Making the invisible visible: Kenneth Snelson’s “Early X Piece”

The summer sessions at Black Mountain College were all imbued with an exceptional, energetic spirit differing from the typical school year, though the summer institute in 1948 could be considered the most powerful and innovative one. “It was that special time, about which much has been written; with Willem DeKooning, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Richard Lippold, Josef Albers, of course, and also Buckminster Fuller.” (1) The latter “a very dark horse” (2) at that time. Generating trend-setting collaborations such as the performance of Erik Satie’s “The Ruse of the Medusa”, the creative environment gave rise to the creation of Kenneth Snelson’s sculpture, “Early X Piece”.

Kenneth Snelson’s interest in open structures can be traced back to the early years of his childhood in Pendleton, Oregon, where he spent all of his spare time building airplane models out of balsa wood and Japanese rice paper. (3) In an interview with Angela Schneider he states:

Always, when I was finished making the skeleton, especially the fuselage of the airplane, I greatly admired its lightness and transparency: it weighed nothing yet it had strength. (…) In order to proceed though, there was nowhere to go but to cover up all of the beautiful openness with paper. And there was nobody around to give me permission to stop there. ‘Go ahead, finish your airplane!’ And so I would, because I wanted to get it done, but there was always that slight feeling that I’d lost something. (4)

In defiance of his early affinity for model making, Snelson initially applied himself to painting. Studying two years at the University of Oregon after World War II, he was influenced mostly by the head of the art department, Jack Wilkinson, who introduced him to the ideas of the Bauhaus. Snelson developed a growing interest in the work of the former Bauhaus instructor Josef Albers, leading to his successful application for admission to the summer 1948 sessions at Black Mountain College, where Albers was holding the office of the College’s Dean. Snelson initially tried to pursue painting, but Albers made him enroll in the basic design and color classes, setting the stage for Snelson’s first sculptures. Fascinated by three-dimensional studies in paper-folding and wire, he soon developed his first wire objects. (5)

There is no doubt that Albers exerted influence on Snelson’s artistic development, but it was the encounter with Buckminster Fuller that provided the crucial impetus to the creation of “Early X Piece”. Like many other summer session’s students, Snelson was captured by the so-called guru’s ideas about geometric structures, technology and his view on the world and man’s evolution. Randomly chosen by Fuller to assist him in creating the geometric models used in his lectures, Snelson got acquainted with the tension principles Fuller had been working with in many of his projects. (6)

Returning to Pendleton after the summer, Snelson started experimenting with small moving mobile sculptures, leading, step-by-step, to the “Early X Piece”: Initially weighting them with clay, he soon replaced the swivel points with thread slings building up tension in order to ensure stability.

Next, since I thought that an element of mystery would be interesting, I removed the weights and instead, substituted additional threads – tension members – which restricted the movement entirely, but which gave birth to this wonderous looking phenomen: rigid elements (made of wood) which suspended one another in space only by means of the (thread) tension members. (7)

For the first time tension and compression members in a model have had seperated in a linear fashion. As a result even if put under pressure the construction would maintain its form. The mechanical forces of compression and tension are internally locked. By focusing on the structure itself, Snelson reveals its underlying forces, not only making the invisible visible, but also unifying function and form. (8) “Early X Piece” can be considered Snelson’s first sculpture, in which art and technology meld.

Kenneth Snelson, 1949 Summer Institute, Black Mountain College. Courtesy of Western Regional Archives

Kenneth Snelson, 1949 Summer Institute, Black Mountain College. Courtesy of Western Regional Archives

Snelson enrolled in the summer sessions in 1949 and showed his discovery to Fuller. The latter was so intrigued by Snelson’s work that he adapted the construction into his own work, especially into his architecture, describing it as tensegrity, a term coined by him, which comprises the words ‘tension’ and ‘integrity’. (9) According to Snelson, Fuller published the discovery as his own invention based on a photography showing Fuller holding a modification of “Early X Piece”, without crediting it to Snelson, which led to the breaking-off of the men’s friendship. (10) Leaving Black Mountain College at the end of the summer, Snelson never returned. In the following years, he successfully pursued his career as a sculptor, continuing to focus on the synthesis between art and technology. Notwithstanding the incident with Buckminster Fuller, which cast a shadow over Snelson’s stay at Black Mountain College, the two summers Snelson spent there left a decisive mark on him. They were a watershed in his artistic career, whereas “Early X Piece” can be considered the starting point of his shift from painting to sculpture.

By Verena Kittel

1 Kenneth Snelson in interview with Angela Schneider, in: Schneider, Angela & Snelson, Kenneth, Kenneth Snelson. Skulpturen, exhibition catalogue, 31 March – 8 May 1977, Nationalgalerie Berlin Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Berlin: Adolph Fürst & Sohn, 1977), 24. (hereafter: ‘Schneider/Snelson’)
2 Ibid.
3 See Heartney, Eleanor & Snelson, Kenneth, Kenneth Snelson. Forces made visible (Lenox (MA): Hard Press Editions, 2009), 17. (hereafter: ‘Heartney/Snelson’)
4 Schneider/Snelson 18.
5 See “Biography of Kenneth Duane Snelson”, Mary Emma Harris – Black Mountain College Project, accessed February 10, 2015, (hereafter: ‘Harris: Black Mountain College Project’)
6 See Heartney/Snelson 18.
7 Schneider/Snelson 24.
8 See Heartney/Snelson 20.
9 See Katz, Vincent, Black Mountain College. Experiment in art (Cambridge (MA): MIT Press, 2013), 150.
10 See Harris: Black Mountain College Project.

One response to “Making the invisible visible: Kenneth Snelson’s “Early X Piece”

  1. Pingback: THE ARTISTS, POETS and PROFESSORS of BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE (the college featured in the film THE LONGEST RIDE) Part 8 artists Anni Albers and her teacher Paul Klee | The Daily Hatch·

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