Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. , June – August 1981
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, September – November 1981
University of Houston, Texas, January – February 1982
Portrait of an Atomist
by Howard N. Fox
The art of the last twenty years has brought forth an often astonishing succession of new waves and avant-gardes, frequently so opposed in nature that ”the scene” seems a chaos; so that by the early 1980s the apparent abundance of styles and viable art forms almost overwhelms anybody’s capacity to deal with it all. Within this thicket of recent “isms” and “non isms’ there sometimes emerges an artist of greater or lesser popularity of high or modest repute, whose work is so original that it appears to displace itself from its ambient context. Such an artist is Kenneth Snelson, whose work is widely known and immediately recognizable even to people not familiar with his name. In view of the attention and curiosity that his sculpture inspires, it is surprising that there has been no American museum retrospective of his work before now; but this only reflects the confusion that has surrounded Snelson’s work since it first became known to viewers.
Despite the steadfastness and clarity of purpose with which Snelson has pursued the concerns peculiar to his sculpture for more than two decades, his work has been difficult to ”place” in the myriad developments of recent art. Admittedly, his remarkable structures of polished metal tubes and steel cables do not readily align themselves with any particular aesthetic or with the work of any given group of artists. Distinctive and even “eccentric” artists have always been part of art history, however, and their work has usually been assimilated into one or another of the critical visions of the art of the time. Snelson’s work, however, seems to pose special questions which have led to an erroneous and persistent issue surrounding his development: the haunting cliche is that, because his concerns seem to have as much to do with science and technology as with art, if not more, nobody knows whether to categorize Snelson as an artist, a scientist or an engineer In fact, the generally excellent critical literature that has accrued concerning Snelson’s oeuvre does not appear to have failed to comprehend his achievement. It has, however, tended to introduce this nagging and extraneous side issue even though the work itself transcends it. Snelson’s concerns are not exclusively or even fundamentally artistic, nor are they essentially technological: they are philosophical. Only a careful reading of his development, and a close study of the way Kenneth Snelson describes his own concerns, can lead to an appropriate appreciation of his achievement.
As far back into childhood as Snelson can remember, he had a deep and abiding fascination for all types of models, miniatures, and replicas. His favorite hobby was to build models from store-bought kits, or-even better-to design them himself and innovate with whatever materials he had on hand. All of these objects were replicas -or “fetishes” as Snelson now likes to reflect- of objects and structures existing in the real world. But by imaginatively dissecting and reforming them in his models, Snelson could control” and “possess” them, and he had the sense of creating a universe of his own.
It is surprising, then, that despite his background in object-making, when, as a young man, Snelson became interested in the visual arts, it was painting rather than sculpture that motivated him to enroll in numerous art courses. Snelson had taken courses in painting and drawing as a student, first at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., where he was stationed in the Navy, and then for two years at the University of Oregon. By the time he was twenty-one he was seriously considering a career as a painter Thus it was, that in 1948, Snelson went back east and enrolled in the summer session at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. His express purpose was to study painting theory under Josef Albers, the former Bauhaus professor who had been at Black Mountain ever since 1933, when the Nazis closed down the Bauhaus School in Berlin.
Albers saw some objects that Snelson had made, and, sensing his young student’s “feel” for object-making, encouraged him in that direction. It was under Albers’ benign guidance that Snelson’s early interest in sculpture actually came about. His nascent interest was further stimulated that summer by the arrival of Buckminster Fuller as a visiting professor Fuller, the self-described “comprehensive designer” was then conducting his first experiments with geodesic domes -the self-supporting structures for which he is now so well known. As a result of his contact with Fuller, Snelson became captivated by ideas concerned with the geometry of structure and constructive techniques.
Snelson conceived his first works less as art objects than as exercises in stacking and equilibrium. Among the earliest of these constructions, First Study for Moving Sculpture, 1948, consists of a column of symmetrical bent wire forms neatly connected one atop the other and weighted with clay balls so that the whole stack-up sways like a spinal column but retains its balance. Other such toylike assemblies followed, some of which resemble Alexander Calder’s abstract mobiles or figures, such as the tightrope walkers from his Circus, which is at the Whitney Museum of American Art. However, it is the contrast, rather than the comparison with Calder, which is more illuminating here. Where Calder used balance anecdotally or for formal purposes, Snelson found in it the very subject (or object) of his investigation. And as he began, so he has continued: Snelson’s interest is not in balance per se, but in the creation of a body of sculptures structured by the forces of tension and compression held in equilibrium.
Tension and compression are the two fundamental mechanical forces. They correspond to the muscles and bones of the human body; bending and twisting are combinations of these basic pull and push forces. Within a structure, compression members are rigid and prevent components from coming closer to one another; tension members are usually taut cables, cords, or wires which tend to draw things closer together. An archer’s bow with a single cord and a single strut would be an example of the simplest form of tension-and-compression structure were it not for the fact that the arching of its lone compression member places it in a hybrid class of springlike structures. A simple kite-frame, however, composed of two compressed members crossed and intersuspended with a girth of tension lines, is a prototype discontinuous or “floating” compression structure.
Snelson continued experimenting with such floating compression structures when he returned home to Pendleton, Oregon, after his summer at Black Mountain. He soon graduated to more complex experiments, like Early X Piece, built in December of 1948, in which two wooden “X” forms support each other without touching, in a geometrically determined matrix of nylon tension lines. The piece maintained its form independent of any external factors, including gravity He took the work to Black Mountain the following summer to show Fuller. Fuller was impressed with the piece’s discontinuous structure, and he credited Snelson with the invention of a new structural principle’ which Fuller later named “tensegrity” Ca contraction of the words “tension” and “integrity”).
Snelson continued his experiments with structure in the 1950s, while earning a living as a cinematographer for documentary films. Over the years he began to think of his structures less as exercises and more as objects, and he began crafting them with meticulous attention to detail and overall effect. By the mid-1960s these structures began to enjoy some public exposure, mainly at the Dwan Gallery in New York City, and to achieve a certain visibility in the art scene. These were years during which minimal art, primary structures, and process art came into pre-eminence as the movements which galvanized some of the most commanding artistic talent and the most advanced critical thinking of the time.
The tension-compression principle was seen by some enthusiastic viewers as a valuable new approach to art, because its inherent aesthetic rules had deep ramifications for contemporary sculpture. For some people, Snelson’s work may well have suggested the apotheosis of the constructivist tradition in modern art. His structures generated closed systems in which every aspect and every element of the object’s facture was essential, functional and inevitable; and every activity of the facturing process, it seemed, subsumed the artist’s will to the dictates of the materials and the necessities of form. The resulting objects were “hermetic” referring to nothing outside themselves and depending on nothing external for their formal integrity. Moreover, they appeared to be indivisible structures that defined the very space they created and occupied.
In fact, as will become clear, not all of this was true for Snelson, but he did see his work as being qualitatively different from previous art, and he made a distinction between his stress structures and other constructed objects. His comment on a significant 1966 exhibition of minimal art suggests this critical distinction: “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”
A demonstration of this distinction can be seen by comparing Snelson’s sculptures with a contemporaneous example by Naum Gabo. Gabo, one of the masters and originators of the constructivist tradition, was producing some of his finest, most brilliantly realized objects in the 1960s, at the time when Snelson was creating his early mature work, and there was a superficial resemblance between them.
Gabo’s pioneering early works, the plastic heads and torsos dating from about 1916, are really depictions, or representations, of interior space and structure. In some ways, he seems only a little more advanced than the Cubists and Futurists, whose ideas he considered to have become so quickly obsolete because they represented surfaces and contours rather than internal space. But Gabo failed to appreciate the fact that representation itself was what the Cubists called into question; he merely shifted the focus of what he chose to represent. It was not until his later works, especially those from the fifties and sixties that Gabo more adroitly confronted the problems he posed for himself.
The fundamental difference between Gabo’s and Snelson’s work lies in the way in which they conceive -the structural relevance and necessity of the parts. A work such as Gabo’s Linear Construction No. 4, 1959-61 in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is simply a constructed aluminum frame around which steel spring wire has been laced, according to mathematical intervals, to produce an elegance of interior space. Remove the steel wire, and the aluminum armature remains intact; cut the cord in a Snelson sculpture, though, and there is no more form. Gabo’s wires are formally significant but structurally irrelevant; Snelson’s wires hold everything together, and their very activity is the subject of his structures. It is the tension-compression factor that accounts for Snelson’s differentiation between constructions and structures.
Inflated claims for the importance to modern sculpture of stress structures, however, are both unnecessary and misleading, and it is merely the semantics of objectmaking that is at the root of the very question of its importance. Asked if stress-produced structures suggested a whole new principle that revolutionized the making of sculpture, Snelson replied quite matte r-of-factly, “I don’t think so. I doubt if it offers any universal advantage over other kinds of structures which have been used before. But these works present us with the purest examples of elemental structure, and they tell us very clearly what structure is all about” Snelson was hardly attempting to revolutionize modern sculpture. On the contrary, his concerns seem much more catholic than that, and his aims much more ambitious. Snelson has said, ”I want to build a universe” And, by the unique process with which he builds his sculptures, he does just that.
The actual process whereby Snelson erects his works is a science and an art in itself. Snelson claims, and probably rightly so, that he is the only person capable of engineering his constructions. The intuitive mathematical method that Snelson must employ to engineer his works successfully is not that of any practical engineering, and Snelson is always quick to say that engineers do not understand his math. What is more, on occasion he receives letters or compliments from engineers who are baffled by his work. Yet the constructive process is neither so methodical nor so magical as it seems. It results from a counterpointing of rationality and intuition, and, what is most significant, it is reflective of a vision of the material universe that informs virtually all Snelson’s work.
Whatever else they may be, Snelson’s structures are, above all, an orderly arrangement of discrete material entities in space, and in order to maintain their integrity, every aspect of their facture must be carefully planned. For his large-scale pieces, Snelson always begins with a model. It would be erroneous to speak of these models as merely ancillary works, however, since they obey the same structural principles and define the same structural unity as the large pieces. Snelson prefers to think of them as small sculptures. Once the integrated design of the large piece is firmly established in the maquette, Snelson then computes the necessary mechanics that will enable the piece to quite literally) take form.
Yet the final form of these structures is not wholly determined mathematically; on the contrary, it represents a dialogue between aesthetic and practical considerations. For example, the artist must match such aesthetic concerns as proportion, scale, size, configuration, and surface to the capacity of his materials to withstand stress, to support their own weight, and to endure the corrosions of time and the environment. Snelson uses industrial materials that look obviously machine-finished. He chooses aluminum or stainless steel for their durability and strength. When weight is a particular factor, he selects aluminum for its lightness. Snelson prefers these materials in their “pure” state- polished, untextured and uncolored. He would never use rustable Cor-ten steel because he feels that, in the final analysis, despite its fashionable appeal, “rust is rust” Similarly, Snelson does not use color in his structures, although he has occasionally used black anodized aluminum in the maquettes. (At one point, Snelson did experiment with color, in two medium-sized painted pieces involving crane booms as the rigid elements, and also in several tubular constructions, such as an earlier version, not in this exhibition, of the 1968 piece, Key City. The original version of Key City was a porcelainized piece, but Snelson describes how in the cold weather the colored porcelain popped off “like snow flakes’.’ Since color seemed nonessential to his constructions and was impracticable as well, Snelson quickly abandoned its use.)
Despite critics of Snelson’s sculpture who claim that it is too quantitative and too mechanically predetermined, this decision-and-matching process suggests that Snelson’s aesthetics, however spartan its results, is highly subjective, susceptible to development, and possibly even a bit eccentric. His technical methods may well be severely disciplined by his structural principle and the formal options proscribed to a degree unusual in twentieth century sculpture, but there is nonetheless a highly expressive and romantic side to his work that is apparent in the challenge that Snelson sets for himself to test and stretch the structural limits of his art. CAn apt comparison can be made with the early twentieth-century composer Arnold Schoenberg. Just as Schoenberg was able to use the classicism and discipline of his twelve-tone method to produce some of the most expressive and sternly lyrical music of the period, so does Snelson work within his self-imposed technical restrictions to create some of the most visionary and elegant sculpture of his time.)
When all the aesthetic decisions and their preliminary engineering are completed, each of the hundreds of separate parts that compose Snelson’s structures-the tubes, the cables, Snelson’s custom-designed grommet-like connectors, the fasteners- must be fabricated to within very demanding tolerances set forth in the battery of technical drawings and specifications that precedes each major work. When all this prefabrication is completed, all the elements are gathered together and laid out, like surgical instruments before an operation, and each is assigned a number. The piece is now ready for final assembly.
For convenience, the cables are grouped in shocks, like wheat, since several of them will radiate from any given nexus at the end of each tube. In the smaller works, each cable is knotted at one end and fed through a narrow slit at the end of the tube, so that it emerges through its wall. The knot prevents the cable from slipping through and thereby holds everything in place. It is a wonderfully economical little matrix of connection. As a kind of tension-compression device in themselves, knots have always fascinated Snelson, and most of his structures employ knotting in an integral, if not always visible way. (In some works, particularly a group of kite-like forms made of nylon rope and of bamboo, which is one of Snelson’s favorite materials, knots are a fundamental raison d’etre. These bamboo-and-rope pieces play a curious role in Snelson’s oeuvre. They are, in a manner of speaking, “etudes,” not “sketches” for larger works, but exercises in the tension compression principle itself, stripped of the machine technology required to realize the more finished sculptures.) In the larger outdoor works, the cables are fitted on both ends with threaded grommets that screw into the “hubs” or short end fittings on the tubular compression members. The grommets trap the cables by means of small balls of braised silver that function like knots at the cable ends. Snelson likens these knotted or screwed connections to ”a tiny solar system, one mass circumscribing another, resulting in unity.
Then in an orderly succession, the fasteners are fitted to the cables, the cables to the grommets, the grommets to their tubes, and the whole structure is at last assembled – always amid great travail and with much cursing -in sections, or modules.
There is a frequently voiced misconception that, during the construction phase of a typical piece by Kenneth Snelson, it lies on the ground in a heap of tubes and serpentine cables until, at the last minute, when the last cable is joined with the last tube, the whole edifice erects itself in one grand movement. It is a delightful scenario, but it simply is not true. The works are assembled piecemeal and are organized on a modular principle, echoing the modular organization of all matter. As Snelson says, ”There are no glissandos in nature” He views the entire material universe, from objects as small as atoms to entities as vast as galaxies, as a matrix of grandly complicated, but ordered, associations of systems in space.
Matter (and energy) according to modern quantum physics, is discontinuous and comes in units, or bundles of units. For Snelson, the mystery and wonder of the universe is what he describes as ”the infinite perfection of connections” among these units -or in other words – how it all holds together. Connection is the very generative action in his sculpture. Thus, Snelson’s comparison of the connective process in his work to a tiny solar system is much more than just a fanciful conceit; it is an overt identification of his own sculptures with a universal ordering process. It is no mere coincidence that Snelson’s idea of the material universe as an ordered arrangement of parts in space is also an accurate description of his sculpture; it points directly to a vision of creation that pervades all of his endeavors.
In a sense, Snelson’s sculpture represents many years of study of the nature of connection. The “appearance of solidity which we know intellectually to be the illusion of the mechanical world” he reflects in a continuation of his solar system comparison, “provides us with things so commonplace as nuts and bolts, and we miss the point quite easily that we are in the presence, again, of one of these marvelous mysteries: that one thing can connect to another only by entering into orbit around it. This applies to welding and gluing as well, but in highly complex molecular patterns, while I am speaking of individual components.” Snelson thus emphatically fixes both his aesthetic and his technical principles within an organized vision of natural law -a vision which is also a kind of cosmology: and we miss yet another point quite easily, that Snelson’s building method is not merely a manufacturing process but a creative one, not simply a procedure but a discipline.
This discipline itself inevitably generates certain forms. Snelson develops his solar system comparison still further: in these stress structures, the compression members never come into contact with another; they cross, they by-pass but they do not touch. Again, an analogue of that other universe where everything is in motion. When planets fail to by-pass one another, the result is dust in the firmament. Matter does in fact occupy space, so that the compression members in the structure cannot pass through one another so they pass by one another, and herein is the most basic fact: a bypass of two inertial masses is an “event” not a “thing”. In this bypass, there is a course which is taken. Two masses approach one another, they come into close proximity and then they depart. Concurrently, each pass takes on the character of either a right- or a left-handed helix, or screw direction; the simplest of events’ and the simplest of structural statements. A structure is not a thing, but a helical happening’.’5
There can be no clearer exemplar of these structural principles than a work such as Needle Tower, 1968 in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden -one of three such towers, varying in height, that the artist built. At first glance it appears to be a soaring stack-up of gridded forms but upon further inspection it proves to be a helical procession of tubular elements, which, though intersuspended by tension members, yet retains its unitary integrity, bypassing all other elements. Seen from 11 within” (if one can properly ascribe an interior space to Snelson’s sculpture) and from below the helical rotation becomes quite apparent as a spiral hexagonal arrangement. The tower, like any of Snelson’s sculptures, constitutes a closed structural system, that is wholly self-sufficient. It is capable of maintaining its form without the action of gravity as a result of the matrix of pure energy (tension and compression) that is activated and rendered visible by the existence of the piece. Despite its manmade origin, as an event and as an arrangement of parts, Snelson’s art partakes of the natural order of matter. In the identification of his stress structures as diagrams of that order, Snelson concludes, “All of these frozen events are lifted directly from the vocabulary of an all-motion universe. There are but a few types of such events possible. These little interactions in various combinations accrue to become the entire complexity of the COSMOS”6
Clearly, what has evolved from Snelson’s earliest experiments in discontinuous tension structures while at Black Mountain College is nothing less than a vision of the physical universe. Certainly, Snelson aspires to no mere mechanical order, nor yet to an aesthetic one. What he wishes to achieve is a cosmic order- a universal design that accounts for the activity of all matter, from atoms, to molecules, to solar systems and galaxies. To be seen properly, Kenneth Snelson’s sculpture must be seen somewhere along this continuum.
Snelson’s art is built on an essential simplicity that obtains in all things; yet Snelson acknowledges the dazzling complexity not only of the universe in all its vastness but of the myriad simple interactions which add up to become that staggeringly complex system. For Snelson, there is an implication that matter aspires to connection and thence to complexity. All but a very few of the ninety-two natural elements in the periodic table have the capacity to bond electronically to other atoms to form larger units or molecules of another, more complex, structure. How is this natural tendency, or “aspiration” of matter manifest in Snelson’s art?
Most of Snelson’s early works and early mature works ranging from the late forties to the early seventies) tend to be either axial or nuclear in shape. The first structures such as Moving Sculpture, 1948, or Early X Piece, 1948, for example, and others which Snelson has described as being like spinal columns, are axial in configuration. In these works each additional element contributes to the generation of a rather simple vertical column. By 1959 Snelson was building much more sophisticated structures, such as the intricate X Column, fashioned from aluminum tubes and common bead chain. In this work Snelson had already discovered the formal plasticity that resulted from taking apart the two elements of the “X” separating them so that each bypasses (rather than intersects) the other and simultaneously serves as the first element of the succeeding “X” in the vertical procession. Although X Column climbs to only thirty-five and one-half inches, its structural organization allows for the ascension to continue indefinitely.
All of the later axial pieces in Snelson’s oeuvre are variations on this generative pattern, and they reveal the development of a stunning virtuosity and increasing mastery over his materials. That development has generally been characterized by an intermittent tendency towards complexity and complication -towards what might be described best as a ”baroqueness” Black Tower, begun in 1962, evidences this complicating tendency in the trigonal helix that is generated by its three-element module; the earlier X Column, by contrast, was generated by a two-element module. Similarly, Trigonal Tower, also begun in 1962, employs a three-element matrix, but the three lowest elements are elaborated into triple extensions of the very tower they support; it is as if Snelson were making arpeggios upon arpeggios.
Such complexities and embellishments are for their own sake; they are not mandated by the essential structural principle but are simply permitted by it. And Snelson takes artistic license by challenging the limits of what he can make his materials do and demonstrating his technical and artistic virtuosity. Cantilever, 1967, one of the artist’s most dramatic works of that period, is a horizontal axial structure that defies the force of gravity as it crosses a thirty-foot expanse in midair, unsupported by any external structure. He built this specifically as a response to the challenge posed by his technique. “[Cantilever] 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 have I built [Cantilever] …. 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”.
A similar impulse motivated Snelson’s building of the three Needle Towers. “I had this notion’ he explains, “that it would be wonderful to stand on the ground and see a tower whose parts at the top were so small that you couldn’t see them with the naked eye. It would be possible at some height to fade out as if it were in a fog. As if it were infinite – that was the idea behind it. I’m terribly romantic. I’m sure people imagine me to be some kind of conceptually frozen engineer. But I just don’t get it, because what I’m absorbed with is the infinite perfection of connections -of one piece to the next, one little item to the next, and so forth, as if the whole universe could be controlled within the confines of one piece, and yet expansible”
These columnar pieces suggest an obvious comparison with Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Columns. Like them, Snelson’s Needle Towers and other structures appear to be actively becoming themselves, as if they had been impelled upward, or outward, by some inner force. In Snelson’s work there is always an aesthetic tension, between the closed structural system and its capacity for endless material and spatial extension by the addition of components. Furthermore, such composition, from separate particulate elements, compels an awareness of the building process and a curiosity about that technique. The same attitude that Robert Goldwater has described in Brancusi – “his respect for the material itself, his wish to conserve an awareness of its original state within the awareness of the work of art it has become”8 – is true for Snelson.
Such is the romantic spirit of striving and becoming that is implicit in Snelson’s art. If the cantilevers and towers are totems to rational structure, so are they a kind of private Tower of Babel, expressive of the human desire to transcend material limitations, to traverse vast expanses of space, to outlast time itself. It seems only fitting that Snelson has described these structures as ”my bid for immortality”
Related to the axial pieces is a second main body of Snelson’s sculpture, the nuclear, or centrically organized works. Whereas the axial pieces tend, for the most part, to be unidirectional in their growth pattern, the nuclear works are omnidirectional, with modules that build outward from one or more foci. Typical examples range from such relatively spare pieces as Sun River, 1967, in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, to the dizzying complexities of Star, 1961, or Model for Coronation Day 1978-80. Characteristically, these nuclear pieces are symmetrically organized, for they are based on what Snelson calls “crystallographic” growth patterns. They are built much as the axial pieces are, but their highly wrought complexity sometimes disguises their essential modular structure. Herein is the real baroqueness of Snelson’s sculpture, capable of generating patterns of exceeding complexity which appear to shift and change when seen from different vantage points. Such crystallographic patterns infuse Snelson’s visual lexicon with a complete range of expressive possibilities, with forms as restful as the low-lying expansiveness of Cordobes, 1970, or as restive as the busy rhythms of Spring Street, 1964.
The axial and the nuclear pieces, then, represent the two configurative modes in which Snelson has done most of his work. There is undoubtedly a certain family likeness in all of Snelson’s sculpture, and, indeed, Snelson continues to make pieces today which closely resemble some of his earliest work. A question arises, therefore, as to the potential for the continued development of new work. While the question seems more nettlesome for some critics than it does for the artist, Snelson does acknowledge that “I am committed to structures of this type; and having gotten involved, I am fully aware that there are only certain modes in which to act” Snelson has considered diversifying his work by using fluorescent tubes and even telephone poles, but such unlikely materials have never seemed appropriate, and his search has always eventually led him back to his basic mode. “If you can make a perfect crystal” says Snelson, speaking figuratively, ”then that’s something you should do. You should fully explore it” Thus he endorses his discipline and accepts the inherent limitations of its range.
Snelson’s work has not remained static, however Since the mid-1970s he has vastly expanded his range of formal configurations and has produced some of the most astonishing monumental works of his career. Projects such as the sixty-five foot Free Ride Home, 1974, at Storm King Art Center, or his largest work yet, Easy Landing, 1975-77, which was erected at the City of Baltimore’s inner harbor waterfront, are the most ambitious pieces of all. These newer works, which seem almost random in the way the tubular members scatter and spill through huge expanses of space, are in fact built on the same principles and crystallographic patterns of all Snelson’s sculptures. They combine the surging energies of the axial pieces and the capacity for complexity of the nuclear pieces with Snelson’s most advanced technology. The result is a lyrical boldness extraordinary even for Snelson. Their lyricism is not the dense compactness of the nuclear works, nor the piercing verticality of the towers, nor yet the acrobatic feats of the cantilevers. Using elements of all of these, these vast new works possess a gracefulness that is nearly balletic, conveying a sense of poise, composure, and flotation, all on an epic scale. ”I like big” remarks Snelson, ”It’s part of the romance -the risk of getting into a scale where I can’t any longer control it” But he has controlled it, and these works can only be thought of as masterpieces of their idiom.
Inspired by the grandeur and challenge of these tours de force, Snelson dreams of building an immense structure on the scale of the Eiffel Tower. Such a colossus, in order to support its own weight, would have to be constructed of crane booms or girders – not tubes – used like so many matchsticks, and it would take the form of a vast canopy hovering overhead like a gossamer mantle of steel. But even such an impossible leviathan would have the same essential structure as the simplest of Snelson’s sculptures.
Preoccupied as he is with essential structures and connections, it seems to follow as a natural consequence that Snelson would eventually delve deeper into the essential module of all material reality, the atom. Beginning in about 1960, Snelson engaged in a thorough research of atomic theory, stemming directly from his work with structure? His research took him back to the historical beginnings of atomism, to the Greek philosophers Leucipus and Democritus who, in the fifth century B.C., postulated the theory that all matter is composed of indivisible particles, which they called atoma, or things that cannot be cut or divided. At the same time, at Columbia University and New York University, Snelson studied all the available modern literature on quantum theory.
In observing and studying the principles of his own tension structures, Snelson realized that they organized themselves about certain numerical relationships and rotational properties. They followed, or generated, an order analogous to the hierarchical order in atomic structure that requires electrons to distribute themselves in “shells” or strata, around the nucleus. He discovered further (and with great excitement) that these organizations could be formed with sets of ring-shaped magnetic fields linked together on spherical surfaces, such as seen in Seven Magnetic Spheres, 1962. His discovery brought him to the same questions about the atom posed by the quantum riddle: how do electrons, racing about the atomic space, form themselves into a structure? What would an atom “look like” if we were able to make a sharp photographic blow-up or a physical replica?
Modern physics had dispensed with the quest to solve the physical structure of the atom in such terms as these, calling it unsolvable and irrelevant, and citing Werner Heisenberg’s ”uncertainty principle” which states that it is impossible to determine simultaneously both the momentum and the position of an electron. The interpretation of the Heisenberg principle is that the structure of an atom and the interaction of its electrons are random and can be described only statistically. Consequently, for scientists to speculate on atomic problems beyond the realm which can be verified is not truly scientific. This meant that the classical search to describe the atom as a “real” structure would have to be abandoned.
By 1930, Heisenberg’s principle and its implications became a controversial issue, but ultimately the new statistical view prevailed, and any model which delved into questions of how electrons actually moved within the atom was seen as heretical. Nonetheless, some scientists, among them Albert Einstein and Irwin Schroedinger whose wave equation became a cornerstone of the new orthodoxy), maintained the hope that a means to a better model might yet be found.
Snelson’s point of departure picks up where previous ones, principally Louis de Broglie’s 1924 physical model, left off. Snelson introduces the hypothesis that the electron’s matter-wave orbit has a special property of gross matter by which it occupies its own exclusive space. This means that the entire pathway of an electron can push and otherwise limit the space of other electrons within an atom, much as whole atoms do in relation to one another. Atomic matter-waves, in Snelson’s structure, could no more intersect one another than could vibrating guitar strings continue to vibrate if superimposed on one another. Starting with this assumption, Snelson argues, the atom begins to make sense as an electromagnetic and mechanical object. Specifically, the orbits in Snelson’s model neither intersect nor overlap one another. In more familiar models, the atom is represented either with tiny electrons racing about, or by electrical “clouds” infusing through one another around the nucleus.
The geometry of Snelson’s model is entirely different. The electron orbits are either great or small circles that Snelson represents as rings arranged polyhedrally on the surfaces of the electrical ”shells” that nest concentrically, around the nucleus, like Chinese ivory carvings of spheres within spheres. Snelson has made scores of physical replicas of his concept of the atom, representing its geometry with orbits made of wood, plastic, magnetic-ceramic compound, coins -even gyroscopes. Regardless of the size of these circles, any set of them lies with its edges all at the same distance from the center of the sphere. Within this geometry, there are endless ways that these spherical skeletons can join with one another to generate patterns of three-dimensional, space-filling order.
The problem of rendering or communicating the atomic model has continued to engross Snelson over the past two decades despite the generally cool reception his theory has endured. When Snelson first published his model in the magazine Industrial Design, in 1963, it was generally met by antipathy or indifference. To scientists it seemed, despite its rigorous logic and well informed argument, fanciful and unscientific, while it was of little interest at all to the art world. But Snelson persisted in his research, registering models with the U.S. Patent Office in 1966, and again in 1978, primarily as a way of keeping his ideas in perpetual publication. In 1976 he published a tract titled Portrait of an Atom, setting forth his ideas intelligently for the layman and aimed primarily at his art-world audience. This same document, together with some supplementary material, served as the exhibition catalogue for the controversial exhibition, Portrait of an Atom, organized in 1979 by the Maryland Academy of Sciences at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, at whose doorstep Snelson’s largest sculpture, Easy Landing, is located. This exhibition, which marked the most thorough presentation of Snelson’s concepts of atomic structure, included dozens of models in all sizes and degrees of complexity, technical diagrams, facsimiles of the patent papers, letters from scientists and other pertinent material. The Academy however, nominally the organizer of the exhibition, was careful to point out, on signs placed strategically throughout the large exhibition, that ”Scientists reject Snelson’s structural model as not describing the atom, since it violates accepted theory.” The Academy explained that the exhibition was being presented as an “artistic” concept, and it disclaimed any endorsement of the views advanced in the presentation.
Snelson is, perhaps wisely, resigned to this by-now familiar rejection, and he describes his model as “anachronistic”: scientists insist that it belongs to the world of the nineteenth century while Snelson himself claims that its time will come in the twenty-first century.
It is not necessary to agree or disagree with Snelson’s atomic theory or even to understand its scientific complexities to appreciate its absolutely central position in his life’s work. It replicates and advances the concerns that he began to explore in his earliest constructions and raises them to the most serious level of inquiry. It is difficult to say whether his atomic research is commentary on the sculpture or vice versa; what is certain is that in Snelson’s mind they are the same research and an inseparable pursuit.
There is yet another body of work in Snelson’s oeuvre that reiterates his concerns in quite an unexpected medium: panoramic photography. Like the sculptures, Snelson’s panoramic photographs play out a tension between the closed and the open system, the unit and the conglomerate, and the particular and the infinite. Any of these panoramic images appears at first glance to be an excerpted passage from an indefinitely long, lateral photograph, often of a nondescript street in downtown Manhattan or Paris. But it quickly becomes apparent from such evidence as “V”-shaped intersections, wraparound buildings, and other distortions of conventional camera perspective, that these views are factured by a rotating camera. In fact, at the ends of these two- to ten-foot-long photographs, the image comes back upon itself forming a kind of closure or closed system.
Typically, the technology of producing these pictures is an important part of Snelson’s joy in making them. His camera is a rare early twentieth-century model that Snelson believes to be the unique survivor of an extinct species. Even this relic had to be restored and reconstructed from the inside out- a painstaking task which Snelson, a photographer’s son, accomplished himself. Film and printing paper for this camera do not exist on the commercial market and must be custom-ordered in bulk from Eastman Kodak. And the contact printing machine that Snelson uses to produce the final prints -an eleven foot light table with elaborate controls – is exceptional. When he found that no light table existed that would be large enough to handle the extraordinary negatives produced by his camera, Snelson built it himself.
But for all its involved technology, the complete photographic process is, in Snelson’s practice, a neutral technology without editorial, plastic or interpretive power Where others have used the camera to document history, establishing a permanent record of people, places, or events of human value and interest, Snelson treats the camera as a tool much like a microscope, whose function is simply to reveal in detail whatever may enter its omnivorous lens.
Some of Snelson’s photographs are picturesque images of famous sites such as the Paris Opera, or the Brooklyn Bridge but many more are curiously neutral photographs of parking lots, warehouses, or urban expressways. Yet all of these pictures are rendered in arresting detail. Snelson selects this pedestrian subject matter with the intention of revealing in “atomic” detail the infinitude of minute entities that conjoin to synthesize the ostensible subject of his photograph. Thus, in a characteristic photograph of a Manhattan warehouse, every brick, every windowpane, every story is rendered so that we cannot fail to see how it all comes together in a “monolithic” edifice.
Thus, Snelson’s photography, a seeming anomaly in relation to his sculpture, is precisely the opposite: it continues the deepest concerns of the sculpture and, to a certain extent, its technological involvement as well. The visual distortions in these panoramic pictures demonstrate that the conventional, “objective” appearance of reality is of little consequence, while the structure of that reality is paramount. For Snelson, these photographs represent an attempt to see wholly and absolutely, and in atomic detail, “so that you could examine the world spread out before you. It’s the ultimate voyeur experience, showing everything in ultimate detail. Its an ideal beyond reach but at least the idea is there” This remark echoes statements Snelson has made about his other artistic pursuits.
Desire is the motivating force in Snelson’s achievement. The impulse to know and to control the universe, or at least a microcosm of it, is the underlying romanticism that inspires all that Snelson does. His studio is the theater of his activity and is outfitted more like a laboratory than an atelier, filled with the technical apparatus and precision instruments by which he extrudes a manifestation of universal order from the products of heavy industry. “The integrity of my work requires that the entire universe be available in my studio, so that I can possibly do everything myself. That is a delusion, of course, but it is as near as one can get to being God. If God controls the entire universe, you can at least define the exterior of your world and create your own mini-universe. That, in a great number of cases, is what art is about”
Snelson’s, then, is a universe of correspondences -a universe where the microcosm of his studio corresponds to the macrocosm of the natural creation, and where the structural basis of his sculpture is an analogue to the very properties of matter itself; where the knots that hold his sculptures together reflect the structure of the solar system; and where his art, his physics, and his photography, despite their apparent dissimilarity, are the same pursuit. They all correspond in Kenneth Snelson’s nearly mystical vision.
Above all, it is a vision of unity running through a cosmos of complexity. It is the vision of an atomist. Through history, atomistic philosophies, which are the forerunners of modern atomic physics, have propounded a vision of homogeneity underlying the outward complexity of the tangible universe. In the atomistic vision, that complexity is engendered by and is a function of those basic unifying properties and qualities of matter In the final analysis, through the atomistic vision, it will be understood that Snelson’s works do not mimic or imitate the natural order of matter; they participate in it.
Ironically, it is the very coherence of Snelson’s unifying sensibility that may have spawned the chronic and distracting confusion as to how to categorize his achievement. It is a confusion, as has been stated earlier, that has plagued Snelson throughout his career. Is he a sculptor? An engineer? An atomic scientist? A photographer? Snelson himself is fond of invoking the painter Harry Holtzman’s punning epigram, “Hardening of the categories leads to Art disease” But for some viewers in a late-modern age of specialization, Snelson’s achievement is difficult to grasp. It does indeed ignore the rigid, modern-day boundaries of the disciplines and, to be seen properly calls for wholeness and unity of vision similar to his own. It is a cultural misapprehension to attempt to pigeonhole Snelson as either an artist or a scientist: it is the overspecialization of modern culture which can make it difficult to recognize what it means to pursue the same vision through such a diversity of means. Snelson’s disparate enterprises seem more befitting the biography of a Renaissance man or an alchemist.
Indeed, the notion of the alchemist suggests what is perhaps the most appropriate way to grasp what Snelson is about. Alchemy, which is now popularly perceived as the pseudo-science by which it was possible to turn lead into gold, was once a branch of natural philosophy. It embraced both physics and metaphysics, before the pragmatism of modern thought cleaved them into separate disciplines. It was the study of both the phenomena of the material, mutable universe and of the eternal natural order that bonded it all together. By studying the properties of metals, the alchemists attempted to discover the structure of material perfection: a material perfection that, they thought, would correspond to human and divine perfection. Like them, Snelson aspires to define something immutable and perfect, and his study of the structure of connections has brought him to a discovery of the pervasiveness and the beauty of atomic order in the creation.
In his tract, Portrait of an Atom, Snelson has written that, “from my view it may be that artists are the last of the speculative philosophers” Certainly, given the nature of his personal quest, it behooves us at least to consider that this statement bears application to him. For if we want to see Snelson properly, in a context that transcends the confines of modern art or of modern physics, we must ourselves transcend those confines. That is the challenge of Kenneth Snelson’s achievement.