Kenneth Snelson: The Lyricism of Structure

Kenneth Snelson was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 1999. For a full list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, click here.

View of Kenneth Snelson’s studio, 1981

The sculpture of Kenneth Snelson holds a place at the core of one of the principal concerns of 20th-century visual art. As works of pure abstraction, Snelson’s sculptures share an objective with much of the abstract art that preceded them, with Cubism and International Constructivism particularly—the objective of rendering and revealing the nature and structural principles of space. What has distinguished Snelson’s work since its beginning in the early 1960s is a unique combination of a lyrical sensibility and an extraordinary pitch of sheer intelligence.

This unusual fusion of abilities has created a continuing series of large-scale works that have entered into the common awareness of contemporary sculpture and into museum collections throughout the world. It has also brought the artist a continuing series of honors and awards, including the 1971 Sculpture Award from the New York State Council on the Arts, a DAAD Fellowship for Berlin Künstlerprogram in 1976, and in 1981, the American Institute of Architects’ Medal. In 1985, Snelson was awarded an honorary doctorate in Arts and Humane Letters by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. In 1999, he became a Biennial Honoree at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, New York, and will be given the International Sculpture Center’s Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award.

Easy-K, 1970. Aluminum and stainless steel, 20 x 20 x 100 ft.

Snelson builds his works as examples of a philosophy of the nature of reality, a philosophy built into his working method. He constructs his sculptures from stainless steel rods and tension wires, which he combines in modular configurations that repeat across each work. The rods and wires distribute a scheme of compression and tension, or push and pull—the rods refuse to collapse and the wires are stretched to their limits. The principle of structure by compression and tension, a method created by Snelson and which he has named “tensegrity,” gives his forms an intrinsic stability through the choreography of what he calls “essential forces.” Every part is necessary, nothing is redundant. Move or remove any element, and the form fails.

Soft Landing, view of the work’s installation, 1975–77. Aluminum and stainless steel, 17 x 63 x 45 ft.

It is the orientation of “essential forces” that is the substance of Snelson’s philosophy of the world, a conception in accord with contemporary physics. The structure of the universe is a matter of the arrangement of fundamental forces. In Snelson’s own words, “The universe is the result of nothing but forces. Everything is made of forces.” Matter is nothing other than stabilized energy, forces that hold themselves in place by their own force. It is force that is the foundation of everything, the source of all creation. “If there is a God, God is a force.”

E.C. Column, 1969–81. Aluminum and stainless steel, 42 x 11 x 9.5 ft.

While Snelson’s sculptures are clearly remarkable feats of engineering ingenuity, they are also artistic gestures: shimmering visions of a startling beauty. The artist works intuitively, building maquettes first, creating them by hand, piece by piece, proceeding by impulse. Following his impulses as he constructs, Snelson achieves lyrical flourishes of pure emotional exuberance that are surprising in works of such rigorous engineering. Easy-K II (1970–92), an astounding accomplishment in design that cantilevers most of its 108-inch length out beyond the pedestal, is also a bristling stretch of surging enthusiasm. The monumental Free Ride Home (1974), installed at the Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, New York, is a glistening sweep that has the sheen of samite and appears as a sparkling gesture of pure freedom, arching 30 feet into the air. Forest Devil (1975–79) is an enormous living presence, a prickly and bestial mass, barely visible, merely suggested by the configuration of rods and wires—lurking, contemplating, furious, preparing to pounce.

Mozart I, 1982. Stainless steel, 24 x 24 x 30 ft.

To hear Snelson speak about his working method, the emotional lavishness of his sculpture seems completely sensible, for the artist finds the building of structure to be comparable to playing music. “The wires and metal tubes are my keyboard, on which I play my three-dimensional spatial game. It’s like playing a violin.” And the musical metaphor is more than an easy analogy. His modules of form, which change scale with a mathematical regularity, are comparable to changes of pitch. “I have developed something like a musical scale. The shifting between modular pieces is like shifting by octaves. It is very close to music in a very real way.”

The reality of the analogy is more than merely procedural. The vision rendered in Snelson’s sculpture is not only a conception of the structure of the universe; it is also a conception of the character of the human mind, the mind as an integrated whole.

Study for Atomic Space, 1948. Wire and rubber wheels, 5 x 5 x 5 in.

Snelson’s sculptures are imaginative acts with what would seem to be an internal contradiction. They are intellectually rigorous and yet emotionally rich; they are precise as feats of engineering and ravishing as objects of beauty. And therein is their lesson. The art of Kenneth Snelson has no internal contradiction: it evokes an equation of thought and feeling. It reveals that the greater the intellectual rigor, the greater the emotional authenticity. This is a quality we find in music, an art of pure emotion constructed with an arithmetic exactitude. Viewing a work by Snelson is like hearing a composition by Bach or Mozart. His sculpture Mozart I (1982) reveals this truth of his work. It is a starburst of exuberant invention, captured with a computational rigor.

Free Ride Home, 1974. Aluminum and stainless steel, 30 x 60 x 60 ft.

For Snelson, intellectual precision and artistic inspiration are not essentially different; lyrical sensibility and sheer intelligence are two aspects of the same thing. His tensegrity is a vision of the integrity of the mind, revealing our thinking to be a deeply mysterious complexity. Every emotion has an internal logic; every rational thought is like a musical phrase. And Snelson’s sculptures, with their structural principles in full evidence, open to view, are like elegant ballets of thought made tangible. In their engineering precision, they show us thinking as a pure dance.

Mark Daniel Cohen is a New York City-based art critic and sculptor. The quotations from Kenneth Snelson in this article are from an interview with the artist conducted by the author on August 8, 1999.