Jan. 9, 2004

Art for Smart People

The mathematical sculptures of Kenneth Snelson.

by Elisabeth Eaves

Sculptor Kenneth Snelson had a show last fall at New York City’s Marlborough Gallery, and it didn’t garner a single review. This may not seem surprising, given the crowded artistic field in New York, but Snelson is an unusual artist. Not only has he inspired a new field of engineering and a new understanding of cellular biology, his elegant sculptures are themselves scientific wonders. Their shiny metal rods, held together by networks of tensed aluminum wires, climb into the air at improbable angles, with an apparent disregard for gravity.

Snelson received considerable attention in the 1960s, when minimalism was in vogue. His plain metal bars and geometric shapes seemed, at first glance, to be a part of that movement. Yet minimalist art is not characterized by the engineering complexity of Snelson’s work, nor does it require his intuitive technical understanding. Other metal sculptors who rose to prominence in the ’60s, like Donald Judd, exemplified true minimalism with solid, heavy-looking rectangles and squares, which were placed on floors or affixed to walls. Snelson, by contrast, balanced stiff rods in midair based on principles that were not yet understood by science.

Snelson is no longer considered a minimalist, but because he is not obviously part of any school, he tends to get left out of the art history canon. Mark Daniel Cohen, an essayist, art critic, and longtime admirer of Snelson’s work, believes, however, that it is part of a tradition: the “demanding, erudite, and arcane” field of mathematical art. This tradition extends back to the Italian Renaissance artist and mathematician Piero della Francesca, who explored geometry in his drawings, and includes the pioneers of geometric abstract painting Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935) and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), as well as contemporary artists, most of them obscure. (A 2000 show on mathematical art at New York City’s Cooper Union assembled work by 26 of these artists, Snelson included.) Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation is shown here.

Sophisticated mathematical art often has a narrow audience because most of us don’t understand the mathematical principles behind it or appreciate just how clever it is. Much as a computer scientist can see meaning in a motherboard, while the rest of us see only metal and plastic, Snelson’s sculptures challenge the viewer’s understanding, and sometimes the viewer falls short. This is one reason for what Cohen and others see as a critical underappreciation of Snelson’s work. “He is smart enough to have a paucity of appropriate viewers,” Cohen said in a phone interview. Philip Stewart, a younger sculptor who helps build and install Snelson’s work, put it another way: “Art critics were the kids who failed high-school math.”

While never breaking through to household-name status, 76-year-old Snelson has enjoyed a respectable five-decade career. Many people who wouldn’t recognize his name have seen his work and likely remember its visual impact. His sculptures have entered museum collections and public spaces around the world and include pieces at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, N.Y. The 60-foot-high Needle Tower at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, shown here from below, is probably his most widely recognized creation.

Snelson is admired by engineers and architects as the first person to demonstrate physically the building principle known as “tensegrity.” In a tensegrity structure, forces simultaneously push and pull against each other to maintain a strong but flexible shape. This is in contrast to most manmade structures—stone arches, for example—which rely on continuous compression, or forces that only push against each other, to cohere. While continuous compression structures are rigid and static, a tensegrity structure is dynamic: It will bend when you exert force on it, then snap back to its original form when you let go.

In the summer of 1948, Snelson studied under Buckminster Fuller at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, a hotbed of international modernism, where Josef Albers and Willem de Kooning were among the all-star faculty. Inspired in part by Fuller’s fervent lectures on geometry and architecture, Snelson created the first tensegrity models. Fuller would later become famous for inventing the geodesic dome, which relies on tensegrity’s push-pull principles, and would fail to credit Snelson for initially bringing this idea to physical life. (Though accreditation is complicated: It seems that Fuller coined the word “tensegrity”—after seeing one of Snelson’s models.) The resulting rift between the two men has never been mended.

In addition to his soaring outdoor art, Snelson makes tensegrity sculptures of aluminum and stainless steel that are small enough to sit on your desk. If you press down on one, it will flatten, then bounce up when you release your hand. You can also experiment with tensegrity at home without investing in a Snelson. Several Web sites run by mathematicians offer instructions on how to make simple tensegrity structures using straws, paperclips, and rubber bands. You could also buy the tensegrity-based Skwish Toy, shown here, which is popular with babies. (One company that markets them calls itself Genius Babies.)

Outside of the artistic world, where many younger sculptors cite him as an influence, Snelson’s biggest fans are scientists. Don Ingber, for example, a professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital in Boston, credits Snelson with inspiring his career. When he was an undergraduate in 1975, Ingber saw a Snelson sculpture in an art class and had what he calls his “aha!” moment. He suddenly understood that cells—previously thought to be sacks full of viscous liquid—might have strong, flexible frameworks that use tensegrity to stabilize themselves. Ingber spent much of the next 27 years investigating this proposition.

Crediting Snelson in his writing and research, Ingber went on to discover that cytoskeletons, networks of protein chains that help maintain a cell’s structure and hold its nucleus in place, do in fact use tensegrity to maintain their shape. NASA believes that the study of cytoskeletons will help scientists understand how the human body reacts to weightlessness, an issue of critical importance for space travel. The space agency has awarded Ingber research grants for his work in this area, and Esquire magazine named him to its “Best and Brightest” list of 2002.

Mechanical engineers, meanwhile, have developed tensegrity-based mathematical models that can be used to predict cell behavior. And understanding cell behavior, Ingber says, has led to a better understanding of diseases that strike down tissue architecture, like cancer. According to Ingber, tensegrity will probably help scientists better understand asthma, emphysema, hypertension, and osteoporosis, as well as how life first originated on Earth.

There is little doubt about the mechanical ingenuity or scientific impact of Snelson’s work. But is it also art? Absolutely. His sculptures are pure outpourings of creative energy, utterly useless as objects and yet visually arresting. Viewers can admire their beauty and elegance in parks and plazas from Japan to Germany, where local governments, corporations, and collectors have invited Snelson to install his work. Snelson may not get a critical turnout these days, but his sculptures have quietly entered the collective visual imagination.

Elisabeth Eaves is the author of Bare.