Snelson and Structure
by Deborah Perlberg
It is the unfilled hope of many artists to show in a space designed for their work. Opening his new one-man show in Berlin this month, Kenneth Snelson may come close to that, His new pieces are installed in Mies Van der Rohe’s new National Gallery, a gleaming glass and steel building designed with exposed structural beams, and covering an extensive exhibition area without the interruption of vertical supports. What could be better suited to a man for whom structure is the essence of beauty? In fact, Snelson’s dedication to the pursuit of structural purity has caused him some of the most prolonged distrust and thorough misunderstanding of any contemporary artist. Disparagingly labelled a structural designer, straddling lines between defined schools of work, he has been accused of a derivative relation to his own system and has even been falsely charged with imitating his own invention. Although documented and acknowledged time and time again as the inventor of “tensegrity”, Snelson still fights for acceptance of this system as a basis for art, while Buckminster Fuller, modifying and pursuing the same system as practical architecture, wins praise for his visions.
It was the summer of 1948 when Snelson, a painting student on the G.I. Bill, was first inspired by Fuller’s new evangelistic brand of design. Fuller had come to Black Mountain College as an instructor in architecture while Snelson was studying under Joseph Albers, then the main attraction in that post Bauhaus establishment. Fuller proved an infatuating theoretician compared with the nonutilitarian brand of structural design taught by Albers. With his dynamic presence, Fuller must have seemed the best possible answer in a postwar world, offering design solutions to social problems, combining the creative with the practical. Already something of a visionary, Fuller was then involved in projects including radically designed housing for baby-boom generations. Refining a 1927 design, Fuller’s Dymaxion House played with a tension-support principle where a shell covering, enclosing living space, was hung from a central supporting mast. Although it received strong support from a segment of industry, the avant-garde idea of mass production never materialized, leaving us a legacy of Levittowns rather than futuristic communities, But such visions of a new world must certainly have made the scope of compositional painting seem too narrow. The inventive, optimistic young minds like Snelson were at a loss as to how to combine altruism with design, personal artistic statements with social consciousness. As a result, Snelson tried a brief term in engineering. He hated it. The work did not encourage the vision of an artist, and ultimately, Snelson was not interested in the utilitarian. He pursued his own art.
In his early built studies he began to explore space three dimensionally, with an interest in movement. This involved a system of weights and counterweights that he soon decided was too obvious. Snelson turned instead to a method of stacking modular elements, using cable as tension lines to balance the elements in place. Satisfied with this solution, he found a certain “magic and mystery” in its camouflaged engineering. This first X’ piece, the Wooden Floating Compression Column of 1948, was to be a breakthrough both for Snelson and his future sculptures, and for Fuller, the visionary architect. What Snelson had discovered was a support principle in which the force of gravity, previously the basis of all architectural structure, was nullified. Balanced tensions and compressions allowed the new type of structure to grow organically in any direction with equal pressure exerted on all points. The X-structure allowed for omni-directional progressions based on a quadrant system of crossing elements. Snelson the student was pleased. Fuller the instructor was amazed, calling the simple model the solution to a problem he had long been trying to solve. At this point the two went separate ways.
Fuller modified the tension/compression principle, building tetrahedron shaped models with practical, load-bearing applications that would lead to his geodesic dome, Snelson pursued his original X-module structures, continuing his art studies in New York and Paris. By 1954 Fuller was directing Princeton students in “tension integrity” design exercises. Using aluminum cable and tubing (Snelson’s characteristic materials) they explored strength in tension design as opposed to compression design, calling the principle discontinuous compression 2 In 1955 the term “tensegrity” was coined, and both Fuller and Snelson have been using it since to describe the basic principle in their structures. In 1959 Snelson’s structures were exhibited with his name “attached for the first time” in an exhibition of Fuller’s at the Museum of Modern Art. But while Fuller has continued to be accepted in both worlds, Snelson’s category problems persistently divide the two camps of art and science. Architects wax poetic about the structural beauty of his work while artists reject its ”cold” mechanics. Progressive Architecture’s 1968 review of his five monumental sculptures in Bryant Park rhapsodized about their lyric effect, clearly considering them an artistic triumph. But the architectural context of the praise relegated him to the field of structural design: The works] give the space an ethereality, a skeletal grace … not seen to such wondrous effect in the neighborhood since the pioneering frames of the Chrysler and Daily News buildings were visible in their pristine nakedness.”3
The categorical difficulty seems to have originated from a lack of historical precedent by which to refer to the work. Snelson recalls an early New York Times review parenthetically defining the pieces as “this sculpture-which can only be called sculpture under the contemporary highly elastic definition of the word.” But speaking in contemporary ’70s terms, what can be called ”sculpture” nowadays is even less rigidly defined. Through the ’50s and ’60s a growing avant-garde concerned itself more and more with the products of technology, and invariably, with technology itself. Neon, projected light, sound, documented process, video-all have tended to blur lines of definition, allowing acceptance of some quite highly technical procedures into the realms of art. Traditional taboos against the scientific have popularly lapsed under these pressures.
Strangely enough, however, the kind of scientific debt acknowledged by Snelson’s work even excludes it from the new definitions. A perpetual anachronism, his constructions are now pronounced too formal, too classically concerned with space and design to be part of the new examination of structure. Despite his frequent shows in Germany, he has never been in a ”Documenta” because (in the words of the organizers) his work is ”too vertical to be contemporary sculpture.” And while Minimalist sculptors like Andre and LeWitt employ equally mathematical procedures to determine modular structures, it is their professed involvement with a concept behind the visible object that certifies their importance to the contemporary scene. Andre’s pithy history of sculpture would relegate Snelson’s concerns to the middle ages of art history:
The course of development
Sculpture as form
Sculpture as structure
Sculpture as place 4
Snelson, on the other hand, rails against LeWitt’s appropriation of the term structure (in reference to pieces at Hammarskjold Plaza): “I noticed in the publicity blurb he chose to call them structures. Now to me they’re not structures at all. They’re carved-out shapes of metal. They’re all painted over white so that nothing shows where the joinery occurred, so therefore they’re void of any reference to structure.” Snelson admits, ”You could argue that he was talking about the mathematical structure of space,” but finds that “not a very strong argument, it seems to me,” The answer to whatever question this raises is that Snelson is not a Conceptualist. He regards himself only as a formal sculptor, and as a formal structure his work has a specific and definite meaning. It does not need to be conceptualized, its declaration in the straightest possible terms is the issue. Asked to describe the experience of his sculpture, Snelson speaks of the natural order as beautiful, referring to the fundamental properties of the universe in terms of forces that hold things together: “The magic is in the mechanics.”
So to those who would criticize a lack of human feel in his work, Snelson could answer by analogy with much that is human, as well as basic to nature herself: muscle against bone, push against pull, compression against tension, all allied in organic systems of natural structure.
”When I direct my attention toward structure I concern myself with the actual physical forces which give rise to the form. The necessary ingredients of my kind of space are the minimum number of lines of force which must be present in order for the system to exist.”
Over the years these basic structural concerns led into an extended investigation into the form of the atom, exploring physical models of the orbits of electrons-abstractly speaking, frozen moments in space expressed in terms of structure-although to include a discussion of Snelson’s atom models risks having to justify the work in terms of the conflict between art and science all over again. Lacking obvious visionary charisma, Snelson’s patented designs are termed too ”esthetic” to be science by scientists and too ”scientific” to be art by artists, Even if the monumental sculptures owe as much to physical force lines as the atom models, they aren’t restricted to such rigidly specific lanes of travel.
Neither do the big sculptures refute possibilities of simultaneous presence caused by the overlapping perspectival grids of taut cables and tubes. This exciting layering of activity, which lends an emphatic transparency to the large pieces, is what distinguishes them both from the atom model sculptures and from other pieces of ”formal” sculpture. The recent Berlin pieces, filling the 22,500 square feet of Mies’s glass museum with a special freedom and amplitude, are perhaps the best realization of this decidedly difficult problem. Both Forest Devil and the main piece, New Dimension, exhibit a striking new directionality, a literally new means of countering horizontal soaring movement with planted, vertical supports. From a distance the suspended crisscrossing rods of these works do appear as abbreviated force lines, as if selected and isolated from an infinite array of such lines fanning across space. Lifted from the ground, the multi-directional horizontal elements are free to enjoy a weightlessness more thorough than in any previous pieces, including the soaring totempole-like needle towers or the cantilevered works. The Berlin pieces are spare and elegant, and the clearance provided relates them in a new way to human scale by allowing viewers to pass through them underneath. Eventually intended for Baltimore’s newly renovated waterfront, New Dimension is especially well suited to creating a dialogue between people and buildings.
Snelson’s work is unique precisely because it uses architecture-related mechanics, because it is work created of and for uniquely 20th-century uses. It takes our present concern with material and process out of the gallery and onto a real site, actualizing the intellectual scrutiny of Conceptual art and producing classical sculptural statements. With hindsight someone may eventually develop a category for Kenneth Snelson that can account esthetically for his work as a whole, a category that has eluded him so far in our self-documenting present.
1 Architectural Forum, LXXXII/3, March 1945, p, 24.
2. Architectural Forum, C/2, February 1954, p, 163,
3 James T Burns, Jr., “Airy Park Ballet,” Progressive Architecture, XLlX/1 1, November 1968, pp. 145-6,
4. David Bourdon, “The Razed Sites of Carl Andre,” Artforum, V/2, October 1966, p 15,