Kunstverein Hannover


Kenneth Snelson’s Position is Unique

by Gregoire Muller

Critical writing has made a large use of metaphors: since Plato, and later Keats, Art has been presented as an instrument of knowledge through the affirmation that Beauty is Truth. Such statements are now banished from contemporary writing, the confident romanticism they reflect is divorced from the nature of modern art, and science has asserted its privilege for Truth.

Kenneth Snelson’s position is unique: it is not a metaphor to say that his art brings a better understanding of the nature of reality. Through the methodology of an artist, he discovered some elementary structural laws of the material world: and his discoveries were so important that they soon reached far beyond the limits of the art world. The tensegrity principle has been adapted by his friend Buckminster Fuller for architecture, his model for the representation of the electrons’ orbits around the atom is still intriguing for scientists (who hesitate to admit that an artist could be the first to discover the adequate representation) and his sculptures represent the best examples of possible structures for spatial engineering.

No matter how important for the technico-scientific world Kenneth Snelson’s discoveries are, what interests us mainly are their implications in terms of art, as long as we are able to give this term a broader meaning than the mere seeking for formal beauty. Both in its relation to the work of others and in itself, the work of Kenneth Snelson raises some of the most important questions, proposing unusual and unexpected solutions.

Among the issues dealt with in post-Minimal sculpture, one finds gravity as being perhaps the most crucial for artists such as Carl Andre or Richard Serra. Both have been analyzing the nature of sculpture in order to purify it from all its non-essential and artificial aspects. Both Andre and Serra realized that sculpture, in order to rise from the floor, had to be a construction, a man-made disposition of parts defying the natural law of gravity.

Andre’s answer was to limit himself to horizontality in most of his work, while Serra used gravity as the only structural element holding his sculptures together. What these pieces made evident was that sculpture – and architecture as well – always took gravity for granted, using this force, playing with it, defying it … but always including it as a structural component. For these contemporary sculptors, there seems to be no way to counter the natural law of gravity without having as a result an artificial construction unable to assert itself validly in space.

While so much critical attention has been given to this problem within the last two or three years, it is surprising that the connection with Snelson’s work was never made. He has created a system in which gravity has no place, thus situating himself at the opposite of Serra who consciously acknowledges gravity as the main structural element of his work. It seems that all sculpture stands between these two attitudes; most of it requiring gravity as the condition sine qua non for its existence. Even such simplified works as Brancusi’s “Sleeping Muse” or some of the primary structures of the sixties, which do not seem to be concerned with gravity, are spatially oriented in relation to it. In those cases, it looks more as if they would be somehow “forgetting” about this issue, while Snelson voluntarily negates it. His development clearly shows how he eliminated gravity as a structural component of his sculptures and re p I ac ed it by another force. In a 1948 piece, he was playing with the well known toy of the little man oscillating on top of a narrow support: he sophisticatedly extended it by piling little men on top of each other’s head and ended up with a sculpture which had the appearance of a mobile by Calder … with the major difference being that his mobile was not suspended, but supported. The analysis of this piece led him to the conclusion that two combined forces were holding it together: the force of the support and the force of gravity. In other words, the tension of gravity was compressing the support, thus creating a stabilized balance. The next logical step was to replace this tension by the actual tension of a cable, which he did in 1949 with a piece called X-Piece. Free from gravity, this piece has no spatial orientation; it can be placed on any of its sides, it can be suspended or even leaned against a wall: it is a structurally closed system.

Minimal Art has revived in art criticism the use of the word Gestalt – structure of phenomena integrated in such a way that it forms a unit in which no property can be derived from the parts. A primary structure such as the cube would be the most obvious example of sculptural concern with Gestalt, in as much as the sides have no “meaning” except in their relationship to the cube itself. Since the time of Minimal Art, this issue has been rendered more complex by the emphasis on process as the structurally unifying element in sculpture. Snelson’s dealing with this issue is a unique and original one: it is his principle of tensegrity which plays this unifyinq role assumed by the cutting, the spreading, the piling or other processes. He combines elements of tension and compressed elements until he reaches a point of balance between the two opposite systems of forces; thus, in the finished sculpture, each element is an indispensable one and there is no place for the esthetic game of adding or subtracting freely different parts. Many of his pieces, however, are composed of a chain of units; each unit is either a closed system as in “City Boots”, or on the contrary, it is the “closing” element balancing the forces of the neighboring unit. This conception suggests the possibility of the endless extension of the piece, as in Brancusi’s “Colonne Sans Fin”. But this does not deny Snelson’s respect for the Gestalt:when an extension of the piece is possible, it is so only through the acceptance of the primary unit’s laws. An example of this can be found in “Needle Tower” where the primary unit is, by its essence, dimensionally oriented and situated somewhere between zero and infinite; the inherent laws of this piece include the possibility of an almost endless extension towards the two opposite poles and the actual sculpture just illustrates part of this possible extension. In some pieces it is their physical condition as a completely closed system which leads to the psychological notion of Gestalt, while in others the concept underlying the basic unit is the unifying element in the open series. Although all of Snelson’s work (with the exception of his models for the orbits of electrons) is based on his original principle of tensegrity, it is obvious that it has close connections with contemporary purely esthetic problems such as the ones mentioned above. Even the now outdated issue of “clean” execution much emphasized by Minimal Art is both an esthetic concern and the logical consequence of the rules of the game established by the artist; but there is another problem which, in Snelson’s case, reduces the gap between esthetic concern and scientific “truth”. Sculpture has long been mistakenly considered as an independent whole from its surrounding space; Gargallo’s iron sculptures with their “negative spaces”, the constructivist sculptors, Duchamp and his string environment, and later Minimal artists have clearly shown that mass and space cannot be separated and the interest has slowly shifted from the relations inside the sculpture to the relations outside the sculpture. With Kenneth Snelson, it is difficult to make a distinction between inside space and outside space: his art deals with space as such and its inherent laws. The clear separation of the two opposite sets of forces involved in his pieces forced him to give each element a particular location in space, and he soon discovered there is no free or anarchic method in which one located force or element relates to another located force or element; there are indeed definite laws for spatial positioning … and some have yet to be discovered. The ones Snelson discovered simply go from Archimedes to atomic physics.

For what concerns Archimedes, it will be enough to mention that in Snelson’s pieces the degree of tension of the tension elements is directly proportional to the amount of space they occupy, a practical fact that he has encountered in the making of his sculptures and which confirms the old law in a new way: spatially. His other discovery is more complex and led him to physics’s most contemporary problems. Experimenting with different spatial symmetries, he encountered the simple problem of one element perpendicularly crossed by another, creating a situation that we have been taught to label “double symmetry”. However, when encountered in his sculptures, this spatial situation seemed to be better explained by introducing the notion of rotation. A simple experiment will illustrate it clearly: take two poles crossing each other, one on top of the other; place your left hand on the top one and your right hand on the bottom one and then go toward the center … a left to right rotation starts inevitably. Take the next quarter formed by the two poles and the rotation will be from right to left.

For a long time electrons were a complete mystery for scientists; they acted as if they could not be located in their relationship to the three conventional axes x, y, and z. A better approximation of the location of electrons – which is still mysterious and explained only with the help of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle – was obtained through the introduction of the spin which defines the electron’s rotation … something very similar to what Snelson discovered while pursuing an esthetic study of the properties of space in his sculptures.

This similarity was intriguing enough for him to continue his investigation of space with the possibility of eventually applying it to the problem of locating the electrons.

Using circular magnets of opposite magnetic field, he displaced them on the surface of a sphere in such a way that one magnet would only be surrounded by magnets of an opposite field; the number of magnets he was able to place on a sphere followed a pattern almost identical to the one of the exclusion principle discovered by Pauli which fixes the possible number of electrons on each level of energy around the nucleus. This fact led Snelson to create his new model of the electrons’ orbit around the atom, a model which seemed absolutely plausible to some scientists and for which he took a patent.

Despite this incursion in pure science, Kenneth Snelson’s quest is primarily artistic in its goal and in its methodology. Dealing with matter, space and energy, as any sculptor, he analyzes the nature of reality … as the best contemporary sculptors do. For his research he has given himself a set of rules, defined by his tensegrity principle, which fix the limits of his liberty and allow him to focus clearly on specific problems. Within these accepted limits, the range of possibilities is vast, and he is using these possibilities according to purely esthetic necessities. Other contemporary artists have based their work on some specific properties of reality – Serra with gravity, or Mario Merz with the Fibonacci Series, to mention only two of them-, making these hidden properties perceptible to the spectator. All of these works share a common quality that all art has always metaphorically searched for: the uncovering of the very structure of reality is the uncovering of beauty.

New York, February 1971