February 15, 1999
Kenneth Snelson Sculptures and Drawings 1968-1998
Marlborough Chelsea Exhibition, January – February
by Mark Daniel Cohen
Intelligence is something more than a calculation project, something more than a wherewithal and taste for computation. The ability to comprehend experience and come to an understanding of our world and ourselves requires more than simple discursive reasoning, more than mere deduction – a thing a computer can do. It is possible to abstract out rationality as a distinct operation – what thinking looks like when we think about it – but in practice, it never operates in isolation. Talents congregate together. Attributes of the organisms that we are, talents have. an organically complex relationship to each other. They tend to work in concert. Intelligence is a functional complexity.
In her study of gifted children, the Swiss psychotherapist Alice Miller observes that the entire system gets keyed up together. Gifted children – meaning unusually intelligent children – generally are also highly sensitive, emotionally intense, very empathetic, extremely intuitive. It is all of a piece. Intelligence can be seen to be all forms of mental activity at a un~typical level of sophistication, gained in breadth of scope and extent of penetrative power, and sufficiently different in degree from the ordinary that it amounts to a difference in kind. Such children, such people, understand differently.
This is a matter pertinent to art, for art is a different understanding of the world, different from the daily way we contend with our circumstances. A work of art is more than a reasoned, out thing, more than an example of some theory that underlies it, and its meaning is something different from, and something more than, a buried declarative sentence, some assertion that the work is intended to symbolically imply. If that’s all there were to it, there would be no need for the work of art – the artist could just write the sentence, just state the position. It is all more complicated than that, all more sophisticated.
This is a matter pertinent to the sculpture of Kenneth Snelson, as well, for his is an art of intelligence, intelligence of a very complex order. His configurations of linear forms, built of aluminum and stainless-steel rods held in place by tension cables, are exercises in structural ingenuity. The rods never touch each other. They are held in place, and the overall sculptural form retains its stability and balance, through the arrangement of tension running through the cables. The heaviness of the each structure tightens the cables, which then pull and hold the rods in place. Gravity does not threaten to drag down the form – its force is redirected to thrust the form together, keeping everything in position by sheer power. These sculptures rise from the ground as a result of their own weight. It is something of an artistic highwire act.
The current exhibition covers work by Snelson from the majority of his career – he began exhibiting in 1963 – and gives a fair overview the variety of forms he can achieve, the sustenance of his inventiveness over so long a time, and his range of scale. The 11 sculptures (which are accompanied by two maquettes and four sets of drawings – studies for future sculptures) run from small table-top works under three feet high to monstrous spiders of metal work up to, in one instance, 11 feet tall. There is no evidence of advance in the work over the years, but there is no retreat. The consistency of engineering insight is stunning, and that is no small matter. And in the final assessment, a thing worth doing remains Worth doing – it cannot go out of fashion unless it was merely fashionable in the first place.
And they are beautiful, which is reason enough to say such work was never merely fashionable. The high polish of aluminum and stainless steel bears a touch of the intangible. The rods and cables never become quite invisible, but with studied observation, they begin to appear as colorless as the air, almost as if the atmosphere itself had taken form, congealed into structure, congealed of its own, into the forms of temples) crowns, spires, lumbering and rectilinear beasts -forms that were always there but have only now become visible, become somewhat visible. It is all very beautiful – but that is not the point.
Snelson’s works are intelligent in a sense beyond the ingenuity that obviously is required to conceive and construct them. They are more than just acts of mental skill – they are embodiments of theory. The engineering ideas underlying each work are not substructures, are not organizing principles existing under the skin of the sculpture – they are the substance of the sculpture, itself. They are all there is to the appearance of the work. Each sculpture is in essence its own schematic. It is its own ideas of organization. A diagram of the arrangements of tension in any one sculpture would look very little different from the drawings Snelson makes in preparation for constructing a work, drawings that plan the appearance of the work. The idea behind each sculpture, the idea that gets tested and proved true every time a work by Snelson remains standing, every time a work of his actually works, is the sculpture itself. The choreography of forces that Snelson deploys is also a ballet of sheer thought.
It is sensible to ask what the thought is about, for thought is always about something. One thinks “of’ something. And there is much to be considered here, much to be suspected. Snelson’s art is the art of organized forces, and that is a virtual definition of matter. Matter is little more than stabilized energy – forces held in place by their own force, held in place by themselves. His forms, which are virtually cut in the air – forms without skins, almost without matter – may be taken as ruminations on the nature of matter itself. They are artistic renderings of scientific understandings, and they begin to encroach one realm of thought upon the other, begin to consider one in terms of the other.
But in the end, they are thought about thought, thought in a larger sense than mere rationality, mere straight,forward assertion. They are ballets of thought. And they reveal a truth to us about our own minds, about the breadth of our minds, and the depth – about the sophistication. Our thinking is irremediably complex. It unavoidably does more than we know. Every logical argument, every rational and useful sequence of thought, is musical. Regardless of the substance of the thinking, regardless of the content, the form of the thought is a song. Remove the words and replace them with variables, turn the idea into symbolic logic, and the music remains. I have never known a mathematician who was unaware that beneath the surface of the equations was a harmony, a rhythm, an emotion, a beauty. Every thought carries a mood, as much as every image, which is, in the end, a thought as well. And every thought is capable of doing what a song can do – it tells an emotional drama, it relates a triumph or a tragedy, it embodies a soul, Thoughts are as symbolic as paintings, or sculptures.
Einstein held that a good theory must be elegant. The literal aspects of a theory are insufficient. The truth value is insufficient. Something more is required. Something like a work of art. The sculptural works of Snelson are embodiments of that art of thinking. They are the elegance of thought made tangible.