Kenneth Snelson is one of the most single-minded of contemporary artists. Fashions in art have swirled and shifted around him since the 1960s, but he has remained faithful to an abiding concern with the interplay of natural forces, and a dedication to finding ways in which those forces might manifest themselves in three-dimensional forms.
He grew up in rural Oregon where his father made panoramic photographs of the local rodeo round-up and fake scenes of pioneers in covered wagons. Mr Snelson now makes panoramic photographs himself – and I am delighted that he has donated one of them as an occasional header image at the top of this page – but perhaps it was a reaction to those make-believe wagon trains that set his sculpture in a direction less to do with appearances than with the realities of the natural world.
As a student Mr Snelson encountered Buckminster Fuller at Black Mountain College in 1948 and 1949. Though deeply impressed by the older man, he was disappointed when his own ideas about the interaction of forces in physical structures were dubbed tensegrity by Fuller and eventually appropriated by him. It was not until the Fuller “Three Structures” show at MoMA in 1959 that his contribution to the concept was somewhat reluctantly acknowledged. This was clearly very important to Mr Snelson, and it seems to have given his career as a sculptor new impetus.
Kenneth Snelson’s first solo show was at New York’s Dwan Gallery in 1966. Since then he has been included in hundreds of exhibitions worldwide, and his sculptures are permanently installed in public sites all over this country, Europe, and Japan. His most recent exhibition is at Marlborough Chelsea through March 21, and as well as presenting some remarkable new works, there are examples of some of his very earliest sculptures as well. Next Thursday, March 19, Marlborough will be hosting a reception and book signing with Mr Snelson and Eleanor Heartney, who has written a beautiful and fascinating new monograph on his work for Hudson Hills Press. If you can’t get to the book signing, you can buy the book here: Kenneth Snelson: Forces Made Visible
I spoke to Kenneth Snelson at the Marlborough exhibition shortly after it opened, and the work there provided the starting point for our fascinating and wide-ranging conversation.
Ken, let me ask you first about the biggest sculpture here. It’s called Sleeping Dragon. It’s never occurred to me about your work before but is there perhaps a hint of representation here?
Well, people read things into them. I’ve been told that one of the pieces of mine that people are most drawn to is called Forest Devil. It has a vertical axis with its weight at one end that you could interpret as a tail, I suppose. Then there’s another part that you could interpret as a head. It’s like people seeing Orion in a constellation of stars. What happens is that they see a forest devil – though I’m not sure what that would be. But because of the name it becomes a creature.
So any representation is entirely accidental?
I’d say they’re anthropomorphic to the extent that someone could read a gesture in them.
And yet you talk about your work being “concerned with nature in its primary aspect.” What does that mean?
I use the word nature because that is what my work is all about. People think of nature as trees and frogs. They don’t think of the study of forces as nature. But when people talk about intelligent design, they always say, “Well, the eye is so complicated,” but I always want to use the example, “How can you explain that six pennies can be placed around a single penny and they’re all tangential? Who set that up?” That’s more difficult than the structure of an eye and that’s the part of nature that fascinates me: the patterns of physical forces in three-dimensional space, the circumstances that allow forces to organize themselves, and the variety of ways in which they do it.
And how do you translate those interests into visual art?
I’m not by nature a story-teller. What I’m interested in are possible patterns. My visual sensibilities come mostly from the cubist world: the sort of distillation that probably started with Cézanne, and with the cubists came to be, “What is the geometry of this painting?” That’s where my origins are.
So how do you respond to the suggestion that you’re as much an engineer as an artist?
I think that people are born artists. The key ingredient isn’t that you have a talent of one sort or another, but usually that you have a compulsion to make things.
Your work has never struck me as being compulsive.
I am compulsive about getting things finished, and I get depressed if I’m not working. These are the things that make a person do what an artist has to do, which is to produce things. Not because you want headlines, although that might be attractive, but because that’s what you’ve got to do.
I think that I’m an artist because that’s what I have to do. I might be interested in things that engineers are interested in, or things that atomic physicists are interested in, but I’m not interested in participating in the science game, or making an engineering work that’s going to become a bridge or something. I’m interested in making something that I like to look at; something that hopefully I’ve never seen before. This is what artists desire: to make something that’s in your mind, but that has never really existed. You want to make it exist.
Is that why you keep coming back to these models of the atom?
The challenge of the atom is a craziness in me. It fascinates me because it’s a riddle that hasn’t been solved by scientists yet, and scientists don’t even know that they’ve got a riddle any more. That’s really amazing. If I talk to a physicist about making a model of an atom they’ll say, “We don’t need a model, we need a mathematical formula.” That’s what bugs me about it. I’m interested in the structure in the same way that I’m interested in the structure of forces. In the atom I see something that’s got to have order, because everything that comes out of it has order. Chemical organization, molecules, beautiful crystals … these things do not come out of randomness. They come out of some kind of structure. But if you try to argue that case with a physicist, you’re lost. Scientists speculate about the beginning of the cosmos but they will not attack this obvious question of what electrons are doing to create the incredible order that exits in an atom. So it isn’t science that concerns me, it’s making a model. So the questions that people raise about my work and its proximity to engineering, really it’s got nothing to do with that. It’s about making things in terms of force-arrangements.
Yes, can you talk me through how those force-arrangements function in a characteristic Snelson sculpture?
It’s an extremely simple thing. There are “exoskeletal” structures, and there are “endoskeletal” structures. Exoskeletal structures are like crabs and spiders and all those things that have a shell outside. All of the muscle-stuff is attached inside this shell in various complicated ways which allow them to move. With endoskeletal structures, such as ourselves, the bones are inside a network of intricate muscles, and the muscles pull from the outside. The structures that I make are endoskeletal structures: the struts are inside of the hausers. That’s one aspect of it, anyway.
And this was what Buckminster Fuller dubbed “tensegrity”? I understand that the sculpture here called Wood X-Piece (1948-1981) is a facsimile of the original piece you showed him, and that prompted the invention of that word.
There are many peculiar ways that it can be expressed, and that is why Bucky invented the word “tensegrity”. But yes, the structures that are called “tensegrity” are endoskeletal structures. Bucky was a strange man, obviously. A very brilliant man, but a very strange man, and he was very aggressive about taking people’s ideas. Five years after he started talking about tensegrity, he started talking about his early tensegrity structures going back to 1928! He had never done anything like the thing that I had showed him, but he began to apply the name to things that had already existed. So now it’s just a horror! If you google the word “tensegrity” you find everything: a model airplane, a kite, an exercise system … The word has become meaningless. In fact Fuller garbled it even more by declaring that, if examined properly, every structure in the universe is tensegrity. Well, what the hell do you need a word for? If everything is tensegrity then nothing is tensegrity!
Can you explain how you physically make your sculptures? With clay sculptures or marble sculptures I can imagine how the artist crafted them, but how do you model these?
Well, there is a model. You couldn’t possibly do them by building full-scale. (There used to be a mystique during abstract expressionist times that meant you couldn’t build something small and then enlarge it. You just did it! Directly!) But you couldn’t do this directly. But I know from long experience what’s possible and what isn’t possible. I’m stuck with something which has certain limits. Clay has very few limits, especially if you’re going to turn the clay into bronze, but with this, there are physical restrictions built into what nature provides. That’s a limitation, but I’ve never been without it, so I have to endure it.
But aren’t all sculptors trying to overcome the limitations of their medium.
Of course. Every artist working with a medium is confronted with the phenomena that attend that medium. My situation is no different, it’s just another set of limits. But my intention is to create mystery. A cantilever can create mystery. Something that floats in space that’s connected only by threads is mysterious.