Kenneth Snelson: The Elegant Solution
by Stephen A. Kurtz
Traditionally science has been the handmaiden of art, required to serve inspiration, but not to inspire. The work of Kenneth Snelson does not alter these relations – it abolishes them. His esthetic is so bound up with his vision of the structure of the universe that the two become inseparable. For Snelson, a scientific investigation is an esthetic investigation. This observation has been made casually before, but Snelson takes it seriously. It lies at the foundation of his work.
Snelson has conducted simultaneous researches into the structure of the atom, the theory of tension-compression structures and the practice of sculpture. In all their apparent diversity, he treats these as aspects of the same investigation, one which is basically esthetic.
The desire for unity and integrity, an esthetic impulse after all, has led him into fundamental inquiries – for instance, into the nature of the atom. Physics presents us with as many models of the atom as there are branches of that discipline which require a concept. Physicists claim not to be disturbed by this diversity, for a theoretical model need not be a single, sensibly comprehended body which represents reality, but merely an intellectual construct which facilitates thought. Snelson, however, is disturbed by so disorganized a notion of matter’s most fundamental unit. Consequently, he has developed his own theory of atomic structure and has fabricated models which demonstrate its principles. These models are sculptures; they are concerned with the development of form in space and with the problem of structure determining (in the limiting sense) form. The decisions regarding the basic structural principles – identifying them and stating them – are, Snelson believes, esthetic decisions. Once made, they leave a large but not infinite range of choices regarding form. This choice, again, is esthetic.
It is, one might say, a datum of criticism that the conceptual system underlying a work of art is indifferent to its success as a work of art. The concept becomes interesting only when the work itself succeeds on independent grounds. Snelson’s work, while not uniformly successful, gives value to conceptual investigations. Unfortunately, the atomic models, although capable of being quite handsome at a large scale and in elegant stainless steel, never achieve the beauty of his work with tensegrity structures. The formal choices which the atomic structural demands offer are just not sufficiently interesting. They require, for instance, symmetry, but the symmetry is not “fearful”; it does not constitute a presence which produces a powerful esthetic impact. The geometry of the form – circular rings grouped on the plane surfaces of a polyhedron – sounds intriguing but fails to look so. The same kinds of principles, however, underlie both Snelson’s atomic and tensegrity structures.
Tension and compression are forces which operate in the elements of all structures, where each member is usually subject to both forces. The uniqueness of the tensegrity principle (a contraction of tension and integrity) lies in its separation of these forces so that the compression elements (tubes) “float” in a network of tension elements (cables). The resulting structure can be seen as a model of this structural principle – a peculiar model since it is more than an analogue of the system, it is an example. The invention of this principle, in Snelson’s terms, is the primary creative act. It determines a range of possibilities: what may and may not happen within certain limits. That these limits are by no means confining and leave a wide range of esthetic choice has been shown by the development of his own work. A few years ago, Snelson was concerned with the fact that the stability of his structures was achieved only through a delicate balance of tension. Audrey, 1, for example, is a dynamic structure which achieves only a very tenuous and threatened balance. Poised lightly on the apexes of triangular units, its insubstantiality is emphasized as well as its dependence on the strength of the cable system. It is also asymmetrical and tends to a specific direction. Thus a sense of motion is set up which contradicts and minimizes its actual stability.
In more recent work, quite the opposite effect is achieved. The forms are at rest. They are often symmetrical, or nearly so, and no sense of motion results. Consequently, we are made more aware of the structure as structure. A form which implies motion involves the perception of a Gestalt, a whole achieved, to some extent, at the expense of the individuality of the parts. In Snelson’s more quiescent structures we are reminded that the form is not only within space but also contains space in a complex and airy network of elements. It is here that the artist begins to invade architecture, particularly the architecture of space frames. In fact, the lines between sculpture and architecture are so thin that some important statements can be made, unqualifiedly, about both, as this one from an article by Herbert Ohl: “The architectural expression of [space frames] is leading to a new esthetic dimension. In a way that compares with the composition of matter itself, they provide direct, spatial models of their theoretical content in their dematerialized multiformity.” There is also a striking similarity between Snelson’s approach to sculpture and Pier Luigi Nervi’s attitude toward his own “architectural engineering”. For both, the esthetics and mechanics of structure are inseparable.
Because of this fundamental concern with structure, Snelson is as careful about the parts – their finish, proportion and connection – as he is about the total form. Since the relation of tension to compression elements is the basis of these structures, he is especially sensitive to the conjunction of the hollow rods and cables. This is not merely a “mechanical” problem. Snelson sees all forms of “connection” – whether of a planet to the sun (astronomy), an electron to a nucleus (atomic physics) or a cable to a rod (mechanics) – as aspects of the same problem. The solutions to these problems are all esthetic since connection is always achieved with the utmost economy. And “economy” (mathematicians call it “elegance”) is an esthetic principle. The form of the structure and the forces involved are neither more nor less than the stability which the connection demands. Likewise with Snelson’s structures. The transition between elements is cleanly and elegantly accomplished without any unnecessary emphasis or de-emphasis which might tend to destroy the harmony and integrity of the whole.
Snelson’s work is not isolated in the history of modern sculpture. He studied under Albers at Black Mountain College, that Bauhaus bastion in America, and the Bauhaus machine esthetic is undeniably a part of his vision. But that esthetic was largely a romantic involvement – more concerned with the look of machine production than with actual structural problems.
Snelson’s concern with structure is not superficial involvement with appearance. His approach is more thoroughgoing and integrated. His work is also related to the Cubist-Constructivist tradition but, again, his concept of structure as the real determinant of form is more profound than that essentially painterly approach. Buckminster Fuller, with whom he studied at Black Mountain, is clearly the strongest influence. If Fuller acknowledges his debt to Snelson for the invention of the tensegrity principle, Snelson likewise acknowledges his own debt to Fuller’s visionary work.
Snelson’s contribution is nevertheless unique among contemporary sculptors. For a “primary structure” is only primary in the sense of “formal simplicity”. Snelson’s notion of primacy includes the formal complex. Structure alone is primary.
Art News, October 1968