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Kenneth Snelson

By Virginia Dajani

Kenneth Snelson was born in 1927 in Pendleton, Oregon, where his father had a camera shop. Following his discharge from the navy, he entered the University of Oregon in Eugene to study painting. He became interested in Bauhaus ideas there, and read about Josef Albers, dean of Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

In 1948 he was accepted in the Black Mountain summer session. On completion of an early assignment for Albers—a three-dimensional exercise in paper-folding and wire—Albers commented: “These are the work of a sculptor.” Shortly after that, Buckminster Fuller arrived. Kenneth recalled that no one there really knew who Fuller was, and he wasn’t interested in taking his architecture course. When Albers asked him to help Fuller unload and assemble models from his aluminum trailer in preparation for a lecture, Kenneth was astonished to find his models were made of Venetian blind strips, marbles, straws, and other materials based on the tetrahedron and geodesic geometry. Kenneth attended the 3-hour lecture, and enrolled in his class.

Back in Oregon, he was no longer interested in painting, intrigued by Albers’ insight into his facility with three-dimensional forms. From Fuller he first understood structure as the underlying principle, and wrote, “It became clear to me what kinds of experiments you had to conduct before you knew what a structure really is because it’s a result of forces which can form a stable system.”

When he returned to Black Mountain for a second summer, he showed Fuller his “Early X Piece”—two Xs made from propeller-shaped pieces of plywood, one suspended over the other using a matrix of nylon tension lines. Encouraged by Fuller, Ken modified and enlarged the work, using curtain rods. Fuller approved, and called it “tensegrity,” a fusion of the words “tension” and “integrity.” Kenneth took a photo of Fuller with the work, and later, some people assumed it was Fuller’s work because of this photo.

The architect and sculptor Tim Prentice says of Kenneth’s work: “Over time this invention became the basis of his sculpture and he built his career weaving it into a wide range of forms with his rich imagination and spatial wit.” Prentice also writes: “I had the occasion to ask Bucky about the misunderstanding caused by the photo, and he immediately and emphatically gave full credit to Kenneth.”

He later studied at the Institute of Design in Chicago, and went to Paris to study with Fernand Léger. After moving to Manhattan he spent several years as a cinematographer, working on television documentaries and making small works in a variety of materials, all held together by internal tension.

In 1964 the New York World’s Fair commissioned him to create “Photonium” measuring 30 by 35 feet, which hung overhead in the pavilion’s Court of Light, near the entrance. He began exhibiting at the Dwan Gallery; soon his work was included in the Sculpture Annual at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He received commissions regularly, many of them from architects. Richard Meier says of Kenneth: “He was a sculptor’s architect or an architect’s sculptor, in that he was concerned in the making of transparent space in a variety of scales. He was a profoundly dedicated sculptor whose unique work was extremely beautiful.”

Philip Pearlstein writes: “Kenneth Snelson and I became acquainted long after we were both established in our careers. My wife Dorothy and I found ourselves assigned to adjoining seats with Katherine and Kenneth, in the front row of Alice Tully Hall, for a chamber music series. He visited my studio where I showed him some photographs of Roman ruins I had taken with an antique stereo camera. He invited himself back to photograph me in my studio with a mechanically revolving 360-degree panoramic camera with a bird’s-eye lens he was experimenting with. Because this lens distorts space—and because Kenneth had me move to a new location every time the camera moved past me, it shows my studio as a series of deep tunnels with me standing in each one.”

Martin Puryear, who has served on juries with Kenneth, writes: “Kenneth Snelson created sculptures which seemed to defy the laws of both gravity and physics. His forms grow upwards and outwards in space using a principle he called ‘floating compression.’ Using short, rigid aluminum shafts connected to one another only by taut steel cables, he succeeded in building airy structures that seemed to float in space, spineless—or rather, whose spines were discontinuous, off-axis, and suspended.”

The artist, Joel Shapiro, wrote of Kenneth’s work: “While much other work was about pushing, pulling, and forging material in order to imbue meaning, Kenneth’s work was always about achieving a sense of elation through the most rational and seemingly restrained of means. The attempt to overcome gravityto soaris essentially emotional. The work really takes off.”

On his election to the Academy in 1987 the sculptor Richard Lippold wrote: “Kenneth Snelson has applied his incisive combination of logic and imagination to questions in science and art. He is widely known for his development of tension compression structures and for his panoramic images created from a rebuilt 1914 Cirkut camera. Joining slender aluminum poles with steel cable, his dynamic works seem to defy gravity. In these sculptures and other projects such as his visualization of the atom, Snelson investigates what he terms the esthetics of structure, or ‘structure as sculpture.’”

Kenneth Snelson was witty and unassuming. His works are daring and urgent and can present an almost alarming tension. There was no one like him. Katherine Snelson, to whom he was married for 47 years, has kindly lent lovely artifacts for his display case.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 9, 2017.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters