Anyone who thinks that Modernism is finished needs to look at Kenneth Snelson’s work. Spanning more than five decades, his career reminds us that individuals of unusual integrity are still working within the tradition of modernity. Featured in a mini-retrospective at Marlborough Chelsea last year, Snelson’s sculpture, from 1948 to the present, is also the subject of a comprehensive monograph.
Born in 1927, Snelson served in the Navy in World War II, turning to art at Black Mountain College, where he worked with Josef Albers and met with Buckminster Fuller. Snelson relies on tensegrity, an architectural term described in the dictionary as denoting “a stable three-dimensional structure consisting of members under tension that are contiguous and members under compression that are not.” His use of this principle translates into stunning structures whose stainless steel poles are held together by wire, so that the tension from the taut wire maintains itself in sculptures that range from early small works to the ambitious, much larger efforts for which he is best known (Snelson began working large in 1960).
Many of his forms seem to hover or fly across the ground, practically poised in mid-air; the transparent support becomes remarkably visual and beautiful in its own right—we see both the structure and its reinforcing elements. Indeed, the pleasure of Marlborough Chelsea’s small show, which coincided with the book’s release, stemmed from the viewer’s ability to navigate these support systems. While the results are very complex, the methods used to realize the work are very simple. Like his colleague, kinetic sculptor George Rickey, whose moving works depend on a delicate balance, Snelson achieves originality through a primary insight into how his structures are built.
Because of tensegrity, the sculptures can be made to stand and move upward, as if they were about to take flight from the ground. One work from 1950, Bead Chain X-Column, shows a tower-like arrangement just under three feet high. Here, the materials maintaining the steel poles are strings of beads, which adds a tactile dimension to the line element.
Forces Made Visible, a richly illustrated coffee-table volume, offers a full portrait of Snelson’s artistic and intellectual development, as well as his working process, featuring photo essays, a foreword by the artist, and an essay by Eleanor Heartney that puts his achievements into the larger context of modern sculpture. Some of the most interesting sections touch on Snelson’s ongoing dialogue with physicists and mathematicians as he explores the structure of the atom and the problems of quantum mechanics. For readers interested in the sensitive engineering behind the finished outdoor works, Snelson provides a fascinating illustrated commentary on the installation of one of his sculptures in Berlin.
Again and again, Snelson is able to translate a basic idea into an art of fine achievement, by calling attention to the means by which the work is transparently sustained. One can only wonder at his capacity for creating various works bearing the same system of stability, which by itself offers remarkable visual pleasure.
Kenneth Snelson: Forces Made Visible
by Eleanor Heartney
New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2009.
Hardcover; 193 pp.