Art News

February 1981

Kenneth Snelson, Straddling the Abyss Between Art and Science

by Richard Whelan

Artists think Snelson’s sculptures involve too much engineering, and scientists think they are too esthetic. “Hardening of the categories”, Snelson replies, “leads to art disease.”

Although Kenneth Snelson’s explorations of structure daringly span the abyss that is generally thought to separate art and science, many artists and scientists refuse to admit the validity of a common meeting ground in his work, Artists tend to think that his sculptures-elegant constructions in which polished metal tubes suspended by steel cables appear to float in defiance of gravity-involve too much engineering to be art; and, conversely, most scientists dismiss his brilliantly innovative model of the atom as too qualitative to be scientific. But Snelson simply shrugs off such academic small-mindedness and continues to remind his critics that “hardening of the categories leads to art disease.”

If the mention of an artist who has propounded a new conception of atomic structure conjures up an image of an eccentric or dilettantish dreamer, forget it. Snelson is very centered, professional and down-to-earth. A handsome, sturdy man, 53 years old, Snelson is reminiscent of an ideal high school science teacher-informal, enthusiastic, highly articulate, witty and patient.

During a recent interview, at which he was wearing jeans and a blue chambray workshirt, he constantly illustrated his points by drawing with a pencil on the white formica surface of the table at which we were sitting in his studio. Like a good teacher, he provided simple, graphic explanations of the push-pull mechanics of his sculptures and filled in the background needed for an understanding of his atomic model.

Snelson’s studio is on the ground floor of a building located in the heart of the predominantly Italian neighborhood just west of New York’s SoHo district. From the street, one proceeds through a corridor, out into a cool, leafy courtyard, on the far side of which is the entrance to the spacious studio. Inside, the pervasive feeling is of an efficient but comfortable workshop of the classic place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place variety, where high standards of craftsmanship and precision obviously prevail. Metalworking machines are spaced carefully around the room; between them, on the floor, are small- and medium-sized maquettes of sculptures. Over a tidy workbench that runs along one wall, goggles and tools hang neatly. Also hanging on the walls are a Muybridge photographic sequence of a woman dressing, a photograph of men forming the Air Force insignia on a field, a magazine clipping about Paleolithic sculpture, one of Snelson’s own panoramic photographs of the New Jersey skyline seen from Manhattan and several drawings by his eight-year-old daughter, Andrea.

Since Snelson photographs all of his sculptures and develops and prints his panoramas, the studio also houses a darkroom. Across the courtyard from the studio is another space where Snelson stores his small maquettes, as well as, for the time being, the huge, gleaming aluminum tubes for a sculpture commissioned by the federal government for the headquarters of the General Services Administration in Bethesda, Maryland. Snelson, his wife, Katherine, who is a psychotherapist, and their daughter live in an apartment upstairs in the same building.

Upon entering his studio, one immediately senses that much of the pleasure Snelson derives from his work comes from his love of working with his hands and with machinery-making complex and beautiful objects, improvising resourcefully where necessary, always tinkering with some mechanism. Running along the studio floor is an ingenious device that he has rigged up for measuring and cutting cables; he himself modified the antique panoramic camera with which he made his New York views; and, on the morning of our interview, he had been helping his daughter make an old fashioned go-cart out of roller skates, a wooden crate and a couple of two-by-fours.

Although the various aspects of Snelson’s work may sound surprisingly diverse, they are all united by his interest in structure -the ways in which things go together. It may seem like a big jump from Snelson’s sculptures to his atomic models, but these enterprises are intimately related by the artist’s desire to make the underlying principles of physical structure visible as the subject of form. Every single element in one of his sculptures plays a structural role; take away a tube or a cable and the entire construction will sag or collapse. Since the construction of the sculptures is completely open and exposed, and since the tubes always push against the pulling tension of the cables, Snelson’s sculptures are like schematic diagrams of their own dynamics.

Similarly, the atomic models-in which the electron paths are visualized as disks with their flat sides facing outward, rather than as planetary orbits around the nucleus -represent Snelson’s attempt to depict concretely the most fundamental of all structures. If this project begins to sound like hard core science, Snelson puts it back into perspective as a synthesis of art and science by pointing out that his model belongs to a long tradition of imaginative portrayals. “Artists have often shown us the invisible-gods, spirits, goblins and demons, ” he has written. “They have made tableaux of epic stories or battle scenes whose witnesses have long disappeared. The details of the atom’s structure are equally invisible and must be conjectured from scientific information. . . . Because it is my work to imagine and build sculptures from physical forces, the electronic atom’s form and workings have seemed a kind of sculptural riddle; and as I see it, one not yet solved convincingly by science. ” And so the visionary artist edges over into the territory of speculative science, joining the ranks of artist- scientists from Leonardo to Samuel F. B. Morse. Art is, after all, more a function of passionate focus and intelligence than of medium or subject matter. The term “art, ” in fact. originally referred to the way in which something was done rather than the resultant objects. Hence, strictly speaking, art is possible in all media and disciplines, but it is guaranteed in none.

Snelson’s fascination with structure goes way back. “As a child,” he says, “I developed a need to go to the basement and make things-bringing things into existence that I wished existed. ” The earliest surviving Snelson work is a miniature big band set: a drum made from a 35mm film can, a cardboard piano and band members with paper-clip bodies and bead heads. Later he built model airplanes from balsa wood and rice paper. “Always, when I was finished making the skeleton, especially the fuselage of the airplane, ” he told the curator of his 1977 exhibition at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, “I greatly admired its lightness and transparency. It weighed nothing, yet it had strength. I would rotate it in space, put my eye close to it, and so on. In order to proceed, though, there was nowhere to go but to cover up all the beautiful openness with opaque paper. And there was nobody around to give me permission to stop there.”

Snelson was born in 1927 in Pendleton, Oregon, a small city in the northeastern part of the state, on the old Oregon Trail in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. After serving in the Navy during the last years of World War 11, he entered the University of Oregon in Eugene in 1945. “My brother advised going into business, ” he recalls, “because then you can do anything. I studied accounting and called it pre-law. Then there was a teacher giving a terrific Shakespeare course, so I switched to an English major. After that I became interested in architecture and architectural drawing, and from there I got into design. There were quite a few painting students in the design class, so through them I was gradually drawn into painting”

“It had never occurred to me that someone from Pendleton, Oregon, could be a painter. I had always thought that you had to be touched by God or something. And, of course, when I announced at home that I was going to be a painter, the first question was: ‘How are you going to make a living?’

“After two years at the University of Oregon, I realized that the G.I. Bill would pay for me to study anywhere. I was interested in the Bauhaus and had read about Albers and seen pictures of his work, so I applied to Black Mountain College for the summer session of 1948. ” That was the summer when everybody-including Willem de Kooning, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Richard Lippold and Buckminster Fuller-showed up at Black Mountain. For Snelson the decisive influence of that crucial summer turned out to be not Albers but Fuller. Inspired by Fuller’s gospel of structure and technology, Snelson decided he didn’t want to be a painter after all.

When Snelson returned to the University of Oregon in the fall of 1948, he took up engineering and began to make sculpture. “I made a number of small wire sculptures which moved, ” he noted in the catalogue for the Berlin exhibition. “They were weighted with clay and swayed like a spinal column. One change led to another, and I was soon replacing the swivel points on which they moved with thread tension slings instead. Next, since I thought that an element of mystery would be interesting, I removed the weights and instead substituted additional threads-tension members which restricted the movement entirely. ” The resulting sculpture, in which one wooden X is suspended in space above another only by a network of tightly stretched nylon threads, signaled the direction in which Snelson’s work has gone ever since.

When Snelson returned to Black Mountain the following summer, he showed his sculpture to Buckminster Fuller, who had been investigating, since the 1920s, the principles and applications of structures in which rigid struts are held in place by taut cables. These “tensegrity” structures had the advantage of being much stronger, for their weight, than traditional welded or bolted structures. Fuller has acknowledged Snelson’s 1949 sculpture as having embodied the principle of tensegrity in its most basic and elegant form-and as having served as the catalyst for a major breakthrough in his own researches.

After a brief period of study at the Chicago Institute of Design, the Bauhaus outpost founded by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Snelson again took advantage of the G. I. Bill and set off, in 1951, to study in Paris. A revival of his interest in painting led him to Fernand Leger’s Academie Montmartre, but the only work surviving from that time is a panorama, pieced together from several black and white photographs, of boys playing in the Bois de Boulogne. Snelson, whose father owned a camera store, had worked in his father’s darkroom as a teenager. In Paris he set up his own darkroom and began taking picture s initiating an aspect of his work that continues to the present. Last year at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York he showed the color panoramic photographs of Paris he had taken during a trip there in 1975, and this year he showed black and white panoramas of New York City.

“The panoramas, ” says Snelson, “come out of a voyeuristic impulse, a desire to see in all directions at once. ” Of the panorama hanging in his studio, he comments, “I would like to be able to get details so perfectly that you could look at the photograph and see what was going on in every window in the buildings over in New Jersey. ” But the panoramas, like Snelson’s other work, are also informed by his desire to reveal structure-in this case, the structure of urban spaces. In the New York pictures, taken with a 1916 vintage camera modified to give a low horizon line and to take in as much as possible of the tops of buildings, one can see how buildings over a large area fit together and create the complex textures of the city. In the Parisian photographs, one becomes especially aware of color as a structural element, since many of the panoramas read as compositions in red, white and green.

From 1952, when he moved to New York, until 1968, when he was able to begin devoting his full time to his art, Snelson worked as a Class A movie cameraman, shooting mostly for commercials and documentary programs such as Walter Cronkite’s “Twentieth Century” and “David Brinkley’s Journal.” During the late ’50s and the early ’60s, he worked with Don Pennebaker and Ricky Leacock, who pioneered live sound on location for television. He did this primarily as a means of earning a living until he could make some money from his sculpture and other interests. “It was a day’s work, quite lucrative, and you could leave it at the end of the day,” he says.

The middle 1960s marked a turning point for Snelson-from the recognition of his technological achievements to his real artistic debut. The first presentation of his work at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1964, was in a show of 20th-century engineering rather than in a sculpture exhibition. Snelson was represented by a “floating compression mast” ten feet, six inches long and weighing ten pounds, which, in the catalogue photograph, cropped at both top and bottom, looks like a futuristic version of Brancusi’s Endless Column. It was for this structure and its potentially infinite variations that Snelson obtained, in 1965, U.S. patent number 3,169,611. The technology was firmly established.

Then, in 1966, Virginia Dwan’s Dwan Gallery, New York, offered Snelson a show. It was a success. The exhibitions at Dwan became annual affairs and were followed by one-man shows in New York City’s Bryant Park, in Fort Worth, at the Kröller-Müller State Museum in Otterlo, Holland, and at numerous museums in Germany. When Snelson appeared at MOMA, in 1969, it was in Nelson Rockefeller’s collection of certified masterpieces of 20th century art. Since then, Snelson’s work has entered the permanent collections of many museums, including MOMA, the Whitney, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C. (where an exhibition of his work will open in June). Snelson’s work has also been in demand as municipal sculpture; he has executed commissions in cities ranging from Hamburg, Germany, to Iowa City. He is now represented by the Zabriskie Gallery in New York.

It is difficult to trace any clear, linear development in Snelson’s style, since, especially during the 1960s, he often worked in several different directions concurrently. In general, however, it is safe to say that his sculpture has tended over the years to become more horizontal and less symmetrical. His earliest sculptures were often in the form of tapering towers, with massive tubes at the base and small ones at the top; for his show in Bryant Park in 1968, Snelson constructed a tower over 60 feet high. Many of the other pieces in that show were low and symmetrical configurations, largely rectilinear or diagonal, with one end of most of the tubes resting on the ground and only a few tubes hovering parallel to the earth, suspended entirely by cables.

As early as 1966, however, Snelson had begun to make sculptures that developed horizontally, almost narratively, and that were radically asymmetrical. These were the first works to suggest multiple-exposure strobe photographs of complex and daring ballet movements. One might also say, to try another metaphor, that the tubes look as if they had been tossed gracefully into the air and then had suddenly frozen in place. The cables work visually as lines of force between them or, in still another reading, as faceted edges of the crystalline structures in which the tubes appear to be embedded.

The comparison between Snelson’s sculptures and the ballet is particularly appropriate in that both are elegant, polished (literally and figuratively in the case of the sculptures), classically structured and even somewhat precious and reactionary. Both depend on technical virtuosity (something that most artists regard with suspicion these days), and both are imbued with a high stylized mystery that remains, inexplicably, pleasurable even after we know pretty much what to expect. Like many ballets, a survey of Snelson’s sculptures would be an extended series of variations on a theme. Fortunately, for him and for us, that theme is almost inexhaustibly rich.

Ever since Paleolithic times, the human body has been the primary source of sculptural forms-and, despite Snelson’s emphasis on the laws of physics as his chief muse, his sculptures may be seen to have an organic aspect as well. In structural terms, his metal tubes serve essentially the same function that bones serve in the body, while the taut cables are analogous to tensed muscles. Snelson does not, however, conceive of his work in these terms. Although he is certainly sensitive to the poetic overtones of his sculptures, he is really quite pragmatic concerned, above all, with making sculptures that are increasingly challenging in a technical as well as an esthetic sense. As for the actual look of the sculptures, Snelson says, “I am interested in old-hat ideas like compositional space.”

By 1971, Snelson was a sufficiently virtuosic master of his technique to cantilever a 100-foot-long tapering sculpture, entitled, from the edge of a pond on the grounds of Park Sonsbeek at Arnhem in the Netherlands. From then on, the sculptures have grown more sprawling and intricate. In 1977 Snelson set up a version of New Dimension, which is cantilevered out in all directions from three more or less vertical tubes, in the immense gallery designed by Mies van der Rohe for the Nationalgalerie in Berlin. The piece stood 18 feet high and extended 64 feet across at its broadest point. Enormous at it was, an even larger version of it, entitled Easy Landing, measuring 85 feet across, has since been constructed on the newly renovated waterfront in Baltimore, Maryland.

All the sculptures begin as maquettes only a foot or two high. “In determining the scale of a sculpture,” Snelson says, “I ask myself how high I would like to be so that I could explore it. If it needs to be big enough to walk under, to look up at, then the considerations clearly start to become architectural.”

Asked whether he would like to build a sculpture as tall as the Eiffel Tower some day, Snelson replied that he would love to. “The obstacle is money. The range of money available for sculpture is limited. People have definite notions of how much a public, monumental sculpture should cost. That limit is very much below what is needed for an architectural- scale project. But, technically, a tall project would be relatively easy to construct, since the sculptures are self-scaffolding.”

Snelson’s atomic models grew directly out of his sculptures. He discovered in 1960 that certain numerical properties that emerged from the calculations determining- the relationships of the parts in the sculptures were analogous to the numerical hierarchies in the periodic table of chemical elements. Having read everything he could find about atomic structure, he had the problem on his mind one day while shopping in Woolworth’s. When he spotted a bin of the magnetic hooks that people put on their refrigerator doors, something clicked. He visualized the paths of the electrons as being like solid magnetic disks facing outward around the nucleus. Two atoms would then join together into a molecule when electronic rings of opposite charges were aligned surface to surface with each other. Eureka-in Woolworth’s!

Snelson patented his model in 1966, following it with a patented refinement in 1978. But, despite much lively discussion, as well as a major exhibition of the model at the Maryland Academy of Sciences in Baltimore in 1979, Snelson’s idea has found little acceptance. Snelson’s favorite objection to his model came from a crystallographer who complained, “Well, just because it is beautiful doesn’t prove it’s right!” Snelson himself commented, “I hold a very unpopular view. It’s a good thing they don’t burn people at the stake anymore. It’s one thing to convince laymen, but it’s very frustrating to find that scientists simply won’t listen. They are very closed-minded.”

Snelson, however, has the conviction and determination of a pioneer. Referring to the synthesis of art and engineering in his sculptures, he asked, “Who has explored this avenue before? I’ve had the great joy of exploring something that had not been done before-making sculptures that are a pure, direct expression of what they are. They are hard to make, and perhaps that is why I don’t have many followers. But it’s the sense of discovery that has motivated me to keep on.”