Kenneth Snelson Exhibition: The Nature of Structure

The New York Academy of Sciences, January – April 1989

Catalog Introduction

by Joelle Burrows

The scientist’s compelling drive to understand the nature of physical reality is occasionally shared by the artist. The exhibition KENNETH SNELSON: The Nature of Structure explores one artist’s long search for such understanding. It illuminates the commonality of that drive for both the artist and the scientist, yet also points up the essential differences in their methodologies.

The urge to make sense of the world led the ancient Greeks to advance the notion of the atom, that at some point matter is so small it becomes indivisible. In recent times, the effort to define atomic structure has evolved into the complex disciplines of theoretical and experimental physics. The means by which the physicist has had access to this mini-world is through the language of mathematics, and that poses a quandary for contemporary man. Higher mathematics is a barrier many of us cannot overcome to gain knowledge of this hidden realm. And to the highly visual artist, such as Snelson, it is a significant non-visual barrier.

For its inspiration, art is free to draw upon all of knowledge and experience as its raw material. Now, in effect, modern science has rendered part of that raw material inaccessible to the visual artist (and, for that matter, to the layman) who cannot penetrate the veil of mathematics that shrouds modern research.

The findings of the scientist’s domain have inexorably worked their way into the core of our cultural consciousness, distilled as they are in lay terms. Yet, while they have fundamentally altered the way we seek to order our world, these scientific findings have not assuaged the artist’s urge to make sense of this new world on his own terms. Science in this sense has become the latter-day forbidden fruit.

As an artist, Kenneth Snelson has had a curiously hybrid career. There has been a consistent focus to his artistic vision, and that vision has always entailed a scientific component: How is matter constructed?

The issue first arose when he was in art school at Black Mountain College in North Carolina during the summers Of 1948 and 1949. Inspired by architect Buckminster Fuller’s interest in the geometry of structure, Snelson’s experiments led to a prototype for a “floating compression structure.” Fuller subsequently credited Snelson with having invented a new structural principle which the architect named tensegrity, a contraction of the words tension and integrity.

These investigations into the physical properties of structure became more fully realized as an art form beginning in the 1950s. Snelson created sculptures consisting of tubes and cables. Cylinders of steel seemingly dance through space in defiance of gravity, yet it is the structural competition between tension and compression which underlies their construction. Snelson finds beauty in bringing these forces of nature into balance: the rigid compression tubes pushing outward, the flexible tension cables pulling inward. His sculptures would maintain their structural integrity beyond gravity, in the vacuum of outer space.

Snelson’s concerns are not exclusively or even fundamentally artistic, nor are they essentially technological: they are philosophical,” writes Howard N. Fox in his introductory essay for the catalogue of Snelson’s 198-1 retrospective exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.:

For Snelson, the mystery and wonder of the universe is what he describes as “the infinite perfection of connections” among 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 1960, the artist embarked on a comparable endeavor, to address a concern his tension-compression sculptures posed for himself: What constitutes solidity? Where does rigidity, as a distinct physical quality, begin? Snelson shifted his interest from the observable world of objects in force relationships to a hidden inner realm. He began to search the mysteries of the atom; specifically, how electrons moving around the nucleus of an atom carve out space. The simple beauty Snelson found in forces on the macroscopic level he now sought to bring to the submicroscopic world. Since 1960, his on-going artwork PORTRAIT OF AN ATOM has evolved in complexity and taken on many guises: models constructed of various materials, air-brush drawings, and writings (two United States patents and a sixty-page unpublished manuscript). Now, since 1987, the PORTRAIT has been realized in computer-generated images.

Kenneth Snelson’s sculptures stand in public places and museums throughout the world. The questions he raises for himself and seeks to resolve in his art fall more traditionally within the preserve of science: they are questions more susceptible to the probing tools of science than to those of art. While the concern for structure has encompassed all his artistic work, the scientific underpinnings of that concern have frankly been disconcerting to the art world and ignored by the science community. To try to clarify – if not bridge – this gap, we invited a scientist, Hans Christian von Baeyer, Professor of Physics at The College of William and Mary, to discuss Snelson’s artistic concerns with him and not shy away from his controversial PORTRAIT OF AN ATOM.

The Greeks devised the notion of infinitesimal yet indivisible units of matter and called these units “atoms” (from I, to cut, and a, without.) Since then, the unit of matter we still refer to as an “atom’ is the smallest cohesive unit of matter which is chemically distinct. Unlike the ancient concept, however, we now know the atom itself is composed of many parts. At its center is a positively charged nucleus, which for our purposes let’s think of as a baseball. Circling around the nucleus of every atom are negatively charged electrons whose numbers range from one, in the case of hydrogen, on up through the periodic table of elements to, in the case of the radioactive artificial element unilseptium, 107. When the electrons absorb energy, they jump to higher energy states further from the nucleus. If, therefore, the nucleus is the baseball, the electrons can range to the perimeter of the stadium and beyond. The nucleus, too, we now know is composed of many parts, such as mesons and quarks. But those subatomic particles need not concern us here, because Snelson’s fascination with the atom has remained arrested at its edge, at the physical border between tomos and atomos – at that crucial juncture where the hidden realm emerges to touch our experience.

Just how electrons spin out around the nucleus of an atom to engage space has been the subject of Snelson’s interest for several decades. He sees it as a fair and worthy concern, one fundamental to the visual arts: how to articulate space. The issue to him is a sculptural riddle. Snelson’s drive to make palpable the spatial configuration at the edge of solidity is unabated. His investigation of physical forces on the macroscopic level, where the laws of Newtonian classical mechanics hold, resulted in the principle of tensegrity. This, in turn, had its artistic resolution in his tube and cable sculptures. Now his investigation is directed to physical forces on the atomic level, where the laws of quantum mechanics hold but are not intuitively obvious. These laws are expressed in numbers, not in images, not even in words. They permit an electron to be here and there simultaneously. They suspend our logic, as they suspend our ability to grasp in any tangible way. For the artist, this has pitted a rightful urge to comprehend the world – “wanting to see inside, desperately wanting to see” – up against a black hole.

Snelson has read widely within the field of physics (the bibliography of his manuscript includes 16o items) and he has extracted a notion which satisfies his sense of how atomic structure must function. The halos of his atom portrait, while unfounded to a physicist, describe for him a mechanical structure whereby electrons can engage space. Their artistic resolution is reached in the seamless visions of the computer-generated images. Significantly, as soon as the artist mastered his new vocabulary of forms afforded by computer technology, he did not methodically set about to render all the possible configurations of each of the elements, of helium with its two electrons, and on up to the more complex configurations of, say, uranium, with its 92 electrons. instead he created fanciful atomic landscapes with a rich, full palette of colors, all the while feeling compelled to make them “as luscious as possible.”

The dialogue between artist and physicist Hans Christian von Baeyer begins on P. 21. It illuminates how Kenneth Snelson expresses himself within the rigors of art, not of science. It reveals his passion to bite the forbidden fruit. On the art/science fence, he comes down squarely on the side of art: His inspiration comes from science but he sees himself as an artist. While his high-tech tools could be shared with the scientist, his methods are surely those alone of the artist. Preceding the conversation, Snelson offers a brief description on p. 12 of his atom and bow and why he turned to computer graphics to render that vision. For the non-physicist, it should be helpful to read on P. 29 the physicist’s view of the atom, as offered by Professor von Baeyer, and how it differs from Snelson’s. Von Baeyer has also defined in the margins of the dialogue key terms of physics that come up in the conversation. The dialogue itself is presented between science historical and art historical perspectives. Science historian Robert S. Root-Bernstein traces the evolution of atomic models and offers a generous view on how to place Snelson’s efforts (p. 15). Art historian Barbara Maria Stafford considers Snelson’s work in the context of both Western philosophical thought and other art (P- 51).

The science historical perspective offers the opposite viewpoint to Snelson’s artistic expression as fueled by scientific insight. Arthur Williamson, Dean of the Graduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of California, Sacramento, sees a counterpoint within scientific method to an art informed by science:

One of the crucial propositions to modern science – commonly referred to as Ockham’s razor – claims that for any given set of phenomena, the explanation that makes the fewest assumptions is to be preferred. Yet there exists no reason at all why nature should conform to such a principle. Our preference for elegance, neatness, and economy of explanation speaks volumes about us, but not a word about the external world. More immediately, much of the most exciting, indeed breathtaking, thought in physics this century has turned on is the Grand Unification Theory, the notion that the four basic forces in nature must emanate from a common cause. Of course no reason whatever appears in nature for us to assume this to be the case or to be the legitimate basis for scientific inquiry. And yet this hypothesis has proven to be enormously fecund. Moreover, any number of specific leaps of scientific imagination can be recognized as deriving from aesthetic or semi-aesthetic judgments largely independent of the logic of available scientific evidence. (Excerpted from a letter to the author, March 25, 1988.)

In Coming of Age in the Milky Way, Timothy Ferris reveals that the process of science is not a neat march along a continuum of progressively abstract thought. “He means to show us, ” writes Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in reviewing the book in The New York Times, “that scientists are artists – obsessed, intuitive, eccentric, driven, inspired and filled with longing to complete not only their pictures of the universe but also themselves.” What the artist and scientist have in common is enormous imagination. They share a drive to pose difficult questions and an irreverence to forge a new vision from the answers they find. But their methodologies part ways: they are in fact polar opposites. The scientist’s work must necessarily be replicable; that of the artist, necessarily not.

The dialogue and attendant essays can be read on many levels. The extent of one’s knowledge of theoretical physics aside, this catalogue is directed to other concerns: the common search of the artist and the scientist, despite their disparate ways, to understand the nature of physical reality, “to complete their pictures of the universe.” On a closing note, there is perhaps irony in the artist’s demand that the physicist be physical and the physicist’s maintaining that the essence of understanding nature lies in abstraction.

Kenneth Snelson has spent his artistic life with a single focus: What is the nature of structure? What is the structure of nature? It is the integrity of that quest, the formidable expansiveness and circumscription of the artist’s vision, that this exhibition examines and celebrates.