Wheres the Matter?: On the Sculpture of Kenneth Snelson
Having written a text on Kenneth Snelson’s digital stone sculpture based on his theories of the atom, which he showed this past summer in Beijing, I was curious to view some of the recent steel and cable work for which he is best known. In fact, the exhibition held last month at Marlborough Chelsea is more than just recent work. Rather, it comprises a kind of survey that goes back to the late 40s and 50s, specifically when he was in contact with such luminaries as Joseph Albers and Willem de Kooning at the famous Bauhaus transplant institution in North Carolina called Black Mountain College. The early works include two Moving Column pieces in wire and clay (1948), partially inspired by Alexander Calder, and his Moving X-Piece (also 1948) in wood and nylon, which, in turn, inspired the “tensegrity” (tension + integrity) theories of Buckminster Fuller. While the word “tensegrity” belonged to Fuller, it was Snelson’s three-dimensional plywood X forms that gave Fuller’s theories visual and physical substance.
After a gradual disillusionment with Fuller, whom the artist believed had expropriated his work in order to suit the architect’s own ideas, Snelson decided to spend a few years working in the motion picture industry in New York City as a cameraman. However, by the late 50s, nearly a decade later, Snelson renewed his acquaintance with Fuller and began to commit himself fully to sculpture (although previously he had painted, and before that, had equivocated between architecture and engineering). An important work from 1959, made in aluminum and stainless steel, titled Double Star, is a complex integration of Snelson’s tension and compression theories, in which sculpture is defined not solely as mass but as energy delineated within a closed system. In an interview from 1991, Snelson described his obsession (his word) to extend geometry through sculpture by giving attention to the forces that make geometry happen. Thus, throughout the 60s, we observe the leaps and bounds the artist begins to make in coming to terms with his obsession, including such works as Atom (1965), Three Reds (1966), and Sun Run (1967). A large outdoor piece, Audry (1966), not included in the show but illustrated in Jack Burnham’s classic text, Beyond Modern Sculpture (1968), offers an early example of Snelson’s interest in scale and how the out-of-doors environment seems to reinforce the principle of “energy” in art (as in science), and thereby liberate sculpture from its dependency on the density of matter.
Clearly, the dominant work at Marlborough Chelsea and, in fact, one of the most precise, largest, and articulate works expressing Snelson’s extended interest in the precepts of physical science, how their realities prevail and, perhaps, even extend the parameters of the known universe, is a work entitled Sleeping Dragon (2002-2003). Resting on three stainless steel pylons, as it did in 2006 during Snelson’s outdoor exhibition at the Palais Royale in Paris, Sleeping Dragon literally encompasses the site as its suspended tetrahedrons, constructed with aluminum cylinders and cable wire, undulate through the space. Although I am acquainted with the artist and have spoken with him more than once, I forgot to ask if the title is an indirect reference to the Ang Lee film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in which the power of the male force in the yin-yang remains hidden. Similarly, the interlocking tensions that manage to hold these multiple components in suspension, as a complement to the sculpture’s poetic and aesthetic dimension, are particularly awe-inspiring.
In addition to his architectural and aesthetic expertise, Snelson is also a photographer who, in 1982, presented an exhibition at Marlborough Gallery uptown of his panoramic views of bridges in Paris and New York. Much later, it occurred to me that a not so distant precursor, Gustave Eiffel, known for his tower in Paris (completed in cast iron in 1889, six months before the invention of Bessemer steel) built a series of bridges in Spain and Portugal by which he tested various structural tensions.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.