Liz Hottel Barrett writes, “The Class of 1961 was thrilled by the gift to Mount Holyoke College of a sculpture from sculptor Kenneth Snelson and his wife, our classmate Katherine Kaufman Snelson. The following essay is mostly in the words of John R. Stomberg, the new Director of the MHC Art Museum, with an edit here and there from your webmaster.”
“In 2012 Mount Holyoke College accepted a generous gift from Kenneth Snelson and his wife, our classmate Katherine Kaufmann Snelson. One of Ken’s classic sculptures, Wing I, 1992, which exemplifies quintessential characteristics of the artist’s signature approach, is now housed in the Contemporary Gallery of the museum. Constructed with stainless steel pipes and cable, the whole is in a perpetual state of balance between the structural integrity of the pipes and the tension of the cable—a concept that Snelson created for his works called “tensegrity.” Through his union of rigidity and flexibility Snelson has been able to draw in space, create tangible forms of immense grace and beauty, further the modernist dream of merging the means with the meaning, and set out a series of metaphysical oppositions that get to the very core of our most daunting internal ontological musings.
At least since the early Renaissance, artists have endeavored to draw images of space. With Wing 1, Snelson draws in space. As we move around the sculpture the drawing shifts in endlessly complex ways, but retains it essential harmony from any angle. Balanced asymmetry characterizes the drawing. That is, it never feels overly weighted to one side or the other but is also never actually symmetrical. In this way, the composition is both harmonious and beguiling. We never fully grasp the whole and instead enter into a process of perpetual discovery as we spend time with the work.
Of course, Wing 1 is not a drawing per se, but a three-dimensional object sharing our space. We move around it and interact with it in the same way we do with all objects in our world—including people. And here is where dancers become an appropriate metaphor. Wing 1 leans, stretches, reaches, and compresses in a manner reminiscent of a terrific dancer expressing emotions gently, voicelessly, and with seemingly effortless grace. To be in the presence of this sculpture is to feel first and think second.
Once we do begin to ponder the theoretical significance of Snelson’s work, we realize the enormity of his contribution to art. Since the advent of modernism as an ideal to be strived for, artists have sought a union of what they make with how they make it. For sculptors, this enterprise involved thinking through how specific characteristics of their medium carried meaning. With works such as Wing 1 Snelson creates a perfect unity between what he is saying with how he is saying it. The sculpture emerges from the new technological world where materials such as stainless steel and cable made possible everything from bridges and skyscrapers to airplanes and rockets. The artist embraces both the materials and the science and engineering (if those two are actually separate) of his own time. In the creation of his work, Snelson merges physics and art seamlessly, establishing a perfect union between how he makes his work and why.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Snelson engages his viewers in the deepest of all considerations through his suggestion that life is indeed defined by oppositions held in harmonious tension. The pipe and the cable, the rigid and the flexible, these are the forces that lie at the heart of his work and through their relationship beauty emerges. Physics explains the complexity and essence of the universe—where it leaves off art takes over. Wing 1 is both a model for the forces of the universe that we know and for those about we wonder.”
Ken’s work can be seen all over the globe. Since I live near DC and Baltimore, I am often lucky to be able to see his tensegrity work at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the National Institute of Health, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Our lucky South Rocky HP group gets to see a magnificent Snelson Chinese ball in Susan Rhodes Brown’s back yard in Williamstown, MA (see mini-reunions). Ken is a beautiful person who has contributed so much to the beauty of the world. And behind every great man …