March – May 1977
Interview with Kenneth Snelson
by Angela Schneider
Schneider: In the last four months you have been working on the sculptures “New Dimension – and “Forest Devil” can you describe the process by which you make your large sculptures?
Snelson: I work out ideas with a maquette in the beginning. It would be impossible, except by some magic to be transformed into a giant, for me to work directly in large pieces 20 meters across and so many meters high. There are more than enough complications even with a model as a map and as a control. The model must encompass all the necessary considerations for constructing the sculpture in its full size. I determine how I want to relate to the work at human scale; that is the important question. In my mind, the piece becomes a kind of being, a creature of a sort. I imagine it in its full proportion as if I were standing near it, under it; walking around it. Then begins the tedious process necessary in order to realize it in its final size. A diary of all this would be uncommonly dull, for after the excitement at the period of conception, as with making babies, there is the calculating, the listing, coding, measuring, making drawings, and most of all, the frustrations of depending on others, with the need for industrial resources, suppliers, fabricators. In making my sculptures I cannot avoid this. It takes days and weeks of nonsense telephone-calls, letters and arguing.
In my studio I do whatever is practical to do. I make small parts, prototypes, models, all of the cut lengths of precisely measured cables, their fitted ends, do photography and drawings. I have everything necessary to make anything. But since my studio is in Manhattan, what I do not have is enough space. The large work goes to machine shops and industry. This is more hazardous, more difficult than it sounds because of the large numbers of parts and details.
Down the line, somewhere, there are all of those anonymous minds and hands to make mistakes other than those I make myself. I have learned to ask every possible question sixteen different ways and constantly to recheck and cross-reference to make sure that something is not left out or misunderstood. Being this thorough is not really my nature, but I have come to it of necessity. Still, I find that often I have been worrying about the wrong thing entirely. It seems that one has too little imagination to anticipate all possible disasters.
After this labyrinth of parts, papers, lists, mistakes and corrections, the crates are built, the container filled, the boat sails, and here I am, in Berlin, ready to put the two sculptures together for the first time anywhere. This is an exciting moment. Will they actually go together as I have imagined through all of this? In fact, of course, they have.
Schneider: Now that the sculptures are together,… 222
Snelson: The photographs tell the story, I think, but minus all the cursing. It took eight days to put together “New Dimension”, and three days for “Forest Devil”.
I wish I could say that it went as smoothly and easily as it looks, perhaps, in the pictures. Unfortunately it is never easy with my structures, especially if they are as complex as these. If I have few imitators, this is one of the reasons. Three of us, sometimes as many as six men fought with the forces in “New Dimension” while it was going up. It is like taking on a colossal, dead- weight wrestler or an enormous mind-bending jig-saw puzzle constructed of a series of booby-traps. Some- times we spent an hour or so just to arrange for the introduction of a single pipe. After finally overwhelming the monster with our brave determination and strength we see that we have won. Only then does someone discover that a cable is twisted over something in the wrong way and we must do the whole act once again; with feeling.
I have worked with these force diagrams in space for 28 years during which time they have been increasing in size. They have become somewhat more manageable, to be sure; but then I continue to make more difficult structures, so in a way, I am on a treadmill. Anyway, now that they are both standing, I love them and I want them to know this, despite what I may have said while the assembly was going on.
Schneider: Kenneth, your sculptures are of stainless steel or of aluminum. Why do you choose these materials?
Snelson: There are not many choices. There is no substitute for wire rope, in the way that I work. The materials must have strength and be not too stretchable. I did enjoy working with bamboo and nylon rope for a while, a few years ago, but the point was somewhat lost when people looked at those works. They were sort of soft force-structures, and generally planar in the manner of kite frames. I had a delicious love-affair with bamboo in fact, but with it, or with plastic rope one cannot achieve what is possible with steel or aluminum.
Since aluminum is about one third the weight of steel, I can more easily accomplish a feat such as that of the 33 meter cantilever piece “Easy-K” which was shown in Arnhem, Holland in 1971. It looked quite astounding, and would have been virtually impossible to do, had it weighed three times as much.
Stainless Steel has that rewarding property, corrosion resistance and is among the few satisfactory materials for eternal life out-of-doors. I am not turned on by Corten steel which has become this decade’s cliche in sculpture material. Finally, rust is rust and it’s not my thing.
Schneider: Then / gather that you do not have an emotional attachment to these materials, as some artists do?
Snelson: I would say that I do. Aluminum and stainless steel pipes and wire rope and I are old friends and old enemies, both. I struggle with them, we fight; I usually win.
You see, I would like to get across the central point about this whole investigation: these works are first and last organizations of forces in space. Until the piece is put together the forces are not there.The forces are introduced as things are added, piece by piece. Finally, when the last cable is attached, the closed system of forces is complete. Gravity is quite secondary to all of this.The sculpture could be put into orbit in outer space and it would maintain its form. Its forces are internally locked. These mechanical forces, compression and tension or push and pull are invisible – just pure energy – in the same way that magnetic or electric fields are invisible. In order to check out where a magnetic field may exist, one can use iron filings sprinkled on a sheet of paper. It is then possible to see a pattern and to say, “Look there; a magnetic field”.
In the same way, the pushing and pulling forces which make up my sculptures must be carried by means of material, much as copper wire carries electric current. The forces are made visible in a sense, by means of the wire rope carrying the tension and by tubular parts carrying the compression.
Now, one can say to all this,”Well, it doesn’t mean a damn to me whether or not those forces are in there, since I am unable to see them. I am interested in visual art.” You see, the point is that it is visual; – forces made visible. Forces are at work in other kinds of sculptures too, of course, but since they are not isolated out of the rest of the material packed around them, it is not possible to see the structure. I am showing you, for the very first time what structural space really looks like. There is never a doubt as to which part is accomplishing which action, tension or compression. They never reverse their function in these organizations which I make.
Also, in order to focus on the forces, I try to use materials sparingly, to make the piece as light as possible, not only to limit the effect of gravity, but because of visual mass and openness.
Schneider: Then this openness is important to you on an aesthetic ground in addition to the structural consideration?
Snelson: Perhaps it has to do with my early contact with “less is more”, the Bauhaus via Joseph Albers. It also has to do with a kind of once-removed voyeurism, I suppose. It is most attractive to me to see through the sculpture – to view the other side at the same time and relate to all aspects at once.
Schneider: How do you differentiate between form and structure, then, or do you?
Snelson: Since I am focusing on an aesthetic of structure, they are one and the same. I feel that there is an identity here between form and structure, both with the piece as a whole and in its parts as well. In a way, I guess that is why I am not attracted to welding my work together. I can’t understand a weld; it is far too complex. I have a feeling for knots, however, and screw fastenings. The kinds of connections which unite two parts of the sculpture are vitally important in my view. That very point of contact of one part to another is, in each case a miniature structural element which expresses the same attitude involved in the total sculpture. A knot, the simple interlacing of a flexed linear piece of matter is an elegant formal -structural statement. I am ever in wonder of these fundamental mysteries: knots, weaving – interlocks, right and left handed helixes, or six pennies in perfect tangential contact around a seventh one at their center. Of course, this is the child speaking. But I can’t be awed by life’s larger mysteries with anymore amazement than I feel about these close-up ones.
My small maquettes are assembled by means of knots. These become the stops which prevent the small cables from pulling out of the ends of the slits in the tubes.The knots therefore make it possible to tense from point to point in space. The knot and the slit in the tube are like a tiny solar system, one mass circumscribing another, resulting in unity. These identities are not glaringly obvious, yet all that we have at the human scale – this thin, middle ground of space, halfway in size between atoms and stars – is a frozen analogue of the orbiting principle shared both by planets and electrons. This appearance of solidity which we know intellectually to be the illusion of the mechanical world, 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.
Also, you will notice 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.
As I say, 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. Perhaps, it would be like listening to someone read Shakespeare.—All this? With only 26 letters?
Schneider: Kenneth, aren’t such concerns as these, that is the study of physical forces, usually in the province of physics and engineering?
Snelson: This is true, of course, historically, with a few exceptions. Artists have not found a vocabulary or a frame of reference for employing such a proposal. I am trying to change all that because I believe that a very rich and evocative art can come out of this concern for structure.
Schneider: What is the difference, then, between your work with physical forces, and that of a physicist or an engineer?
Snelson: Yes, I wanted to discuss this, for I know it is confusing for people who adore compartmentalizing. The painter Harry Holtzman was fond of saying that, “Hardening of the categories leads to Art disease”.
It is a question of focus and intent. I can recall the boredom, as a student, taking the usual undergraduate physics course; especially the chapter about acceleration due to the force of gravity. There were such problems as “determine the velocity at the point of impact, of an apple which falls from a branch 12 feet above the ground.” I noted on the margin of the book how I would delight in catching the apple in mid-air instead of trying to calculate its velocity.
As an artist, I am simply not excited by formulae as the end-product. It is far removed from direct experience.
Engineers, on the other hand do make things tangible by application of science, solving problems for utilitarian purposes. I have no interest in such problems really, although I very much admire great and beautiful bridges, etc. as most people do.
Perhaps my proposal that pure structures can become pure sculpture may be irritating to those who feel that everything, especially structures ought to be useful. A man at one of my shows commented, “Well, I can’t see this as sculpture, but it looks like something which could very well support the roof of a building.” I replied that the same might be said of a huge rock or the Colossus of Rhodes.
Schneider: Kenneth, you did many years of serious work concerning the structure of the atom. The scientists regard it not as purely scientific while the artist might think it more scientific than artistic. So, what is art and what is science in your sculpture?
Snelson: I hope that by reaching from this island called the “art world” into that called the “world of science”, I might suggest, that bridges are feasible in this cultural archipelago. Generally, the establishment prefers to restrict such bridges. May be there is a feeling that not much is to be gained by opening the borders. Strict categories represent dominion. What a bloody nuisance when an outsider suggests that anything may be less complicated and obscure than everyone has been led to believe.
The largest objection physicists have to my interpretation of their own data touching on the atom’s electronic structure (aside from the objection that I am not a member of the scientific fraternity) is that they can see no use for such conjectures as these. If this is actually true, that it is useless to speculate about the intrinsic structure of atoms, then this alone makes it art. You see, this atom idea evolved out of the tension structures, and it started in 1960. 1 discovered that the structures have curious rotational properties and number hierarchies in their unique configurations. I began to see a kind of order in them analogous to the order found in the periodic table of chemical elements, with the peculiar numbers of electrons which gather around the atom’s nucleus to form the systems of “shells”. Then I discovered something truly fascinating; that such configurations can be represented by means of current-loop magnets in the form of mosaics or patterns of symmetry around a spherical surface. This, perhaps wildly, suggested the possibility of constructing a model, a theoretical one, with the hope of clarifying how moving electrons, are able to accomplish their most amazing feat, the creation of what we know as “matter”.
I began to study and collect all available literature -at Columbia University and New York University, near where I live –about the Quantum Theory and about models of the atom since Rutherford and Bohr. I began to be certain that we ought to expect a better answer than offered by physics or chemistry, to the question, “How, and by what structural means do electrons occupy atomic space?” I already had my clues to such an answer and it seemed reasonable for an artist with my peculiar preoccupation to solve this “Quantum Riddle”. In a capsule this is what I believe: Electrons moving about the nucleus of the atom fully take up the space in which they move. In this they are not like planets nor like light waves, They occupy space as if their paths of motion were solid matter – which indeed, finally, they are. Physicists might not disagree so far. It is not acknowledged however that this phenomenon of non-penetrability of the orbit itself, must apply equally to each electron within individual atoms. To me, this is the only method by which a fairly shrewd god would have worked the whole thing out.
Anyway, my numerous structural arguments for these assumptions have in incredible congruency with what is expected of electrons according to the accepted data. I am told that Niels Bohr would have been captivated by it, certainly would have published it. It unfolds as an elegant and rich description of the ideal atom.
Well, after I finished writing about it, it was printed in a fairly inconsequential magazine in 1963. Scientists who read the piece generally reacted that it was art rather than science because it was too qualitative. The general reaction from the art world is that it is science and not art because it is too quantitative. Perhaps the kindest cut came from a crystalographer who, in reversing an old adage, said, “Well, just because it is beautiful, doesn’t prove it’s right!”
Finally, I applied for and received a U.S. Patent on the principle in order to keep it in perpetual publication, to date the conception and to verify that it is indeed a new idea, for when one applies for a patent the government goes about researching to see whether or not it has been done before. Because of the requirements in applying for a patent, it comes out looking more like gadgets than a theory, but the idea is there if anyone cares to read it.
I think that when our civilization finally goes down the drain, we should pour plastic over all the patent offices for future archaeologists. As a storehouse of ideas it is our own King Tut’s Tomb.
Is my portrait of an atom art or science? Well, I have taken the same material which science uses and drawn up a structural interpretation which comes directly out of my knowledge from the sculptures, as to how and why bodies are held together by forces. This is portraiture in the most classical sense, only the subject ‘is the atom, and instead of oil paint I am using logic and three dimensional space. Of course one would be expected to know something about the subject before the picture is totally understandable. Similarly, one would need to have a feeling for the human face in order to appreciate Rembrandt. Is it art?
At long last’ virtually all works by artists, including video, films, concepts, numerology, body language and self mutilation are immune from that tired query, “Is it art”? Perhaps my atom piece is the “last of the Mohegans.”
Schneider: Going back to these two new pieces, “New Dimension -and “Forest Devil’,how and when did you arrive at them?
Snelson: I conceived of both of them in this size to relate to the space inside of the Nationalgalerie, which I began to call Mies van der Rohe’s aircraft hanger. It is a building which has had, I think you will agree, many sculptures housed uncomfortably in it. It is simply vast, with that 8 meter ceiling and a space 50 meters by 50 meters. I felt challenged to do pieces which would relate to such a space. The attractive part of this of course is that my pieces can grow to this size without too many problems. As a concomitant to my method of working I am solving beforehand the bugaboo for most sculptors wishing to do large works. They must find out as a secondary consideration, often from an engineer, how to make it stand up.
The general idea of “New Dimension” was the outgrowth of a piece called “Free Ride Home”, 1974. It too had a trigonal development but was arch-like instead of a system of cantilevers as in this new sculpture. Last winter, the City of Baltimore, Maryland approached me about a sculpture, something very large in size, to be situated on their newly developed inner harbor. It would sit by the water on a promenade. They wanted something which could be seen from a distance. I started to imagine a sculpture raised overhead, cloud-like, to stand on three points.
The Berlin exhibition was approaching at the same time and so I began working on “New Dimension” with both sites in mind. The piece for Baltimore will be a third again as large as the Nationalgalerie piece, and will stand much higher too. It wouldn’t fit in Mies’s building except by going through the roof.
“Forest Devil” was from a maquette did in Berlin as a fellow on the Berliner Kunstlerprogramm of the D.A.A.D. “Forest Devil” is to be seen also in Pittsburgh where it is being fabricated by industry as part of the “Three Rivers Arts Festival” in the Summer of 1977.
Schneider: Can you describe how your work has developed?
Snelson: I think you are asking for the story of my life!
Well, in the manner which people usually begin an autobiography: “As a child…” I found an affinity for open structures; and this is true. You see, I used to build many model airplanes of the kind which are framed out of balsa wood and then covered with Japanese rice paper. Always, when I was finished making the skeleton, especially the fuselage of the airplane, 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, etc. In order to proceed though, there was nowhere to go but to cover up all of the beautiful openness with opaque paper. And there was nobody around to give me permission to stop there. “Go ahead, finish your airplane!” And so I would, because I wanted to get it done, but there was always that slight feeling that I’d lost something.
Jose Quintero, the theater director once said, “I never felt so guilty in my life as I did when I directed a play for the first time, professionally. I was only doing what I did when I was a kid, only then, they used to hit me for it.”
After the war (WW2) I began to study painting at the University of Oregon. I was so passionate about it, to think of being an artist. For in most small towns in the U.S. it is a pretty remote idea to consider. I read about Joseph Albers’ work at Black Mountain College and turned up there to study with him in the summer of 1948. It was that special time, about which much has been written; with Willem DeKooning, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Richard Lippold, Joseph Albers, of course, and also Buckminster Fuller. He was a very dark horse, for nobody had heard of him at that time. I was immediately captured by his discussions about structure, in fact we were all completely fascinated by his guru’s insights about the world, technology, his view of man’s evolution, etc. Through him, but through Albers too, I found myself that summer deciding to be somebody other than a painter, for it was obvious that I had something special going for me in spatial matters.
Returning to my home in Pendleton, Oregon from all the exciting people at Black Mountain College was a let-down. What an understatement. I made a number of small wire sculptures which moved. 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, but which gave birth to this wondrous looking phenomenon: rigid elements (made of wood) which suspended one another in space only by means of the (thread) tension members. This little discovery which I made in Pendleton, Oregon at 114 N.W. 8th Street in the winter of 1948-49 was the beginning of what you see today at the Nationalgalerie.
Next summer at Black Mountain, I first showed this magical structure to my teacher, Buckminster Fuller. He was both amazed and delighted. As a student, I was also delighted that he was amazed. Life had not yet prepared me for the possibility that he would publish it as his own work, which he did. This was 28 years ago, but numbers of people are under the impression still, that Fuller originated this structure, which, of course he did not.
The first perception I had about the nature of this new and unknown phenomenon was of a column, or tower. The little moving sculptures were column-like, so I was proceeding from there. I do find this idea of vertical extension, module by module very simple and beautiful.
The towers which finally resulted from this beginning have taught me most about technical matters, including the invention of connecting methods, strength of materials, the frightening force of the wind. The tapered towers presented the difficult problem of diminishing the size of the piece while maintaining the appropriate stresses at each reduction, module by module. Out of this, though, has resulted the snail-like spiral, or proportional growth principle which has become the spatial musical scale with which I now work. It is this which has made pieces like “New Dimension” and “Forest Devil” possible, for now I have at hand an entire range of dimensioned elements, beginning with a few centimeters and extending to whatever might become available, such as a craneboom, fifty or a hundred meters long.
Since every part relates to every other part by a constant proportion, the mathematics of scale changes are solved as one might transpose in music.
Schneider: Kenneth, what is the meaning of your work?
Snelson: Of course that question is the big one, isn’t it? It seems to me that my whole course of development is to try to understand the meaning of it all. Isn’t that life? Well, it has something to do with the way in which the universe works, and it has something to do with the deeper meaning of “mechanics” Its dictionary definition, “The analysis of the action of forces on matter or material systems.” broadly covers my purposes, I suppose, except that the word “analysis” is directed to the special problems of the engineer or the scientist; formulae, testing, classifying. As I said before, my end-result is something other than this. What you see and what you feel, both physically and emotionally is all I have to offer. There is really no measuring data that I’ve been dying to show you, though you can see how I work, if you wish.
In these works I am trying to understand how space really is constructed. Sculptors have always talked a great deal about “space”. There are different ways to think about it; poeticly, scientificly, touristicly, legally, architecturally, aesthetically. In this last one, aesthetics, each generation believes that at last it alone has its fingers on the correct aesthetic buttons. Perhaps, in this, I am offering you a new set of keys. I am trying to find out about the aesthetic properties of primordial space, wherein the universe doesn’t give a damn whether we are here or not. What you see, here, somehow reflects on the capacity of the human intelligence to grasp the way in which the universe is structured. Finally, the question then is, what does that structure look like; what are the formal properties of structural space?
Schneider: Is the uninitiated person able to respond to your work?
Snelson: There is no question that most people experience something in this work, intuitively, without the explanations I have given in this interview. Whether or not they are well acquainted with art, they still respond to its power, its mystery and its authenticity.
They might even respond to it negatively, but it is not easy simply to ignore it. My favorite story came from a tape recording that a friend was making at the opening of the Bryant Park show in New York, 1968. Rick Rogers was walking around with a microphone in the park in the middle of the day to get people’s comments. He asked one man, “What do you think of this?” The man was looking around at these strange objects including the 20 M tower. “What do I think of it?”, he said, “I think it’s ridiculous! It’s stupid, like Bach — or Beethoven.”