is homogeneous. We act as if we were unable to, or had no need to isolate these forces. What I find quite fantastic is that none of the sculptures in the Primary Structures exhibition at the Jewish Museum were structures: they were constructions or assemblies. Structure to me is involved with forces, the stressing of pieces together, the kind of thing you find in a suspension bridge, for example. It is a definition of what is going on to cause that space to exist. The distances between things that are stressed comprise its form.
Q. Are you by any chance suggesting that you are using a whole new principle by which materials can be used in a less redundant manner?
A. I don’t think so. I don’t think there is any kind of a total or universal advantage over any other kind of structure that has been used before. I don’t think that is what this system is. But it has within it a definition of what structure is. The piece that I will be showing later in the year at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art reflects part of my struggle to do something that is ultimate. In the same way that a race car designer wants to build a race car to perform to the utmost possible limits, even to the extent that it will fall apart after it has crossed the finish line, so I have built my piece for the County Museum show. it is thirty feet long and weighs fifty-two pounds and cantilevers off the wall. That means it is completely unsupported and in order to make the structure stand up it is highly stressed internally. The tension members are pulling and are bound with enormous tension. The compression members are therefore being compressed tremendously. The more that you can pull and compress, in other words the higher the stresses within the sculpture, the stronger it is.
Q. Isn’t this the same system that was used in the fuselage of the British World War 11 Wellington bomber? Wasn’t that a geodetic structure?
A. Yes. Stress structures have been used for years in many different ways.
Q. In the aircraft industry in particular?
A. Certainly. In aircraft construction right back to the Wright Brothers, but also, for example, in the wired tension wheel of the bicycle. But that isn’t the earliest example. The earliest is the kite, because a kite is simply two crossed sticks with a girth of tension string around it. It is the most primitive case of this sort of thing.
Q. Do you calculate your structure mathematically?
A. Well, I have developed my own empirical mathematics but certainly I don’t know mathematics in the sense of being a mathematician.
Q. You don’t use any mathematical theory of structure to calculate your forms?
A. No. I know what the geometry is doing. I know that an engineer could not calculate one of my pieces. Some of them have tried and thought that it would be easy to calculate. But they have found that my work is so reflexive and interdependent that it is not possible. In other words, my work is so indeterminate that even if I was an engineer I would have to approach the problem in exactly the same manner.
Q. I notice that throughout your work you tend to work with a columnar shape. Why haven’t you tried other configurations?
A. Simply because at the beginning I dealt with ascendancy and continued the idea in a linear fashion. Until I had solved the problem of the nature of the structure there were continuously unanswered questions that required working on. The sculpture for the County Museum is an extraordinarily simple structure but it has taken eighteen years to arrive at this answer.
Q. Would it be correct to say you have been considered primarily as an engineer rather than a sculptor up to the time of the Primary Structure exhibition?
A. Right. Because of the atmosphere of the art world up to that time this was true. I started as a painter and I got interested in questions that relate to space and structure, but obviously not within the same frame of reference as, for example, Lipchitz or Lippold, or Nakian.
Q. All your work, then, at least until recently, has been seen in terms of technology and engineering rather than art?
A. Very much so. And I don’t have any clear notion why this is so. A lot of people are still perplexed as to why I am involved in art and why I am not an engineer. The point is that engineering is quite restrictively concerned with the solutions to specific problems as service for some function. I am interested in finding how far you can push structure.
Q. I understand you have patented the principles involved in your sculpture.
A. Yes. What I have actually patented, a though the Patent Office may not know it, i right- and left-handed space. That’s a pretty wild patent to get. It doesn’t mean a thing – it’s nonsense. But what I have done in the patent is to fully describe how my sculpture is composed, what it is that makes it work. If anybody wants to use it I am not going to stop them. A patent was the easiest way of getting confirmation as the inventor of the principle.